But there is also a subtler risk to South Korea’s economic and healthy demographic future—and that is a rapidly aging and contracting population.
The release of government census data revealed that South Korea’s population fell in 2020 for the first time on record.
The population of Asia’s fourth-largest economy totaled 51,829,023 as of December 31, down 20,838 from the end of 2019. There were 275,815 births, down 10.65 percent from 2019, and 307,764 deaths, an increase of 3.1 percent from 2019.
Previously, South Korea’s population had risen every year over the previous decade, although the growth rate had declined from 1.49 percent in 2010 to 0.05 percent by 2019, according to the local newswire service Yonhap News Agency.
“Amid the rapidly declining birthrate, the government needs to undertake fundamental changes to its relevant policies,” the Seoul government said in a statement.
Accelerating deaths are also expected in the near future, as the number of older people—those aged sixty and over—account for nearly a quarter of the country’s population.
The population decline is not confined to generally older rural regions—Yonhap added that the country’s capital, Seoul, fell by more than sixty thousand just last year.
In an effort to encourage more couples to have bigger families, the Moon Jae-in administration recently announced initiatives that would give one-off payment of 1 million won ($905) to pregnant women and monthly cash allowances for children aged under a year.
However, there are still many critics out there who assert that the measures do little to solve the much bigger financial obstacles to having more children and owning a home.
Women in South Korea are also rebelling against centuries-old social norms. In 2018, roughly 22 percent of single women said in a survey that they thought getting married was a necessary part of life, compared to 47 percent a decade earlier. There were 434,900 marriages in 1996, but just 257,600 last year.
The nation’s birth rate—the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime—plunged to a record low of 0.92 in 2019, the lowest among all member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
According to experts, that figure is well below the rate of 2.1 it needs to keep its population stable. Just five decades ago, the birth rate stood at 4.53.
At current trends, the government predicts South Korea’s population will sink to thirty-nine million by the year 2067, when more than 46 percent of the population will be aged sixty-four and over.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.