Baby campaign bearing fruit in South Korean county

It has family-friendly policies and a comprehensive support package that includes services and cash benefits

When she was in her 20s, Ms Moon Ji Hee, like many friends her age, left her small seaside hometown and moved to a bigger city to find a job.

But the primary school teacher returned after marriage in 2013, knowing that there is no better place than home to start a family.

It was not just her parents whom she could count on for help when the kids came along, but also the county itself.

Located at the south-western tip of the Korean peninsula, Haenam started introducing pro-family policies from 2008 and has since managed to achieve the seemingly impossible mission of encouraging its residents to have more babies.

Haenam, which means "ocean's south" in Korean, is the only county in South Korea with a birth rate of 2.4 children per woman, almost double last year's national figure of 1.24 and the highest in the country.

More than 800 babies are born here each year - much to the delight of public health officials who have spent the last eight years formulating policies to boost population growth. They were driven to act after a drastic drop in numbers, from almost 250,000 in 1976 to around 80,000 in 2008.

"We had to act because we were losing too many people. It was a crisis situation," Haenam mayor Park Cheol Hwan told The Straits Times.

Public Health Centre (PHC) officials, led by director Kim Chung Jae, formed a special team to address the problem. They started offering cash benefits - 3 million won (S$3,470) for the first child, 3.5 million won for the second, 6 million won for the third, and 7.2 million won for the fourth and above - paid over 18 months. This is on top of the national childcare benefit of 200,000 won a month.

They started a 10 billion won fund to provide scholarships for all students from secondary school to university. They provided naming and babysitting services for free, and delivered gifts including 1kg of raw beef and baby clothes to every new mother. Korean women eat miyeokguk, or beef seaweed soup, to nourish their bodies after childbirth.

Public Health Centre director Kim Chung Jae (centre) with his team of public health officials whose core responsibility is to boost birth rates in Haenam county. Primary school teacher Moon Ji Hee with her son, her second child, who was born last mon
Birth notices in a newspaper, sponsored by Haenam county. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON 

They are also bringing back childbirth-related services stopped years ago due to a lack of demand. They opened a public postnatal centre last September, the second in the country, and will recruit two obstetricians for the county's general hospital so mums can deliver there instead of in bigger cities nearby.

Their efforts seem to have paid off, evident in the increasing number of babies born each year, from 496 in 2009 to 811 last year. The county's population is 76,000 and falling at a slower rate now.

A total of 438,700 babies were born in South Korea last year, raising the fertility rate slightly to 1.24 from the previous year's 1.21.

Spurred by this growth, the government has announced a five-year proposal to further raise the birth rate to 1.5 by 2020, with a 200 trillion won commitment in about 200 projects. This includes making housing more affordable for newlyweds, such as building more rental homes and raising loan limits.

South Korea's low fertility rate has been a source of worry in a country faced with rapid ageing, delayed marriage and high youth unemployment amid a sluggish economy. A 2014 study predicted that South Korea could face natural extinction by the year 2750 if birth rates remained unchanged.

Birth control policies imposed in the 1970s and 1980s to curb excessive population growth to achieve economic growth and modernisation, worked so well that fertility rates fell below the replacement level of 2.1 from the mid-1980s.

Singapore, which implemented a similar "Stop at Two" birth control policy around the same time, is also facing a low fertility rate of below 1.4 that the authorities are now trying to raise with incentives.

Haenam's PHC director Kim remembers the old days of going to villages to spread the birth control message and convince residents to go for surgical sterilisation. Each civil servant had a target of encouraging 60 such surgeries a year and "we hit the target 100 per cent", he said with a laugh.

  • Stunning views and dinosaurs

  • What do dinosaurs, land's end and a naval admiral have in common?

    They are all linked to Haenam, a small seaside county on the south-western tip of the Korean Peninsula.

    Home to about 76,000 people, Haenam is a small farming and fishing village in the Jeolla province.

    There are no cinemas or shopping malls here. But the county is blessed with bountiful mountain scenery and a beach that marks the end of the land, or ttangkkeut in Korean.

