South Korea’s low birth rate is considered a national emergency : Women are deterred from having children due to high costs of living and gender inequalities

South Korea's President Yoon plans to create a Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter-Planning to tackle declining fertility rates, addressing factors like work environment, wages, living costs, and gender equality.

South Korea’s low birth rate is considered a national emergency :  Women are deterred from having children due to high costs of living and gender inequalities
The birth rate is severely declining in South Korea. by Ryutaro Tsukata, via Pexels, 2020/August 28th

22-05-2024

Pauliina Majasaari

Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

 

The President of South Korea, Mr. Yoon, announced the setting up of a Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter-Planning to address the plummeting birth rates.[1] The fertility rates in South Korea have been severely declining in the past years as women are concerned about careers and financial costs of raising children which has led to delaying childbirth or to decisions of not having babies at all.[2]

As expressed by Mr. Yoon, the low birth rate in South Korea can be considered to be a national emergency, affecting the labour force, economy, and the future development of the country.[3] South Korea has the lowest fertility rate, amounting to 0.72 in 2023, and a fertility rate of 2.1 is required to maintain a stable population.[4] Factors such as demanding work environments, stagnating wages, rising living costs, expensive private education and changing attitudes towards marriage and gender equality have been affecting the shifts in demographics of South Korea.[5] Furthermore, matters related to social issues such as stigma against single parenting, discrimination against non-traditional partnerships and barriers faced by same-sex couples also factor into the problem of low birth rates.[6] By far, the government of South Korea has been trying to fix the crisis by providing financial incentives and assistance to married couples, however it has not been very effective considering that the birth rate keeps declining as the years pass by.[7] Experts have expressed the need to address the problem from a wider standpoint, and start changing the policies on a wider scale related to quality of life and costs of living, such as improvement of social services and after-school care programmes, which could itself foster a positive environment for young people to have children.[8] Furthermore, inequality within gender - and parental roles in South Korea are heavily based on the woman’s responsibility to conduct the house chores and taking care of the children, and as such has deterring effect of women to have children and is one of the key factors in the unwillingness of women getting pregnant.[9]

Within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), article 3 sets out the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights set within the Covenant.[10] Furthermore, article 6 of the ICESCR ensures the right to work for everyone, which includes the right not be deprived of work unfairly.[11] Additionally, pregnancies must not create an obstacle to employment and should not be a justification for loss of employment.[12] Article 7 is interdependent with article 6 and ensures that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work and that women are guaranteed conditions of work that are not inferior to those enjoyed by men.[13]Additionally, article 7 sets out the right to receive remuneration that provides for decent living for themselves and their families taking into consideration outside factors such as costs of living, which includes that the remuneration must be sufficient for a person to enjoy other rights set within the Covenant, such as health care, education and housing.[14]Moreover the work hours per week should be limited to 40-hour work weeks to be able to reconcile work life with family responsibilities, bearing in mind that the assumption of the man being the main breadwinner and the woman holding the main responsibility for the household should not be strengthened by measures limiting working hours.[15]

Evidently, the rights set within ICESCR are not fully realised for the women in South Korea. Firstly, grave gender inequalities and pervasive traditional gender roles are present, strongly affecting the birth rate crisis, and contradicting article 3 of the ICESCR.[16] Such is manifested through employers deterring from hiring women due to an assumption that women will leave their work when they have children and even some have been forced to leave their job after taking maternity leave and as such creates an obstacle to receiving employment and is inconsistent with the right not to be deprived of work unfairly and thereby violates article 6 of the ICESCR.[17] South Korea has the biggest gender pay gap amongst developed nations, where women earn 31 percent less than men, which in turn affects the women’s access to roles in power.[18] Moreover, the usual work week in South Korea is 52 hours, severely exceeding the permitted limit for the duration of work week.[19] In addition, due to the traditional gender roles, women are expected to work, take care of the household and care for the children, which is almost impossible due to the long workweeks, and thereby an additional factor to the unwillingness to have children is present.[20] Lastly, South Korea is neglecting Article 7 as the living costs are very high, and thereby families do not have the financial means to reproduce due to high costs of education for children and housing, also amounting to a deterring factor in having children.

 

Therefore, South Korea is urged to create policies which foster for the possibility of women to combine employment and family creation, as one of the core reasons in delaying or deterring from having children is the inability to return to job life after childbirth as well as combining the long work weeks with childcare.[21] Furthermore, South Korea is asked to invest in policies which make living more affordable for families with children as well as create an environment of gender equality where both the man and the woman have equal contribution to domestic life and caring for children.[22] Such would foster the ability of women to have children and maintain a balanced work life while taking care of their children and thereby ensuring the rights set within the ICESCR apply equally to women as well.

 

 

[1] Arpan Rai, ‘South Korea to create new ministry to tackle plummeting birth rate’ (Independent, 9 May 2024) <https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/east-asia/south-korea-birth-rate-ministry-b2542183.html> accessed 21 May 2024.

