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Society

South Korean fertility rate drops to new worldwide low

More young couples choose not to have children as cost of living soars

A mother and child stroll through the Hongdae area of Seoul. South Korea's fertility rate, already the world's lowest, continues to drop.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's fertility rate fell to 0.92 in 2019, government statistics published Wednesday show, reaching a new low for the country and the world.

The nation's total fertility rate, which measures the average number of children a woman is expected to bear over her life, sunk to 0.98 in 2018 as it dipped below 1 for the first time.

President Moon Jae-in's administration has prioritized fighting this demographic decline, but the effort has yet to stop a decrease in fertility that dates to the 1980s.

"Women are reluctant to have children," said Ha Joon-kyung, a professor at Hanyang University, citing factors such as high education costs and home prices as well as difficulty in returning to work after childbirth.

South Korea's low fertility stands out even compared with aging Japan, which reported a rate of 1.42 in 2018. Both fall below the 2017 average of 1.65 for members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The number of births in South Korea dropped 7.3% last year to 303,100, according to Statistics Korea, a government agency. Births per 1,000 women sank 13% among those in their 20s and 6% for those in their early 30s.

Mothers looking to resume their careers after childbirth often must hire babysitters if they cannot rely on parents for support. This strains the family budget, as does the later expense of preparing children for highly competitive university entrance exams in a country where such outcomes can determine a person's career path.

Meanwhile, housing prices are soaring. The average price of a Seoul condominium has risen by half over three years to about 900 million won ($740,000).

South Korea's economic slowdown intensifies the pressure on families, Ha said.

"Income among young people isn't growing as fast as it is for those in their late 40s and 50s," the professor said. In important manufacturing industries like autos and shipbuilding, "people in their child-rearing years of the 30s and 40s have been hit with layoffs, and this also has an impact on the fertility rate."

Unemployment among those ages 15-29 runs about double the overall jobless rate.

The Moon administration announced a "road map" for action against low fertility in 2018, including greater financial aid for raising children and free health care until primary school. But the plan "hasn't shown much success," Ha said.

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