(ATTN: UPDATES with details in paras 18-24)
By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, Sept. 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Wednesday unveiled a set of measures to tackle demographic challenges in areas ranging from the military to schools as Asia's fourth-largest economy faces a rapidly aging population resulting from its chronically low birthrate.
Last year, South Korea's total fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime -- hit a record low of 0.98, much lower than the replacement level of 2.1 that would keep South Korea's population stable at 51 million.
Statistics Korea forecast that the country's population is likely to reach 39 million in 2067, sharply down from an estimated 51.7 million in 2019.
The agency said people aged 65 years or older could account for 46.5 percent of the country's population, a sharp rise from 14.9 percent this year.
A country is defined as a super-aged society when more than 21 percent of its people are 65 or older.
The demographic challenges "pose a grave threat that undermines South Korea's growth potential and sustainable growth," Hong Nam-ki, the minister of economy and finance, said in a meeting with officials in Seoul.
The looming population decline has prodded the government to improve its systems for acquiring military personnel and to review the current method of training teachers.
The number of people who should serve the military is projected to fall to 230,000 in 2025 before dropping to less than 200,000 after 2037, compared with 350,000 in 2018.
The government plans to cut the number of standing forces on active duty while reforming the military in a way that utilizes technologies such as weaponized drones and reconnaissance satellites.
South Korea plans to reduce troop numbers to 500,000 by 2022 from 599,000 in 2018, according to the 2018 defense white paper released in January. In comparison, the paper put the number of North Korea's active-duty personnel at 1.28 million.
The government is also considering mandating that naturalized South Koreans serve in the military.
The number of foreigners being naturalized has exceeded 10,000 annually in recent years, with 11,270 in 2013, 10,924 in 2015 and 10,086 in 2017, according to government data.
Currently, all able-bodied South Korean men must carry out compulsory military service for about two years in a country that faces North Korea across a heavily fortified border.
The government also plans to recalculate the number of teachers in training to deal with the looming shortage of children attending schools.
The number of people aged from 6 to 21 is expected to fall to 6 million in 2030 from 8.46 million in 2017.
In a dramatic demographic transition, the number of births in South Korea fell to 326,822 in 2018 from a record high of 1 million in 1970, according to the statistics agency.
The decline in childbirths comes as more young South Koreans are opting to distance themselves from life's three major milestones -- dating, marriage and having children -- because they cannot find decent jobs amid a prolonged economic slowdown.
Also Wednesday, the government said it is considering introducing a system in the coming years that would require companies to employ workers until a certain age beyond the current retirement age of 60.
The system would allow companies to select options, such as the rehiring of employees, extension or abolition of retirement age, according to the government.
The government set aside 19.2 billion won (US$16.1 million) for its 2020 budget to give incentives to eligible companies that hire people aged 60 years or older for more than a year.
In 2013, South Korea revised a retirement age law to stretch the age to 60 from the previous 58 and fully implemented it in 2017.
In February, the Supreme Court recognized the age of 65 as the maximum age that people are physically fit to work.
Some critics say that extending the retirement age could hamper youth employment at a time when South Korea is struggling to create jobs, especially for young people.
The unemployment rate for young adults -- those aged between 15 and 29 -- stood at 7.2 percent in August, much higher than the headline jobless rate of 3 percent, according to Statistics Korea.
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