S. Korea spends big to tackle fertility crisis


Kwon Jang-ho and Cho Nam-hee, a couple living in Ilsan, South Korea, recently sat down to work out their monthly budget for their 17-month-old son, Ju-ha. They are among many South Korean families who are taking advantage of government support to make raising a child more affordable. In their building, there is even a local government-sponsored center where they can borrow toys or strollers for free. However, while government support is helpful, it is not the only factor that needs to be considered when it comes to tackling South Korea’s low birth rate problem.

South Korea has the world’s lowest birth rate, which poses a looming demographic and economic disaster. In 2022, the average number of babies expected per South Korean woman dropped to 0.78, down from the previous record low of 0.81 the previous year. The replacement rate in developed countries is typically about 2.1. To reverse the trend, South Korea’s central and local governments are scrambling to provide payments and other benefits to anyone who gives birth to a child.

Compared with European countries known for their well-developed social welfare systems, South Korea’s schemes are generous and come with few strings attached. Since 2022, mothers have received cash payments of 2 million won ($1,510) upon the birth of a child, more than in famously socialistic France. Families receive 700,000 won ($528) in cash per month for infants up to the age of one and 350,000 won ($264) per month for infants under two, with the payments set to rise to 1 million won ($755) and 500,000 won ($377), respectively, in 2024. A further 200,000 won ($151) per month is provided for children up until elementary school age, with additional payments available for low-income households and single parents.

Other benefits include medical costs for pregnant women, infertility treatment, babysitting services, and even dating expenses. In a district in Busan, South Korea’s second-biggest city, a separate bonus for giving birth three or more times recently increased from 500,000 won ($377) to 10 million won ($7,552). And in the rural southwestern South Jeolla Province, monthly stipends of 600,000 won ($453) per child are provided for seven years – equivalent to 50.4 million won ($38,000).

However, whether splashing the cash can in any way alleviate South Korea’s demographic woes is unclear. Many South Koreans choose not to marry or have children simply as a matter of preference. In a survey carried out last year by the Office for Government Policy Coordination, 36.7 percent of 19–34-year-olds expressed no desire to have children. Among young South Korean women, just 4 percent view marriage and parenthood as essential, with more than half seeing neither as important in their lives.

Experts have often pointed to the need to address a complex web of issues keeping families from having children, including a grueling work culture, sky-high housing and education costs, and gender inequality. In a survey carried out for the Joongang Ilbo newspaper earlier this year, 27.4 percent of respondents said they believed the burden of childcare costs is the primary reason for low birth rates. Other cited reasons included job insecurity, housing instability, and other economic factors.

Professor Song Da-yeong, a social welfare professor at Incheon National University, said cash allowances were not a long-term solution. “Child-rearing is not a matter of providing financial support for the first two years of a child’s life,” Song told Al Jazeera. “It is not possible to provide high levels of parental benefits until a child is all grown up.” The government needs to focus on creating an environment where parents can balance work and childcare, rather than financial support alone. South Korea has some of the longest work hours among developed countries and is ranked in the Economist’s annual glass-ceiling index as the worst OECD country for women to pursue equal opportunities in the workplace.

“It needs to include policies such as using up all parental leave available, reduced work hours, and flexible work arrangements,” Song said, emphasizing the need for an environment where women are not “kicked out of the labor market” after giving birth. Although South Korea’s traditionally patriarchal attitudes are gradually changing, women are often still expected – and in some cases feel obligated – to become full-time mothers after giving birth. Cho Joo-yeon, the interpreter who plans to remain childless, believes the social structure and perceptions need to be transformed to address South Korea’s rock-bottom birth rate. “It’s not just one person, one government, or one generation that has to change; it may even be several,” she said.