South Korea’s Birth Rate Crisis Is Driven by Gender Inequality

South Korea is emblematic of East Asia’s well-documented coming demographic crisis. Not only has its birth rate been the world’s lowest for the past three years, it keeps getting worse. In 2021, its birth rate was a mere 0.81 child per woman—even lower than that of Japan, the world’s fastest-aging nation, where that same year the figure was 1.3 children per woman. By 2070, South Korea’s population of 52 million is projected to drop to 38 million. 

While the issue has preoccupied successive governments, including that of current President Yoon Suk Yeol, their proposed policy responses have failed to confront an unavoidable truth: At the root of South Korea’s demographic problem are the country’s still-pervasive traditional gender roles. Men are expected to go to work, while women are expected to take care of household tasks and raise children, even when they, too, go to work.

These traditional gender roles embed similar inequalities in the workplace. Employers tend to pass over female candidates because they believe women are likely to leave their jobs when they have children. Despite the fact that more women than men earn college degrees, only 57 percent of them are in the workforce, compared to 75 percent of men. And for nearly three decades, South Korea has had the widest gender pay gap among developed nations, with women earning 31 percent less than men. These disparities are then reflected in roles of power, as only 5 percent of publicly listed companies have female CEOs, and women hold less than 20 percent of seats in the National Assembly.

Misogyny within and outside of the workplace also perpetuates the country’s demographic crisis. From domestic assault to rape and murder, violence against women is rife. In a 2015 government study, 80 percent of respondents, mostly women, said they had been sexually harassed at work. With widespread digital crimes targeting women, including hidden cameras in public restrooms, women don’t feel safe. Nor do they feel safe discussing gender issues in public, with many feminists receiving death threats online. No surprise, then, that a South Korean #MeToo emerged in 2018, when a prosecutor exposed her superior for having sexually molested her.

Previous governments have implemented policies boosting opportunities for women, such as financing women-founded startups and increasing the number of female managers at public institutions. But now, for the first time, an organized anti-feminist movement has emerged among men in their 20s and 30s. The men driving this movement feel that they are victims of reverse discrimination, pushed aside due to these efforts to level the playing field for women. They argue that women may have been discriminated against decades ago, when boys went to school and girls stayed home, but that’s no longer the case. Moreover, they add, men must give up 18 months of their lives to serve in the military, something women are spared. 

Other Korean men feel that the #MeToo movement has gone too far, leaving the judicial system biased against men.

Misogyny in Korea is not new. But combined with a poor economy and extreme political polarization, this attitude has led young women to think that it’s better to live freely and independently than to devote themselves to raising a family. Since it’s nearly impossible to juggle career and kids—in fact, maternity leave worsens the wage gap—many women in Korea are now choosing the former.

Moreover, for young South Koreans, opting out of marriage and kids altogether makes economic sense in the face of rising job insecurity, steep housing prices and the ever-increasing cost of education. According to the national statistics agency, the number of marriages dropped by half between 1996 and 2021, and those who do marry are marrying later.

Meanwhile, many South Koreans who would like to have children are prevented from doing so, whether for legal or cultural reasons, even in the face of the impending demographic crisis. Options like IVF are off-limits to single women, for instance, due to the cultural taboo against having a child out of wedlock. Same-sex couples are legally prevented from getting married, as conservative evangelicals have successfully blocked a comprehensive anti-discrimination bill for nearly two decades, so they too can’t contemplate having children through IVF or adoption.

This has serious implications for South Korea’s future. The country’s national health insurance and pension systems are threatened with collapse along with its population. And the South Korean military, facing a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly assertive China, will have to make do with half the number of men eligible for conscription by 2039. 

Unfortunately, instead of tackling the foundational issues that are deterring people from having children, successive South Korean governments have zeroed in on reversing the low fertility trend. Seoul has burned through hundreds of billions of dollars in the past decade to provide low-cost housing and low-interest loans for newlyweds, as well as cash payments and subsidized childcare for parents of newborns—to little success.

Since taking office last year, Yoon has similarly ignored these broader societal problems, while doubling down on baby payments. The current government has also exploited resentment of feminism to secure votes from young men, undermining its own efforts to boost birth rates in the process.

But the government’s objective shouldn’t be to boost birth rates through temporary benefits. Rather, it should focus on improving the quality of life for young people of both sexes so that they can have confidence in the future. One place to start is by creating living-wage jobs and improving work-life balance. Other steps include providing affordable and high-quality childcare support—public childcare facilities tend to suffer from poorly qualified teachers and lack of oversight—and encouraging both women and men to use parental leave.

Similar approaches have proven records of success elsewhere. In Sweden, changing traditional gender roles at home has been essential to achieving equality at work. It became the first country to offer parental leave to both women and men back in 1974. But the stigma attached to paternity leave discouraged men from using it. So in 1995, Sweden extended the leave for fathers and provided financial incentives for them to use it. Today, all mothers and 90 percent of fathers use parental leave, helping to boost women’s pay. Notably, Sweden enjoys one of the world’s highest employment rates for women, at more than 80 percent.

Regardless of government policy, however, young South Korean women are choosing to live according to their own accord. And even if the current demographic trends were to reverse, it will not return the country to the time when a high birth rate could be counted on as an engine of growth. That means that another key to the demographic crisis is robust immigration and technological innovation.

The government should welcome the region’s countless young people eager to move to South Korea to work and raise families. And since South Korea is slated to become a “super-aged society” by 2025—that is, 20 percent of its population will be over the age of 65—technology must play a key role in boosting new industries and providing more cost-effective health care for an aging population. Similarly, a high-tech military can make up for the loss of boots on the ground.

But improvements to immigration and technology policy should complement, not substitute for, policies that enable more equitable opportunities at work­ and at home—for men and women. There is no solving South Korea’s demographic crisis without women, and any solution must start by treating them as more than simply potential mothers.

There are perhaps some faint signs of change. Just 15 years ago, the CEOs of South Korea’s largest firms often joked that if an employee knows what grade his child is in, he’s not working hard enough to become a manager. Now, though the number is still low, men are actually taking paternity leave. And government surveys repeatedly show that young people no longer agree with the traditional division of labor. Perhaps the fear of imminent demise as a nation will help spur further and faster progress toward gender equality.

This article originally appeared in World Politics Review on April 6, 2023.

(Photo by rawkkim on Unsplash)