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    Oh, baby

    Kim Hyung-jin

    SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – Yoo Young-yi’s grandmother gave birth to six children. Her mother birthed two. Yoo doesn’t want any.

    “My husband and I like babies so much… but there are things that we’d have to sacrifice if we raised kids,” said Yoo, a 30-year-old Seoul financial company employee. “So it’s become a matter of choice between two things, and we’ve agreed to focus more on ourselves.”

    There are many like Yoo in South Korea who have chosen either not to have children or not to marry. Other advanced countries have similar trends, but South Korea’s demographic crisis is much worse.

    South Korea’s statistics agency announced in September that the total fertility rate – the average number of babies born to each woman in their reproductive years – was 0.81 last year. That’s the world’s lowest for the third consecutive year.

    The population shrank for the first time in 2021, stoking worry that a declining population could severely damage the economy – the world’s 10th largest – because of labour shortages and greater welfare spending as the number of older people increases and the number of taxpayers shrinks.

    ABOVE & BELOW: Kang Han-byeol and Ha Hyun-ji during an interview in Seoul, South Korea; and Yoo Young-yi and her husband Jo Jun-hwi watch their YouTube channel at their home in Seoul. PHOTOS: AP

    Seo Ji-seong and her husband Kim Dong-uk with their children and dog are seen after an interview at their home in Anyang

    President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered policymakers to find more effective steps to deal with the problem. The fertility rate, he said, is plunging even though South Korea spent KRW280 trillion (USD210 billion) over the past 16 years to try to turn the tide.

    Many young South Koreans said unlike their parents and grandparents, they don’t feel an obligation to have a family. They cite the uncertainty of a bleak job market, expensive housing, gender and social inequality, low levels of social mobility and the huge expense of raising children in a brutally competitive society. Women also complain of a persistent patriarchal culture that forces them to do much of the childcare while enduring discrimination at work.

    “In a nutshell, people think our country isn’t an easy place to live,” said population policy expert at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs Lee So-young. “They believe their children can’t have better lives than them, and so question why they should bother to have babies.”

    Many people who fail to enter good schools and land decent jobs feel they’ve become “dropouts” who “cannot be happy” even if they marry and have kids because South Korea lacks advanced social safety nets, said expert at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education Choi Yoon-kyung. She said South Korea failed to establish such welfare programmes during its explosive economic growth in the 1960s to 80s.

    Yoo, the Seoul financial worker, said until she went to college, she strongly wanted a baby.

    But she changed her mind when she saw female office colleagues calling their kids from the company toilet to check on them or leaving early when their children were sick. She said her male coworkers didn’t have to do this.

    “After seeing this, I realised my concentration at work would be greatly diminished if I had babies,” Yoo said.

    Her 34-year-old husband, Jo Jun-hwi, said he doesn’t think having kids is necessary. An interpreter at an information technology company, Jo said he wants to enjoy his life after years of exhaustive job-hunting that made him “feel like I was standing on the edge of a cliff”.

    There are no official figures on how many South Koreans have chosen not to marry or have kids. But records from the national statistics agency show there were about 193,000 marriages in South Korea last year, down from a peak of 430,000 in 1996. The agency data also show about 260,600 babies were born in South Korea last year, down from 691,200 in 1996, and a peak of one million in 1971. The recent figures were the lowest since the statistics agency began compiling such data in 1970.

    Thirty-three-year-old graphic designer Kang Han-byeol decided to remain single and believes South Korea isn’t a sound place to raise children. She cited frustration with gender inequalities and widespread digital crimes targetting women such as spy cams hidden in public restrooms.

    “I can consider marriage when our society becomes healthier and gives more equal status to both women and men,” Kang said.

    Kang’s 26-year-old roommate Ha Hyun-ji also decided to stay single after her married female friends advised her not to marry because most of the housework and childcare falls to them. Ha worries about the huge amount of money she would spend for any future children’s private tutoring to prevent them from falling behind in an education-obsessed nation.

    “I can have a fun life without marriage and enjoy my life with my friends,” said Ha, who runs a an eatery in Seoul.

    Until the mid-1990s, South Korea maintained birth control programmes, which were initially launched to slow the country’s post-war population explosion.

    United Nations (UN) figures show a South Korean woman on average gave birth to about four to six children in the 1950s and 60s, three to four in the 1970s, and less than two in the mid-1980s.

    South Korea has been offering a variety of incentives and other support programmes for those who give birth to many children. But Choi, the expert, said the fertility rate has been falling too fast to see any tangible effects. During a government task force meeting last month, officials said they would soon formulate comprehensive measures to cope with demographic challenges.

    South Korean society still frowns on those who remain childfree or single.

    In 2021 when Yoo and Jo posted their decision to live without children on their YouTube channel ‘You Young You Young’, some posted messages calling them “selfish” and asking them to pay more taxes.

    Seventy-five-year-old Seoul resident Lee Sung-jai said it’s “the order of nature” for humankind to marry and give birth to children.

    “These days, I see some (unmarried) young women walking with dogs in strollers and saying they are their mums. Did they give birth to those dogs? They are really crazy,” he said.

    Seo Ji-seong, 38, said she’s often called a patriot by older people for having many babies, though she didn’t give birth to them for the national interest. She’s expecting a fifth baby in January.

    Seo’s family recently moved to a rent-free apartment in the city of Anyang, which was jointly provided by the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation and the city for families with at least four children. Seo and her husband, Kim Dong-Uk, 33, receive other state support, though it’s still tough economically to raise four kids.

    Kim said he enjoys seeing each of his children growing up with different personalities and talents, while Seo feels their kids’ social skills are helped while playing and competing with one another at home.

    “They are so cute. That’s why I’ve kept giving birth to babies even though it’s difficult,” Seo said.

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