[2] ibid.

[3] Jessie Yeung, Alex Stambaugh and Yoonjung Seo, ‘South Korea’s birth rate is so low, the president wants to create a ministry to tackle it’ (CNN, 9 May 2024) <https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/09/asia/south-korea-government-population-birth-rate-intl-hnk/index.html> accessed 21 May 2024.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid

[7] Chad De Guzman, ‘Why Experts Say South Korea Shouldn’t Just Throw Cash at Its Low Birth Rate Problem’ (Time, 3 April 2024) <https://time.com/6962867/south-korea-low-fertility-rate-birth-cash-programs-quality-life/> accessed 21 May 2024.

[8] ibid.

[9] Jean Mackenzie, ‘Why South Korean women aren’t having babies’ (BBC, 28 February 2024) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-68402139> accessed 21 May 2024.

[10] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 3 January 1967) 993 UNTS 3 (ICESCR).

[11] ICESCR, article 6 (1); CESCR, ‘The Right to Work: General Comment No 18 Adopted on 24 November 2005: Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (2005) UN Doc E/C.12/GC/18, para 4.

[12] ibid 13.

[13] ICESCR, article 7 (a) (i).

[14] ICESCR, article 7 (a) (ii); CESCR, ‘General Comment No 23 (2016) on the right to just and favourable conditions of work (article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)’ (2016) UN Doc E/C.12/GC/23, para 18.

[15] ibid 36 and 37.

[16] Katrin Park, ‘South Korea’s Birth Rate Crisis is Driven by Gender Inequality’ (WPR, 6 April 2023) <https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/south-korea-birth-rate-gender-inequality-anti-feminism-politics/?one-time-read-code=2010071716291108114593> accessed 22 May 2024.

[17] Jean Mackenzie (n 9); ibid.

[18] ibid

[19] Jean Mackenzie (n 9).

[20] Jinyoung Kim, Jong-Wha Lee and Kwanho Shin, ‘Long-Term Economic Growth: An Application of the Theoretical Model of Gender Inequality and Economic Growth’ (2016) ADB Economics Working Paper Series, 1.

[21]  Randall S Jones, ‘Korean Policies to Reverse the Decline in Fertility Rate Part 1: Balancing Work and Family’ (KEI, 22 June 2023) <https://keia.org/the-peninsula/korean-policies-to-reverse-the-decline-in-the-fertility-rate-part-1-balancing-work-and-family/> accessed 21 May 2024.

[22] ibid.

 

 

 

Sources and further readings:

 

Arpan Rai, ‘South Korea to create new ministry to tackle plummeting birth rate’ Independent (9 May 2024) <https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/east-asia/south-korea-birth-rate-ministry-b2542183.html> accessed 21 May 2024.

 

CESCR, ‘General Comment No 23 (2016) on the right to just and favourable conditions of work (article 7 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights)’ (2016) UN Doc E/C.12/GC/23.

 

CESCR, ‘The Right to Work: General Comment No 18 Adopted on 24 November 2005: Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (2005) UN Doc E/C.12/GC/18.

 

Chad De Guzman, ‘Why Experts Say South Korea Shouldn’t Just Throw Cash at Its Low Birth Rate Problem’ Time (3 April 2024) <https://time.com/6962867/south-korea-low-fertility-rate-birth-cash-programs-quality-life/> accessed 21 May 2024.

 

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 3 January 1967) 993 UNTS 3 (ICESCR).

 

Jean Mackenzie, ‘Why South Korean women aren’t having babies’ BBC (28 February 2024) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-68402139> accessed 21 May 2024.

 

Jessie Yeung, Alex Stambaugh and Yoonjung Seo, ‘South Korea’s birth rate is so low, the president wants to create a ministry to tackle it’ CNN (9 May 2024) <https://edition.cnn.com/2024/05/09/asia/south-korea-government-population-birth-rate-intl-hnk/index.html> accessed 21 May 2024.

 

Jinyoung Kim, Jong-Wha Lee and Kwanho Shin, ‘Long-Term Economic Growth: An Application of the Theoretical Model of Gender Inequality and Economic Growth’ (2016) ADB Economics Working Paper Series.

 

Katrin Park, ‘South Korea’s Birth Rate Crisis is Driven by Gender Inequality’ WPR (6 April 2023) <https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/south-korea-birth-rate-gender-inequality-anti-feminism-politics/?one-time-read-code=2010071716291108114593> accessed 22 May 2024.

 

Randall S Jones, ‘Korean Policies to Reverse the Decline in Fertility Rate Part 1: Balancing Work and Family’ KEI (22 June 2023) <https://keia.org/the-peninsula/korean-policies-to-reverse-the-decline-in-the-fertility-rate-part-1-balancing-work-and-family/> accessed 21 May 2024.