Day 4: Why South Koreans Won’t Have Kids- And Why Policy Cannot Solve the Low Fertility Issue (part 1)

15 Feb

I have a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and master’s in Public Policy. While I have these swanky titles after 20 years of formal education, I honestly cannot tell you what these disciplines are about and what I actually learned. But I can tell you for sure that I learned how to think about various social issues from the perspectives of the both disciplines. And today, although my cold meds are bothering me extremely, I really want to get this off of my chest. It’s about birthrate in South Korea.

Many demographists and others have pointed out that South Korea has one of the lowest birthrates in the world, fighting for the top (?!?) along with Japan and Singapore, two other developed economies in Asia. Just to get some perspective, I have found the CIA data on global birthrates, which ranked the countries with the highest birthrate on top and the lowest at the bottom.

Not so surprisingly, out of 221 countries, South Korea ranked 215 (in other words, 7th in low birthrate) while Japan ranked 220, Hong Kong 219 and Singapore 216. Yes, the data might be a bit skewed because Monaco, Hong Kong (which is not a country, but oh well) and Singapore’s population sizes (and samples) are perhaps not so compatible with those of South Korea and Japan. Regardless, low birthrate is one of the greatest threats in more developed countries as the aging population is rapidly increasing, posing financial threats to the country’s welfare budget, further economic development and many other elements. So maybe to many people’s minds, it is a policy problem, and I totally agree. But I would argue that it is also a greater social and cultural issue that should be attacked from a much wider angle, while globally, we are still facing the issue of population explosion rather than lack of people.

Korea’s Two-Child Policy

Perhaps you are familiar with One-Child Policy in China which is strictly enforced by the government. But Two-Child Policy of South Korea was rather a series of campaigns from South Korean government in the 1970s and the 80s to encourage couples to have only 2 children. I don’t believe that there was any penalty for having too many or incentives for having fewer than 2, but it was a campaign under dictatorship, so many people were often more or less collaborative to government’s policies and campaigns.

Of course there were legitimate reasons. South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world after the Korean War (even worse than North Korea and Ethiopia at the time), and as the government pushed for economic development, controlling the number of population became a key factor in promoting this national goal. Since Korea traditionally had been an agricultural society, a family easily had over 6 kids. There were simply too many mouths to feed in the country and families while there were too few economic opportunities (i.e. jobs). But with the rigorous campaign during the 60s and the 70s along with truly miraculous economic development, the average number of kids per family dropped to 4 kids, then to 2 kids during the 80s. As part of the campaign, the posters below were distributed by the Ministry of Welfare and Korea Family Planning Association. The top one says, “Let’s have only two kids whether sons or daughters,” while the bottom one says, “Even two are too many.” Obviously they did not foresee the problems that the future would face while there are too few kids around to support the national economy.

Source and more information: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2010/koreafertility.aspx

I don’t feel that the campaigns were incorrect, and they were necessary moves at the time to lift the country out of poverty (and for the population of developing countries, I believe that encouraging fewer kids while promoting proper nutrition and education is a key development strategy). Korea then and Korea today have completely different economic situations and needs, and I believe that developing countries should actively participate in lowering birthrates.

However, South Korea’s policy did not consider the potential sex-ratio imbalance, as people still had strong preference for sons over daughters. Girl children were often aborted illegally (abortion has been illegal in Korea), and it caused sex-ratio at birth of 108, meaning 108 boys for every 100 girls (in 2005), according to a UNFPA report. Although the son preference has been reduced (and nowadays, there’s actually a general sentiment towards daughter preference) and the ratio is more or less normalized (around 105:100, which is considered almost “normal”), there is a whole policy challenge regarding marriage migration (i.e. “importing” wives from other countries —a new form of mail-order brides– mainly from China, Viet Nam, and the Philippines, but not limited to) and increasing number of multicultural families. The trend is a challenge for welfare and education policies among others, while Korea has been a relatively homogeneous country for many years. This policy showed the necessity of considering human behaviors and cultures into the policy, while cultural and social norms greatly influence people’s behavior reacting to policies.

Why are family policies not working today?

So back to the question of why South Koreans do not have enough children…

Firstly, I believe that the policy makers’ perspectives are starting out on a wrong foot. To me, many policy makers on families, children and women (which all fall under the vague category of welfare policy) have been asking the wrong questions. They have been asking, “Why are women not having kids?” But you all know very well that it takes two to have a child. Such a question inherently blames only women for not being married and pursuing other goals in lives, stigmatizing women for “going against the nature.” Well, it might not be so surprising that such policy question is asked, because the entire policy framework regarding this issue is constructed under patriarchal assumptions just like many other policies. I am aware that women are also parts of the policy formation, but one’s sex has nothing to do with the role that one chooses to play, even in policy world. As long as birthrate is considered primarily “women’s issue,” or women’s issues are considered the same thing as family issues, further policy discussions would not make much progress.

In addition, there’s a problem in considering population simply as numerical values, not humans. As seen in Korea’s two-child policy, the government did not necessarily consider the cultural preference of having son, and that those sons may not end up with partners because there are simply too many men compared to the number of women (potential marriage partners). It seems that the sustainability of family units was never a big question to the policy makers. The campaign did not penetrate well enough to change a certain culture and behaviors that are discriminatory and sexist against female children. Part of the reasons is that policies are quite politicized and the policy makers have to implement those policies that would bring the most bangs for the buck they spend within the fiscal year or until the next elections. When the discussion of having children and raising them is only focusing on the economic impact and numbers, such as potential “units” who will participate in economic activities and the number of tax payers, we dehumanize the meaning of family and bring further challenges throughout the implementation of policies. Women’s bodies are only valuable because of their reproductive organs and their “natural roles” as the caretakers. Children are only future workers and tax payers. Men are a small part of reproduction and breadwinners. The gender role assumptions are quite stark in policymaking while humans become simple units of a country, no?

Part 2 will continue tomorrow (when I can think and breathe better). I will write about what the actual problems are in birthing and raising children in South Korea.

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