Why South Korea predicts its end will come in 2750

August 30

A couple takes a selfie in front of trees covered with "love locks" at N Seoul Tower located atop Mount Namsan in central Seoul on Friday. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

South Korea may be doomed. A recent study, conducted by the National Assembly Research Service in Seoul, predicts that the country will reach zero inhabitants by 2750.

The report makes it clear where the country's problem lies: A remarkably low birth rate of 1.9 children per woman. But what's really striking is the speed at which it could happen: South Korea's population (currently larger than Spain) could shrink to a level comparable to tiny Switzerland within only a few generations.

By 2136, South Korea is predicted to lose 40 million of its 50 million inhabitants, according to the research, which was conducted by a government agency upon request by opposition politician Yang Seung-jo. Some areas of South Korea would be affected earlier than others. Buzan – currently the second largest city in South Korea after Seoul – would be the first to have zero inhabitants by 2413, an interesting detail that suggests large cities would feel the repercussions of the demographic change early on.

South Korea isn't the only country in east Asia fearing its demise. An earlier report from 2012 had found similar problems in Japan, though they had a little longer to fix it (1,000 years).

So what's the problem? It largely comes down to fertility rates.

A fertility rate measures how many children a woman bears on average. While the world's average number is estimated between 2.33 and 2.50, a ratio of 2.1 is necessary for a population to maintain its population levels. However, some East Asian countries as well as many other developed nations (for example France, the United States or Sweden) suffer from low birth rates.

Low birth rates don't have to be synonymous with a population decrease. Countries such as the United States, for example, have been able to counteract their low fertility rates with immigration. Germany, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, is increasingly attracting foreigners from all over Europe.

South Korea, however, has an extremely closed immigration system and only recently has there has been a growing consensus that at least some adjustment to the strict laws are needed. As of June 2013, the number of people without Korean citizenship staying in the country for three months or longer amounted to just a little less than 3 percent of the total population. According to one 2008 study, nearly half of South Korea's population had never even spoken to a foreigner.

Of course, that wouldn't be such a problem if fertility rates were higher. So why are they so low? Thomas Anderson, a demographics researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that East Asia's low birth rates are related to "social and economic barriers." In a study published last year, Anderson argues that "couples in East Asia are more likely than their Western counterparts to have just one child in order to invest heavily in that child's human capital." Essentially, parents would prefer one successful child over a number of low-achieving children.

Other factors also play into the decision on whether to raise children or not. According to Minja Kim Choe, a senior research fellow at the East-West Center, "the view that 'it is necessary to have children' has declined substantially." Choe explains that an "increasing proportion of women will be evaluating costs and benefits of having children" and compare it to alternative options such as spending more time on work or hobbies.

South Korea's problem hasn't come out of nowhere – a gradual societal transformation has taken place. This chart, included in a paper by the Korea Economic Institute, shows how things have changed over time:


(Source: Korean Statistical Information Service, 2012 (http://kosis.kr), Visualization: Elizabeth Hervey Stephen)

The South Korean government has tried to respond to this shift by pursuing policies such as a more attractive maternity leave and subsidies for childbearing. In 2008, the South Korean government spent $3.8 billion on programs to increase the birthrate. The Korea Economic Institute's Elizabeth Hervey Stephen examined the effect the money had four years later and came to the conclusion that "to date, the policies have not been effective, which in large part is due to the country's work culture and gendered society."

Of course, South Korea has more than 700 years to reverse this trend, so take the 2750 time line with a pinch of salt – Even if this research's findings are accurate, many factors are likely to change a lot during that time frame. In the meantime, South Koreans can take solace in their pets: In 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that total private expenditure on pet supplies had annually increased by more than 14 percent since 2000, despite their demographic woes.

Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow at the Washington Post.
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