Postechian Column: South Korea – The Fastest Shrinking Country in the World
Postechian Column: South Korea – The Fastest Shrinking Country in the World
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  • 승인 2023.01.07 00:00
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Exchange Student Fall SemesterFilip Nilsson (PHYS)
Exchange Student Fall Semester
Filip Nilsson (PHYS)

As I took an evening stroll through Hongdae on my first day in South Korea, it was full of couples holding hands and wearing trendy, matching clothes. The place seemed alive. At that point, it was hard to imagine I was in the country with the fastest declining population in the world. But as I reached my university town Pohang, a city of half a million people located on the other side of the country, it painted a different picture altogether. Heading down to the markets and streets, you’re met with a sea of ajjuma (old ladies) and often there is not a young person to be seen. Of course, a vast difference is expected between the capital and a small city, but that got me thinking. Is there more to this than what meets the eye?
The truth is that Korea is one of the countries in the world facing a huge shift in their demographics. Currently, they have the lowest fertility rate in the world, with on average 0.8 children per woman. Right now, their population is 52 million, but this number is expected to decrease to a mere 38 million by 2070 if this trend continues. At the same time, the Korean median age is expected to shift from 43 to 62 and the proportion of the elderly is expected to reach one quarter of the total population.
So why is that? A major contributor to such a drastic decline in fertility is proposed to be the deteriorating eco-
nomic circumstances of young adults. For example, Korea experienced a substantial increase in precarious work (e.g. nonstandard jobs) after the financial crisis of the late 1990s. Also, the skyrocketing housing prices, especially in Seoul’s metropolitan areas where the majority of the population is concentrated, have also been identified as a major barrier to young people forming families. The average price of an 84 sq. metre home (a popular size in Korea) is expected to be more than 1 billion won (7.8 MSEK), and a larger apartment goes for even more. 
In addition, it’s too hard for young Koreans to meet the tough demands of their work life while simultaneously raising a family. Heading into the job market they are met with increasing qualification requirements and sometimes even additional exams. A survey from 2017 reported that 80% of Koreans aged 19 to 34 have experienced exhaustion due to stress and fears of the future. On top of this, taking a career-break to care for a child might result in a large lifestyle change, where parents are worried about having to give up their job. 
In Korea, providing your children with high-level education is valued greatly, yet expensive. In 2021, the average expenditure on private education was 367,000 KRW (2900 SEK, Swedish krona) per month, rising by 21.5% from 2020. But surprisingly, a higher level of income correlates with fewer children, not more. Even though the Korean government implemented several programs to incentivize childbirth, the birth rates have steadily decreased. From offering 2 million KRW (~20.000 SEK) as one-time bonuses at birth to paying an additional 300,000 KRW (2500 SEK) per month until the child turns two. None of these measures have, however, been proven effective. 
While Korea is still a big player in the world market, the shrinking population might become a major issue for the Korean economy. This is not detrimental yet, but it could prove to be. Hopefully, the next time I return to Korea, I’ll experience more moments like that evening stroll through Hongdae.