Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 3 December 2023


Is South Korea Disappearing?

An empty blue swing seat against a sandy background.
Credit...Insung Jeon/Getty Images
An empty blue swing seat against a sandy background.

Opinion Columnist

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For some time now, South Korea has been a striking case study in the depopulation problem that hangs over the developed world. Almost all rich countries have seen their birthrates settle below replacement level, but usually that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 children per woman. For instance in 2021 the United States stood at 1.7, France at 1.8, Italy at 1.3 and Canada at 1.4.

But South Korea is distinctive in that it slipped into below-replacement territory in the 1980s but lately has been falling even more — dropping below one child per woman in 2018, to 0.8 after the pandemic, and now, in provisional data for both the second and third quarters of 2023, to just 0.7 births per woman.

It’s worth unpacking what that means. A country that sustained a birthrate at that level would have, for every 200 people in one generation, 70 people in the next one, a depopulation exceeding what the Black Death delivered to Europe in the 14th century. Run the experiment through a second generational turnover, and your original 200-person population falls below 25. Run it again, and you’re nearing the kind of population crash caused by the fictional superflu in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

By the standards of newspaper columnists I am a low-birthrate alarmist, but in some ways I consider myself an optimist. Just as the overpopulation panic of the 1960s and 1970s mistakenly assumed that trends would simply continue upward without adaptation, I suspect a deep pessimism about the downward trajectory of birthrates — the kind that imagines a 22nd-century America dominated by the Amish, say — underrates human adaptability, the extent to which populations that flourish amid population decline will model a higher-fertility future and attract converts over time.

In that spirit of optimism, I don’t actually think the South Korean birthrate will stay this low for decades, or that its population will drop from today’s roughly 51 million to the single-digit millions that my thought experiment suggests.

But I do believe the estimates that project a plunge to fewer than 35 million people by the late 2060s — and that decline alone may be enough to thrust Korean society into crisis.

There will be a choice between accepting steep economic decline as the age pyramid rapidly inverts, or trying to welcome immigrants on a scale far beyond the numbers that are already destabilizing Western Europe. There will be inevitable abandonment of the elderly, vast ghost towns and ruined high rises, and emigration by young people who see no future as custodians of a retirement community. And at some point there will quite possibly be an invasion from North Korea (current fertility rate: 1.8), if its southern neighbor struggles to keep a capable army in the field.

For the rest of the world, meanwhile, the South Korean example demonstrates that the birth dearth can get much worse much faster than the general trend in rich countries so far.

This is not to say that it will, since there are a number of patterns that set South Korea apart. For instance, one oft-cited driver of the Korean birth dearth is a uniquely brutal culture of academic competition, piling “cram schools” on top of normal education, driving parental anxiety and student misery, and making family life potentially hellish in ways that discourage people from even making the attempt.

Another is the distinctive interaction between the country’s cultural conservatism and social and economic modernization. For a long time the sexual revolution in South Korea was partially blunted by traditional social mores — the nation has very low rates of out-of-wedlock births, for instance. But eventually this produced intertwining rebellions, a feminist revolt against conservative social expectations and a male anti-feminist reaction, driving a stark polarization between the sexes that’s reshaped the country’s politics even as it’s knocked the marriage rate to record lows.

It also doesn’t help that South Korea’s conservatism is historically more Confucian and familial than religious in the Western sense; my sense is that strong religious belief is a better spur to family formation than traditionalist custom. Or that the country has long been out on the bleeding edge of internet gaming culture, drawing young men especially deeper into virtual existence and further from the opposite sex.

But now that I’ve written these descriptions, they don’t read as simple contrasts with American culture, so much as exaggerations of the trends we’re experiencing as well.

We too have an exhausting meritocracy. We too have a growing ideological division between men and women in Generation Z. We too are secularizing and forging a cultural conservatism that’s anti-liberal but not necessarily pious, a spiritual-but-not-religious right. We too are struggling to master the temptations and pathologies of virtual existence.

So the current trend in South Korea is more than just a grim surprise. It’s a warning about what’s possible for us.

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