No Sex in the City: Demystifying Korea’s Low Birthrate

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Last June, Eloquence’s managing editor Dann Gaymer emailed me with a story assignment to “look at why Korea has such a low birthrate.”  (“Korea has a low birthrate?”  I remember thinking.)  I had lived here only four months, and was just starting to discover some of the more complex aspects of Korean culture.  The message continued: “Social, biological, economical, choose your angle and run with it.”

A little (okay, a LOT of) research later, the piece took shape, and was published in the July issue alongside a photo of the “Carl the Plastic Baby” billboard by Toronto street artist Dan Bergeron (a.k.a. Fauxreel).

(View article below.)



No Sex in the City

By Courtney Tait

Published in Eloquence Magazine, July 2010


Shoulder your way through a sweaty rush-hour mob on any subway ride in Seoul, and likely the last thing to cross your mind is concern for South Korea’s shrinking population. 

But the country’s total fertility rate—the number of children expected to be born per woman during her childbearing years—currently sits at 1.22.  It’s the 6th lowest in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook, just one slot ahead of Japan and two behind Lithuania.  (Highest rate goes to Africa’s Republic of Niger, at a whopping 7.68.) 

If more women don’t start having more babies soon, the government predicts South Korea’s population will begin to nosedive by 2018.  Combine that with a rapidly-aging society, and you’ve got what Health Minister Jeon Jae-Hee called in January “the most urgent issue the country is facing.”

So why the baby boycott?

If you’re a South Korean woman between the ages of 25 and 34, chances are high you’ve spent the bulk of your childhood with your head tilted over a notebook in the classrooms of public and private schools, edged your way through university, and now, wanting to put the sleep-deprived years of education to use, are pursuing a career. You might have a boyfriend or a husband, a nice guy who works in business and likes sharing a couple after-hours mekjus with his co-workers, and some nights as you drift to sleep you may dream of starting a family with him, having a little agi that you nurse and whisper stories to and carry in a sling as you stroll along the Cheongyecheon River or wander through Insadong on a Sunday afternoon. 

 But your job is important to you. 

You faced a lot of competition getting hired in the first place.  And even though you make 38% less money than a man (the largest gap in the developed world), and you have no guarantee of advancement no matter how long you stay with the company, you spent a lot of late nights studying to get there, and you want to hang on to your position. The government allows up to one year off after childbirth—with 60 days paid–but from what you’ve heard, most women don’t take it, as employers don’t look kindly to time off.  In fact, some women have reported losing their jobs following maternity leave, even though this is illegal.     

Career woes aside, you’re also wondering how you and your partner will afford the tyke.  Private school—which, like most of your peers, you believe is essential to a child’s future success—can tack on an extra 700,000 won to the monthly tab, not to mention groceries, taekwondo, and piano lessons. One child might be a possibility—if you’re able to keep your job and juggle raising it with working—but two or more?  It’s a stretch, despite the tax breaks the government offers to larger families.

On top of the financial burden, you’ve noticed your partner doesn’t like to pick up his socks.  Or wash the dishes.  Come to think of it, neither did your father.  Turns out working Korean wives spend an average of three hours and 20 minutes a day doing housework and family tasks, while husbands pitch in a mere 37 minutes.  In fact, according to a Korea Times article published in May of 2010, only 1.6 percent of husbands in double income homes say they help children with meals or getting dressed, though 81.5% want their wives to work.  (No wonder only six out of ten females surveyed said marriage was a “must.”)

Tackling the challenge of boosting South Korea’s birth rate, the health ministry has started flicking off the lights in their offices one evening per month, encouraging staff to go home early and “get dedicated to childbirth and upbringing.”

If only they’d add to the incentive a maternity-leave guarantee, job security, and a raise for the ladies.  For the guys, a memo, handwritten in hangul: folding laundry is the most effective form of foreplay.


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