By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- Choi Sang-min, the father of a nine-month-old baby living in the southwestern city of Gwangju, was surprised when his boss recently just signed off without ado on papers he had submitted requesting parental leave.
"It was not what I'd expected. Because I heard that when a male colleague applied for parental leave a few years back, he was called in to the boss' office 'to have a word' with him," the 37-year-old college employee said.
"All I did was go and tell him, do the paperwork. That was it," he said.
It was not much different for Yoon Hyo-suk, a father of two who decided to take a year off from work at an advertising agency in Seoul in July 2019 to "take the baton" from his wife and look after the kids, who were aged five and two at the time.
"Some people, of course, tried to talk me out of it, but there was no more gossiping about why a man was taking leave to take care of his kids," Yoon said.
"I realized there were so many other men like me taking leave and coming back the next year. It has become almost like a routine," he said.
Fathers choosing to be away from work for child-rearing are no longer considered a peculiar breed in South Korea. Their decisions are fairly easily accepted at workplaces and the cases are getting more common, backed by the growing positive view of fathers actively engaging in parenting, alongside expanded government benefits.
Data by the Ministry of Employment and Labor show that 27,423 working fathers, excluding those in the public service and education, took long-term parental leave in 2020, up 23 percent from the previous year.
Fathers accounted for 24.5 percent of the total number of parents on parental leave, a big jump from the 2017 figure of 13.4 percent, apparently driven by the surge in child-rearing demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The younger the age group you belong to, you don't perceive raising a child as husbands helping their wives, but as a shared duty that you do together," Kwon Me-kyung, a research fellow at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education (KICCE), said.
A recent study by the KICCE found that 18.6 percent of 1,000 married couples with one child or more said that the father in their household either has taken parental leave or is planning to do so.
The percentage was higher among those in their 20s with 30.4 percent, 23.6 percent for people in their 30s and 14.2 percent for the group in their 40s.
For Choi, the decision was half voluntary and half inevitable.
"My wife is having a hard time taking care of the baby alone and we're a single-income family," he said. "But I want to be as progressive as possible in doing my part in raising our child. So I've been saving up to prepare for the time I'll be away."
South Korea first introduced the parental leave in 1987 for mothers only with a child under age 1, before it was opened to fathers from 1995. But the allowance programs had not been properly established until the early to mid 2000s.
In an effort to encourage more people to take parental leave, the government introduced a "bonus system" in 2014 of giving a larger monthly allowance if the second parent of a family takes time off after their spouse uses it up.
The second parent on parental leave can receive up to 2.5 million (US$2,260) in monthly allowances in the first three months, while the maximum allowance for those on such leave for the first time in their families is 1.5 million won per month.
Since February last year, a mother and father are allowed to take leave together. Starting next year, the upper limit of the first three-month allowances will increase to 3 million won per parent.
"The focus of policy support has moved on from helping women have more children and helping them keep their work-home balance, to providing as much benefits to fathers so as to encourage them to participate in child-rearing," Jung Jae-hoon, a social welfare studies professor at Seoul Women's University, said.
Industry circles have jumped on the bandwagon, with large enterprises taking the lead in encouraging male employees to take parental leave. Retail giant Lotte Group has made it compulsory for male employees with children to take time off.
"We cannot say that fathers taking parental leave have become a general trend, but we're certainly going in that direction," Jung said.
Under the current system, parents working in the private sector, with one child or more under the age of 9 or below elementary school third grade, are eligible for parental leave for up to 12 months.
There were only 819 men who took parental leave in 2010. It went up steadily to 3,420 in 2014, 7,616 in 2016 and 17,665 in 2018, according to the labor ministry.
The COVID-19 outbreak has added to the growth. The number of fathers who applied for the parental leave bonus surged 52.8 percent to 7,338 in the first half of 2020, ministry data showed.
Kwon of the KICCE noted that the government's latest blueprint for child-rearing support underlines "quality of life."
"I think there is a realization that the value and joy of raising children have been overlooked. So what the authorities are trying to do is to enable working parents to spend more time with kids without having to worry about the financial shortfall," she said.
Yoon, the father of two from Seoul, recalled that being with his kids during the period of leave as "one full hectic and miserable year," but said it was worth the time.
"I think I might use the remaining one year before it's too late. I've become better at knowing what they want, what they like and don't like, and getting closer to them," he said. "That's not something that you can learn from someone or anywhere else."
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