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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 12)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:05 January 12, 2023

What's important?
: Demographic policies should take priority

Korea, where it's getting harder to see babies and older adults are everywhere, has the most severe demographic problem worldwide. So, the nation has been running the Presidential Committee on Aging Society and Population Policy since 2003. However, the committee head offered to resign Tuesday.

"I'd like to step down for causing concern to the president," Na Kyung-won told the presidential chief of staff. President Yoon Suk Yeol appointed the former lawmaker to the post last October. However, Na has lately been at odds with the presidential office over policy.

At the center of the controversy was Na's proposal last week to introduce a "Hungarian model" to solve the low fertility rate.

Under the program, the government allows couples to get a 40 million won (US$32,000) loan when married. After the birth of their third child, the government writes off the loan.

On Monday, the presidential office openly expressed displeasure with Na's idea. "The committee's chairperson one-sidedly announced policies without prior consultation with the presidential office," one of Yoon's aides said. "It runs squarely counter to the government's stance." Yet there were no official briefings on the proposal's problems and how it differed from the government's policy.

Na, a former four-term lawmaker, appears set to run for the top job of the ruling People Power Party (PPP). However, the president wants one of his confidants to lead the party and name candidates for the parliamentary elections next year. The bickering reveals backward Korean politics where the president aims to control the governing party, the lack of teamwork within the ruling camp in running state affairs and a politician's greed by hedging two positions until the last possible moment.

Policies are gone, and only politics are left in the governing camp.

Most deplorable is the shortsightedness of political leaders. Taking the top party post and even the parliamentary majority is nothing compared to the crucial issue of keeping Korea from falling to a third-rate country due to its dwindling population. Do these politicians still believe Korean people's tribal instincts will naturally restore the birthrate? The ruling elite should have considered this matter a life-and-death issue at least two decades ago. However, all they did then was launch the blue-ribbon panel, hoping it would automatically solve the problem.

The outlook under the incumbent administration cannot be bright, either. In September, President Yoon pointed out that previous governments have spent 280 trillion won ($225 billion) on the problem over the past 16 years, but the total fertility rate plunged to hit a worrying low of 0.75, half of the OECD's average. He made a good point. However, Yoon has since done or said nothing about what to do ― except that his government would tackle it "based on data and science." In contrast, last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told his cabinet to do everything to recover the country's birthrate, which is higher than Korea's.

Yoon must know Korea now is not a country where young people want to get married, have and raise children.

Maternity hospitals are disappearing, pediatrician numbers are dwindling, cases of child abuse in daycare centers continue to occur and fierce competition grips everyday life in schools and workplaces. More Korean women work before having babies, but the wage gap between men and women here is one of the widest in the world. Still, Yoon, who was elected thanks partly to young anti-feminists, is set to do away with the gender equality ministry to "better protect women's rights." Yoon, who recently witnessed a six-month-old baby who was in daycare, said, "Well, even a six-month-old can walk," astonishing parents.

If the government seeks to solve the issue with money, even a 1 million won subsidy will not suffice. It must change the culture, education, and society, shifting emphasis from efficiency, competition and growth to community value, cooperation and fair distribution.

The Yoon administration goes the opposite way. All this explains why people have little expectation for the government's announcement of measures to raise the birthrate that will be delivered in July.
(END)

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