South Korea Faces Demographic Challenges with World’s Lowest Birth Rate

SEOUL — South Korea is grappling with the challenges of an unprecedentedly low birth rate and a rapidly aging population, experts revealed on Wednesday. The country's demographic issues are becoming increasingly complex, with little sign of improvement in changing social norms and economic circumstances.

According to Yonhap News Agency, the total fertility rate in South Korea dropped to a record quarterly low of 0.65 in the final three months of 2023, significantly below the 2.1 births per woman needed to maintain the country's population of 51 million without relying on immigration. The annual fertility rate also saw a decrease, falling to 0.72 in 2023 from 0.78 the previous year, continuing a downward trend from 1.24 in 2015. Notably, South Korea has become the only country among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members with a total fertility rate below 1, trailing closely behind Hong Kong, which recorded the lowest rate globally at 0.77.

The number of newborns in South Korea also fell to a new low last year, with only 229,970 births, marking a 7.7 percent decrease from the previous year. This decline has been consistent, with the number of births dropping below 400,000 for the first time in 2017, below 300,000 in 2020, and under 250,000 in 2022. The country has experienced a natural decline in population for four consecutive years since 2020, raising concerns about the future.

Officials, including agency official Lim Young-il, predict further declines in the birth rate and number of newborns, as many have postponed marriage and childbirth due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite a recent increase in marriages post-pandemic, the trend toward choosing not to have children persists, suggesting that the likelihood of a rise in birth rates remains low.

By 2072, projections show South Korea's population could fall to approximately 36.22 million, with the median age rising to 63.4 from 44.9 in 2022. The potential for South Korea to face population extinction by around 2750 was highlighted by Oxford University professor emeritus David Coleman, citing factors such as the country's patriarchal culture, competitive education system, low gender equality, and the rarity of births outside of marriage.

Experts, including Lee Sang-rim from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, emphasize the wide-ranging impacts of population decline, from labor market challenges and financial strains on the state to impacts on national defense, education, and medical services. The institute's report forecasts a 28.38 percent drop in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2050, alongside a significant decrease in the working-age population and military personnel, raising concerns about the country's recruitment capabilities.

The need for comprehensive policy measures and political resolution to address these demographic challenges has been stressed by experts. Despite increasing the budget for demographic initiatives, the effectiveness of government efforts remains a topic of debate. President Yoon Suk Yeol has called for a fundamentally different approach to tackling the declining birth rate, focusing on identifying causes and finding effective solutions. However, many young South Koreans remain skeptical about government pledges, citing economic and social barriers to having children.

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