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aging population korea

Study Asks: Will South Koreans Be Extinct in the 28th Century?

A recent population simulation run by the Korean National Assembly Research Service shows that the current fertility rate will make for an abundance of housing in 750 years.

Perhaps you’ve heard of South Korea’s remarkably low birth rate and the possibilities that portend. According to projections, the current population of around 50 million people is on pace for a mere 20 million by the end of this century.

That’s around 6 million less people in Seoul, 2.1 million fewer in Busan and upwards of 1.5 million vacancies in both Incheon and Daegu.

While those numbers are pause-worthy, a recent simulation conducted by the Korean National Assembly Research Service, at the request of Representative Yang Seung-jo, says that if the current fertility rate remains consistent, the population could go the way of the dinosaurs by 2750.

That’s right. Extinction.

It’s a tremendous speculative leap, but none the less worthy of economic (and possibly geopolitical) consideration by any country.

While its citizenry has firm footing in the starting blocks, Korea is not alone in the race downwards. Countries across Asia have watched fertility rates wither by half or more in the past 35 years.

This has lead some, in countries like South Korea and Japan, towards thoughts of having the candle blown out on everything altogether.

Playful logic is not without its flaws. The simulation assumes that Korea will maintain the current fertility rate of 1.18 children per woman —well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. Additionally, the simulation didn’t (and can’t) account for key unknowns, such as reunification with the North, the effect of expanded immigration or what the aliens have in store for us once they finally decide to land.

Diminishing Gains

There is also the concrete hope that baby-making will rebound on its own in coming years. The South Korean fertility rate has actually slightly increased from an all time low of 1.08 in 2005.

Since that historic dip, the government has annually poured an average of 10 trillion won ($9.34 billion) into incentives and welfare policies aimed at encouraging people to have children –that’s roughly 30 percent of what is spent by the military every year, showing the seriousness with which the government takes this.

For now and the foreseeable future, low fertility does have the short-term benefit of increasing GDP per capita due to the reduced costs, both public and private, of raising children. Over the longer term, however, with the size of the labor force falling, the average age of the population will increase dramatically.

According to the Korea Statistical Office, the number of people over 65 has surpassed six million for the first time, accounting for 11.7 percent of the population. More troubling is the fact that the current 1 to 6 ratio of senior citizens to the working age is projected to shift to 1 to 1.5 by 2050.

While currently far behind Japan’s silvery slope of 25% over the age of 65 or the dozen or so European countries, including Germany and Italy, hovering around 20%, Korea lacks the large population of Japan or the replenishing power of a European-type immigration policy. It’s a safe bet those policies will change to fuel Korea’s continued economic growth in the decades to come.

“The aging population is one of the most fundamental, structural shifts happening in Korea and affecting the growth prospects for the country,” said Wonsik Choi, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company in Seoul, in an interview with CNBC last year. “Just to give you an example, the working age population in Korea will peak at 37 million in 2016, three years from now, and will diminish thereafter.

Previous Policies Worked Too Well?

While the reason often given for low fertility rates is the focus on getting an only child as high up the ladder as possible in Korea’s highly-competitive society, one can go further back to President Park Chung-hee’s national family planning campaign that began in the 1960’s. Initiated by Christian groups in 1957, Park  made it official policy in 1962.

It is a policy that, over the years, is still trying to find its balance.

Carl Haub, Population Reference Bureau:

South Korea serves as one example of a former developing country whose program to lower the birth rate had an unexpected result: Fertility so far below the “two-child” replacement level that severe population aging and decline is now a very real prospect. South Korea was also one of the few developing countries to have initiated a population policy to lower the birth rate during the period of concern in the 1960s and 1970s over the population “explosion”; and to have its birth rate subsequently fall to world record low levels.

President Park’s policy continued under his successors, remaining prevalent until the 1980’s. Campaigns included widely distributed posters with slogans such as, “Have only two children regardless of their gender” or Even two children per family is too many for our crowded country.

There is irony to be found in the fact that Park Chung-hee’s daughter, and current president, Park Geun-hye, has no children of her own.

All well and good. That lends Ms. Park more time to remain focused on the present situation while leaving 28th century problems to the next next administration.

And, in case you’re wondering how the geopolitics might play out: According to a 2012 study conducted by Tohoku University, the Japanese citizenry will see its last Japanese child born in 3011 –just a two and a half short centuries after the Korean candle might go out.


South Korea fertility

Two once widely-distributed population campaign posters. Left: “Have only two children regardless their gender.”
 Right: “Even two children per family is too many for our crowded country.”

 Fertility Rates Worldwide





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