    There is a ttangkkeut tourist zone here, where visitors can climb a 38m-high observatory to enjoy beautiful views of the ocean or pose next to a sculpture imprinted with the word ttangkkeut.

    It is also here that dinosaur footprint fossils from 80 million to 90 million years ago, such as those of webbed-feet birds, were found in the 1990s along a 5km-long coast. The fossils are now preserved in the Uhangri Dinosaur Museum, which was opened to the public in 2007.

    Haenam resident Moon Ji Hee, 33, said she would sometimes take her four-year-old daughter to the dinosaur museum, the beach or the renowned temple Daeheungsa.

    "The good thing about living here is that we are very close to nature. There's no supermarket or department store here, but we can always drive to the nearest one about an hour away," she said.

    Haenam is also known for the Myeongryang Strait that separates the mainland and the island Jindo. Back in 1597, during the Chosun dynasty, Admiral Yi Sun Sin, with just 13 ships under his command, fought off 133 Japanese warships trying to invade the country from the south-west.

    The historic fight, dubbed the Battle of Myeongryang, is captured in the 2014 period film Roaring Currents, starring veteran actor Choi Min Sik as Admiral Yi. The movie is the top-grossing Korean film of all time, drawing over 17 million admissions and grossing more than US$135.9 million (S$187.3 million) worldwide.

  • Chang May Choon

Now he is doing the opposite of encouraging more babies - a task which he feels is even more challenging. "The younger generation is a lot more individualistic and unwilling to listen to advice to have kids, regardless of their age, profession and financial status," he said.

Still, Mr Kim and his team have done an exemplary job and their family-friendly policies are being studied to see if they can be implemented elsewhere in the country.

Haenam has also introduced matchmaking for singles and a "Daddy Camp" to promote bonding between fathers and their children.

The county offers cheap loans and low rents to appeal to families who have left to return home to try farming. More than 2,000 residents have responded to the plan since it started four years ago.

"The birth policy is our top priority now," said the mayor, Mr Park.

Ms Moon, now 33, beamed as she counted the benefits she received for her second child - a boy born late last month. She has an older daughter aged four.

"It felt really nice to get the box of beef, seaweed and baby clothes. There was so much beef, I only managed to eat a little bit," she said.

She also spent two weeks at the new postnatal centre. For the birth of her elder daughter, she had to travel to the nearby Mokpo city for the confinement service.

She spends time with her newborn with little fear of losing her job and facing little peer pressure for her to resign after childbirth.

South Korean women are allowed by law to take three months of fully paid and a year of partially paid maternity leave. But not many mums use their full entitlement for fear of losing their jobs or burdening their colleagues with extra work. In a recent survey by the Health Ministry, about 80 per cent of respondents felt unspoken pressure from their peers and superiors for taking leave to care for their children.

Figures from the Labour Ministry reveal that over 26,000 employees on maternity or childcare leave were fired or forced to resign from 2010 to last year. It is illegal, but employers are rarely penalised for it as victims often stay silent.

Mums in Haenam seem to have it easier though. Ms Moon said she got to finish work two hours earlier when she was pregnant, and for her second pregnancy, she took advance maternity leave so she could spend more time with her first child before the sibling came along.

"Having a child here is not so stressful because of Haenam's good policies. If they can be applied to the whole of Korea, I'm sure more people will want to have kids," she said.

Housewife Kim Jeom Sook, 43, is the happy mum of a pair of newborn twin girls - the latest addition to her family. She has two older children - a son, 13, and a daughter, 11.

She was full of praise for the postnatal centre, where she was staying when she met The Straits Times last week. She could rest most of the time as there were nurses caring for her babies. She also got to attend yoga and other classes. "I get so much help here that I can't imagine how I can cope when I go home," she said.

For those worried about expenses, Mayor Park said the county will continue to provide support to make their parenthood journey easier. Third and fourth kids get more financial assistance and the county also pays for their national insurance.

Mr Park has only two sons, but he hopes they will give him five grandchildren. His elder son has a son and a daughter. "The more the merrier!" he said with a hearty laugh.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'Baby campaign bearing fruit in S. Korean county'. Print Edition | Subscribe