South Korea short of babies despite government efforts

Mothers from Haenam county, at the south-western tip of the Korean Peninsula, celebrating the county's fertility rate of 2.4, almost double the national average. A total of 438,400 babies were born in South Korea last year, which translates to a fert
Mothers from Haenam county, at the south-western tip of the Korean Peninsula, celebrating the county's fertility rate of 2.4, almost double the national average. A total of 438,400 babies were born in South Korea last year, which translates to a fertility rate of 1.24 per woman, one of the lowest in the world. PHOTO: HAENAM PUBLIC HEALTH CENTRE

Long working hours, high cost of living and woeful childcare options among reasons couples are not having more kids

Ms Sophia Nam, 32, is stopping at one child. Her son is 16 months old now, and she has no plans for No. 2.

"Babies are cute, but my husband works very long hours, so I've had to take care of our child by myself," said the housewife.

"It's so exhausting for me that I think one child is enough."

South Korea's notoriously rigid work culture and long hours, which rob parents of precious family time, is a key reason why many young couples like her refuse to have more children, she added.

Despite the government's persistent efforts at providing more benefits and cash rewards to support childbirth and urging companies to be pro-family, the country's fertility rate has stayed at rock bottom.

  • BENEFITS TO BOOST BIRTHS

  • CURRENT BENEFITS

    • Three months of paid maternity leave; up to one year of unpaid leave

    • Three months of paternity leave which is state- administered; government provides up to 1.5 million won (S$1,800) of allowance each month

    • Fertility treatment subsidies for couples earning less than the average monthly household income of 5.83 million won; up to three claims allowed

    • Pregnancy bonus of 500,000 won

    • Cash bonus of 200,000 won a month until child turns one; 150,000 won a month till age two; 100,000 won a month till age seven

    • Free medical check-up and immunisation for baby

    • Highly subsidised state-run childcare centres

    NEWLY ANNOUNCED BENEFITS

    • Paternity leave allowance raised to 2 million won each month

    • Fertility treatment subsidies extended to all income groups; up to four claims allowed; subsidies range from 1 million to 2.4 million won, depending on income

    • Three days of unpaid leave for fertility treatment

    • Priority given to families with three children in application for state-built housing

    • Priority given to double-income families with three children in enrolment for public childcare facilities

    • Civil servants with more than three children to be given priority in choice of work location, starting with teachers

    Chang May Choon

A total of 438,400 babies were born last year, which translates to a fertility rate of 1.24 per woman - one of the lowest in the world.

A new slew of measures was revealed last week, after the number of children born in the first half of the year fell to 215,200 - the smallest number since 2000 for this period.

The new package, which will cost 64 billion won (S$78 million), includes more paternity leave allowance, priority childcare enrolment for the third child and fertility treatment subsidies for all income groups.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn called for a collective effort to "reverse our country's low birth rate" and pledged to pursue more policies that promote work-family balance. The 2017 Budget unveiled last week also includes more welfare spending, with a focus on boosting the birth rate.

STRESSFUL CHILDHOOD

Children are not happy in South Korea. They have to face a lot of competition in a very stressful environment. I don't want to send my child to a hagwon (tuition centre), but if I don't, he will end up as a wangda.

PUBLIC RELATIONS MANAGER SARA HAN, who is expecting her first child in February, on worrying that her child will be an outcast.

But critics say the measures rolled out so far, which have cost 151 trillion won in the past decade, have mostly failed to address the crux of the problem. The fertility rate rose only slightly from a record low of 1.08 in 2005 to 1.24 last year.

Japan and Singapore have also struggled to raise their fertility rates, which fell below the ideal replacement rate of 2 after rapid urbanisation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Studies have cited South Korea's hierarchical work culture, high cost of education, expensive housing, gender inequality and high youth unemployment as key reasons deterring or delaying parenthood.

A recent poll of 500 female workers by the Federation of Korean Industries showed that 38.3 per cent of the singles surveyed do not want children, mostly out of fear of losing their jobs. Seven in 10 find the government's childbirth-boosting measures unrealistic.

Public relations manager Sara Han, 34, initially ruled out kids as she wanted to enjoy her work and life, but caved in to pressure from her parents and in-laws.

She is expecting her first child next February.

Her biggest worry is that her child will become a hagwon (Korean for private tuition centre) kid.

"Children are not happy in South Korea. They have to face a lot of competition in a very stressful environment.

"I don't want to send my child to a hagwon, but if I don't, he will end up as a wangda," she said with a sigh, referring to the Korean term for loner or outcast.

South Koreans tend to equate the relentless pursuit of academic excellence with success, but there is also a growing trend of couples resisting parenthood to spare potential children the same agony.

Housewife Chung Hae Soo, 32, has shelved baby plans until she migrates. "It's too scary to imagine raising children here," she said.

"I don't want my kid growing up thinking that appearance is all that matters and (being subjected to) the whole culture of blind subordination, herd mentality and being afraid to stand up for themselves."

That is not counting the high cost of raising a child, which is why some couples choose to concentrate their resources on just one or two children, or not to have any.

Ms Han said some of her married friends weigh the costs of buying a house (from about 400 million won for a three-bedroom apartment) and a child's education, and decide to give up parenthood.

The lack of childcare options is another issue. There are not enough childcare facilities for working mothers, and the government has been flip-flopping on a proposal to provide free childcare for all.

Ms Nam said she decided to quit her administrative job when she realised it would cost almost as much as her salary to hire a nanny.

She added: "I decided that it would be better for me to raise my baby myself, so I resigned."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 04, 2016, with the headline 'S. Korea short of babies despite govt efforts'. Print Edition | Subscribe