SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A fresh round of disputes is erupting over the legal definition of family in South Korea, as the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has suddenly ditched its plan to allow for more diverse forms of families.
The ministry recently decided to withdraw its support for revising the Framework Act on Healthy Families aimed at expanding the legal definition of the family to include cohabiting couples, Rep. Chung Kyung-hee from the ruling People Power Party said Friday (Sept 23).
It is regrettable that the ministry has backtracked on the plan that it had announced in April last year, under which the definition of family would be broadened to include those formed through closeness and mutual care so that they could receive government support and benefits in child care, tax subsidies and other family-related matters.
The current law only recognises families formed by marriage, childbirth and adoption - a system that critics argue discriminates against cohabiting couples, foster families and common law marriages.
The revision was intended to offer legal support for the vulnerable group as well as to catch up with international trends in favour of diverse forms of the family at a time when plunging fertility rates have become a major headache for policymakers in many countries.
A broader definition of family is indeed necessary for South Korea, whose demographic crisis is rapidly deepening amid a heightened sense of crisis. Last year, the country's total birthrate, or a measure for the number of children a woman is likely to have during her child-bearing years, plunged to 0.81, lagging behind other advanced countries struggling with similar demographic issues.
It should be noted that France offers the same child care support for children of cohabiting couples as those of married couples, and the birthrate there stands at a more solid 1.82 - more than double the level of South Korea.
Civic groups and some experts say that South Korea should adopt a more accommodating concept of family as opposed to the traditional blood-based family in order to tackle the worsening population crisis. Speculation is also mounting over the political background behind the sudden change of policy by the Gender Ministry.
As the revision was originally initiated by the previous administration under President Moon Jae-in, the Gender Ministry's reversal is said to be a reflection of the conservative policy line of the current Yoon Suk-yeol administration.
Strangely enough, President Yoon seems to have no specific plan for the population crisis. On Tuesday, he said in a Cabinet meeting that the country has spent a total of 280 trillion won (S$280.6 billion) to cope with the demographic debacle in the past 16 years, but the birthrate ended up dropping to 0.75 in the second quarter of this year.
Yoon said the past demographic policy aimed only at boosting fertility should be "thoroughly reconsidered" and the government should push for a new effective policy "based not on populism but on science and data."
Yoon's remark was apparently referring to the Moon administration's liberal policy on family and population, but he did not come up with any sort of viable alternative. What Yoon suggested is just to overhaul the population policy without elaborating on details. His suggestion is at best vague and at worse unproductive, as nobody seems to understand what he really meant by "science and data."
The country does not need any more scientific data about the free-falling childbirth figures. It is high time for Korea to encourage more people to get married or give birth to babies even without being formally married.
On Saturday, the Gender Ministry said in a statement that it wants to avoid engaging in wasteful debates on the legal definition of family and instead focus on providing support for unmarried, cohabitating families by implementing "feasible measures." As with Yoon's ambiguous remark, the ministry failed to offer any viable details - since there is no legal foundation to do so.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media organisations.