June 25, 2024

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is preparing to elevate the nation’s demographic decline to a top-tier political priority, in the hope of reversing a trend that threatens the long-term health of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

Yoon announced a forthcoming secretarial office solely dedicated to the issue during a meeting with his senior secretaries, according to local media citing his spokesperson on Monday.

It follows Yoon’s televised address last Thursday, during which he called for a new Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter Planning tasked with the handling the “national emergency.” The moves are part of Seoul’s intensified efforts to reverse its plummeting birthrate, fueled by shifting societal norms and economic pressures.

The country’s fertility rate, already the lowest in the world, fell further last year, with the average number of expected babies per woman dropping to 0.72 from 0.78 in 2022—far below the replacement rate of 2.1.

“The issue of low birthrates requires us to take the situation more seriously and contemplate on the causes and solutions from a different dimension than before,” Yoon stated in December, according to Yonhap News Agency.

South Korea’s government has already spent more than $200 billion on initiatives designed to support new mothers and encourage larger families, including cash subsidies, infertility treatment, and childcare services.

Yet the fertility rate declined for the fourth consecutive year in 2023, according to provisional statistics released in February.

A falling birthrate reduces the size of a country’s workforce, which can lead to slower economic growth, higher dependency ratios, and increased pressure on public services and pension systems.

Some private companies have adopted their own measures to spur the birth. Construction giant Booyoung Group, for instance, is offering employees $75,000 for each baby born.

“If Korea’s birth rate remains low, the country will face extinction,” Lee Joong-keun, the company’s chairman, told workers.

South Korea’s Ambitious Plan To Rescue Population
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on May 9 called for the creation of a government ministry to tackle the country’s falling birthrate. He announced the new office during a meeting with officials, local media…

Photo-illustration by Newsweek/Getty

Compounding South Korea’s population woes, the proportion of youth to the elderly continues to dwindle, raising concerns about the sustainability of economic growth and competitiveness.

In the early 1990s, young adults between the ages of 19 and 34 comprised nearly a third of the population. By 2020, this had fallen to just one-fifth of the country’s 51.8 million people, with projections showing a further decline to 5.21 million by 2050, according to national statistics.

South Korea’s East Asian neighbors Japan, China, and Taiwan are facing similar demographic challenges are grappling with their own looming population crises.

The South Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to a written request for comment.