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With pressures high, South Korean women put off marriage and childbirth

"Women in their late 20s are just not willing to make the sacrifice of having children, juggling family responsibilities and working," Yoo said.

Collapsing birthrates are alarming East Asian governments, which in coming years will face a demographic crunch as the proportion of pensioners rises and the number of working-age adults declines. South Korea, which has projected a population decline beginning in 2018, is scrambling to encourage childbirth with incentives including low-interest home loans for families with three or more children.

But for South Korean women, choosing to have children usually means falling off the career track. There is a 30 percent employment gap here between men and women, the fourth-largest gap in the world, after Turkey, Mexico and Greece. Even if women choose to stay on the job, they have no guarantees of career advancement.

U.N. statistics show that gender empowerment, as measured by women holding management and professional jobs, is falling.

"This means that despite Korean women having good health and excellent education, they still have a much greater chance of becoming a politician or even a middle manager or computer programmer in countries like Kyrgyzstan, the Dominican Republic, Botswana or Nicaragua," said James Turnbull, whose blog, "The Grand Narrative," tracks sex discrimination and the role of women in South Korea.

Hwang, the working mom who says she spent about $8,600 last fall buying newspaper ads to vent her frustrations, works 10 to 12 hours a day as a chief strategic officer in charge of product promotions for a Seoul marketing company. She said her salary is about double what her husband makes -- a rare and delicate equation in a South Korean family.

"When you make more than the husband, you have to be careful not to hurt his pride," said Hwang, 38, who makes about $86,000 a year. "I make a point of getting a suggestion from him, when I buy my own clothes or a new aquarium for my son's fish."

Even more problematic, Hwang said, is her husband's mother.

In the "I Am a Bad Woman" advertisement that she placed in the newspaper, Hwang gives this account of telephoning her mother-in-law to ask for help with child care:

"Her sharp scolding returns from the other side of the phone: 'Have you forgotten today is the day of your father-in-law's memorial service? Your other family members are already here. I understand you are talented and all, but do you ever fulfill your family obligations?' "

Hwang said her husband is more sympathetic and "does more at home than other husbands in South Korea." She said she understands that it is not easy for him to have a working wife.

"The husbands here expect a warm home and a pat on the shoulder, but sometimes my husband may not get that," she said.

Hwang's husband declined to comment.

Special correspondent June Lee contributed to this report.

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