South Korea: a crisis of the past, the present and the future – Erin Lee, Canada/South Korea

In 1987, South Korea had an estimated number of 4 895 354 students enrolled in middle or high school. Flash forwarding 26 years; the CIA World Factbook statistics show that, as of July 2013, South Korea has approximately 3 961 863 students attending middle or high school, a number that is nearly 1 million less than what is was in the first estimative.

Demography, the study of population, has been increasingly important since the world’s population has reached a milestone of 7 billion people. Over the past few decades, scientists have been worrying about overpopulation and its impact on the society, the environment and the future. Words such as “sustainability” and “contraception” have become common topics debated during global conferences.

Korean School

Sustainability, for instance, is an environmental and demographic issue that is of major concern in our current world. Demographers are concerned about the Earth’s future and whether there will be enough water and food for everyone on this planet. However, a different kind of issue related to sustainability should also be confronted when it concerns the South Korean demographic crisis: since overpopulation is not a concern in Asia, where contraceptive methods enforced in the past have worked too well, the question is: will there even be a South Korea to sustain in the near future?

South Korea is no exception to the Asian demographic crisis. With a total replacement rate of 1.25 (Source: The Wall Street Journal), far below the globally recommended rate of 2.1 for a stable population, and ranking 5th to last on the CIA World Factbook total fertility rate ranking, South Korea’s National Assembly Research Service’s recent commission states that, with the current replacement rate, Koreans will be extinct by 2750. Even though, to many, this prediction seems unreal, South Korea, a nation with an economy that ranks 12th in PPP (purchasing power parity) globally, a country that boasts a population of over 50 million, will likely cease to exist in seven centuries.

How did South Korea end up in such a crippling demographic crisis? In the post-Korean war era, it was normal for women to have more than 6 children. The agrarian economy required more helping hands in the rice paddies and farms and it wasn’t until the country began its rapid “miracle” industrialization that the total fertility rate dropped to 4 children per mother.

Government-funded contraception projects to reduce the proliferating population began in the 1970s, with propaganda encouraging smaller families with two children. This “two-child” policy carried on to the 1980s until the government met its goal, when two children per family became the societal norm. It is true that South Korea’s trend of low fertility rates began with propaganda and contraceptive methods, however, despite the fact that the government has done an 180o reversal, why does the number of children born each year continue to decrease?

One of the major causes is education. South Korea is notorious for its rigorous education, often called the “pressure cooker” system. Students in high school spend on average 15 hours at school per day and have additional lessons with private tutors and/or academies, all to ensure their acceptance to a prestigious university. As of 2009, South Korea was spending 5% of its total GDP on education. The costs of tutors, cram schools and academies drain much of a family’s salary, thus making it difficult to provide financial support for more than one child.

Students are not the only ones to feel the burden of South Korea’s ambitions. The workplace is also highly competitive. Employees are required to work overtime unpaid, a work ethic that was necessary for South Korea’s rapid industrialization. Although this ceaseless work ethic is admirable to many, it leaves very little room for personal life.

Journalist’s statement

Many criticize South Korea for its ruthless academic system and cutthroat workplace environment. However, they do not take into account that such a competitive nationwide ethic was necessary for a small nation like Korea to industrialize. Unlike Canada or the United States, South Korea does not owe its industrialization to an abundant supply natural resources; its modernization was made possible by the people. Therefore, it was necessary for the country to produce the best engineers, strategists, entrepreneurs, businessmen, scientists, etc., to overcome its shortcomings.


South Korea is making a strong effort to reduce the threat of extinction by shortening work hours, placing night curfews on academies and investing money into matchmaking services. However, its efforts should begin with educational and societal reforms to lessen the burden of the ambitions placed on students from a very young age and to provide a greater variety of social services to benefit the population. A culture of people who support one another will lead to a happier generation, and it is time that the South Korean government realizes this as well.     

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