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(Yonhap Feature) End of 'baby strike' for South Korea?

All Headlines 08:00 March 09, 2008

By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- A frugal family in South Korea's southwestern village of Gurim has become known among neighbors as the "wealthy Kims," a nickname earned after a fifth child was born into the family last April.

"The name serves us well," said 42-year-old Kim Doo-man, his hearty laugh ringing through the telephone receiver. "After all, we are living in an era in which babies make money."

Kim calls his youngest son Min-sung a "golden goose."

Kim's family was recently able to move to a larger rental house, as the local government provides two-thirds of the rental fee for couples with five or more children, a policy designed to raise the low birthrate.

Kim's youngest son also earned the family 5 million won (US$5,277) in a government subsidy, as well as monthly cash support of 500,000 won for a year.

"It will cost a darn lot of money to raise all five," he said. "But with government support, I thought I could save up just enough to send all five to university."

With families such as Kim's growing in size on the back of government support, South Korea's fertility rate climbed last year for the second consecutive year to 1.26 births per woman. The country saw a record-low birthrate of 1.08 in 2005.

Kim's Gurim Village in Sunchang, North Jeolla Province, offers couples a monthly cash subsidy of 500,000 won for each additional baby they have. Couples are also given a 400,000 won subsidy for their third child, 1 million won for the fourth and 5 million won for the fifth.

Following the measure, the number of births in Sunchang county rose to 423 last year, an increase of 14 percent from 369 in 2006.

Other local governments have also been flashing the cash in a bid to increase birth rates.

According to reports, 137 local governments provide subsidies to families with children, 62 of them paying between 100,000 won to 6 million won.

Hamyang in South Gyeonsang Province pays out 1 million won to women having a third child, 2 million won for the fourth and 5 million for the fifth. Boseong in South Jeolla Province gives 200,000 won in monthly subsidies for the first child, 300,000 for the second and 500,000 for the third for a year.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government hands out 100,000 won a month for families with more than three children and plans to increase the amount this year.

Although prospects have definitely brightened for the country, which suffers from one of the lowest birthrates in the world, experts say that it may be too soon to declare an end to the country's "baby strike."

"The boost might be temporary, as it occurred mainly because the children of baby boomers, born shortly after the Korean War, are now of childbearing age," said Lee Jin-man, an official at the National Statistic Office (NSO). "South Korea's fertility rate is still far below those of other advanced countries, and we cannot be sure that the rate will continue to climb."

The fertility rate is 1.32 in Japan, 1.33 in Germany, 1.35 in Italy, 2.10 in the United States, 1.96 in France and 1.84 in Britain.

Less than 40 years ago, South Korean women married young and had, on average, six children. Now many women are marrying later or choosing to remain single, while others who do have a child prefer to spend all their resources on just one.

Married couples without kids accounted for 22.2 percent of the 15.8 million Korean households in 2006, outnumbering three-member families consisting of a mother, father and child, which accounted for 20.9 percent, according to the NSO.

The number of four-member families consisting of a mother, father and two children -- which have been perceived as the "standard family structure" in South Korea -- dropped to 27 percent from 31.1 percent in 2000. The percentage of families with five or more members fell below 10 percent for the first time in a decade.

Amid the low birthrate, South Korea's population is projected to diminish by two-thirds in the next century, dropping to 16 million from 48 million and creating a national economic and labor-shortage disaster.

A lack of money is apparently not the real reason behind South Korea's low birth rate.

While the country's new president is seeking to raise per capita income to $40,000 within a decade, the current birthrate is barely over 1 child per woman. Yet back in the 1970s, when South Korea's per capita income stood at a mere $250, the birthrate was an average of 4.5 children per woman.

Many working women say they are delaying or avoiding childbirth due to the country's lack of adequate childcare and social welfare facilities.

"I don't think the government understands at all," said 29-year-old office worker Kang Na-young. "It's not like I'm not getting pregnant because I can't afford to feed my baby. It's after the birth that really matters."

"Women won't suddenly decide to have children for hundreds of thousands of won," she added. "What we really want is a change in the social concept that childcare is no longer solely the family's job, but that of the whole society."

Yoon Young-in, 32, an office worker, agreed.

"My husband and I had discussed having a baby by next winter considering my age," she said. "But I am worried because both my mother and mother-in-law put their foot down, saying they don't want to take care of the grandkids."

A growing number of seniors in South Korea are shirking the responsibility of taking care of their grandchildren and focusing more on leisure in their late years, leading to increased hesitation to bear children among working women.

"I don't blame them since it wasn't their job to begin with, but it has made the decision-making much harder," Yoon added with a sigh. "I am not about to leave my baby in the hands of a stranger, but I don't want to give up my job either."

Moreover, some people question the government benefits concentrated on giving money for a third child when most do not even want a second, due to the changed lifestyle of South Korean newlyweds who tend to think more about their welfare than the costly childcare.

"Wouldn't it be wiser to encourage all households to give birth to at least one baby, than to focus benefits on families with many children?" asked Cha Sung-joon, an office worker who tied the knot last month. "I can't even imagine having three children. Marriage is hectic enough without kids all over the house."

A survey of 850 married and childless women in their 20s to 30s last year by the Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that 87 percent regarded the government's maternity policy as insufficient.

Experts say that the government should put more effort into helping families in which both parents work in order to effectively raise the country's still-low birthrate.

"The government should take Western countries as an example and construct policies that will fit better the changed society," said Kim Man-woo, an official at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

"Taking a step forward from the current measures based on financial incentives, the government should focus on building more state-run childcare centers and educational facilities for children with working parents."

Some Western countries that faced the issue of low childbirth before South Korea successfully overcame the problem by examining it from a completely different social perspective.

For example, France, Britain and Sweden came up with prompt, comprehensive plans to grant legal status to babies born to couples who were not legally married.

In addition, the plans included supporting companies to run nurseries in offices for working mothers and providing regular education subsidies for couples with more than one child. They accepted the idea that childcare and education are not burdens for individual families, but rather matters to be addressed on a broader social basis.

"The traditional family concept, the inequality of the two genders, the rigidity of the labor market, high education fees and housing prices, and lack of family policies are, as a whole, making it harder for women to have babies," said Cho Hyun-mi, chief of the childcare department at the Institute for the Future, a non-governmental organization.

"But what I see as the core problem is the fact that the society is still not ready to address the issue from a completely different angle. Such inflexibility is preventing the nation from coming up with more effective countermeasures," she said.


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