(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on March 1)

South Korea's fertility rate, or the average number of births a woman is expected to give in her lifetime, fell to the lowest ever of 0.72 last year. It has continued downhill from 1.24 in 2015. The number of babies born in the country dropped 7.7 percent from 2022 to the fewest ever of around 230,000, according to Statistics Korea. The dwindling fertility rate, which has been getting worldwide attention, has several reasons. The first is the number of marriages, which has plunged from its peak of about 435,000 in 1996 to around 191,700 in 2022. In the past, most Koreans believed getting married was something you do when you reach a certain age, but like in most other parts of the world, that has changed. In a poll of over 7,700 students in elementary, middle and high schools conducted last year by the state-funded National Youth Policy Institute, 39.5 percent of the boys and 18.8 percent of the girls said marriage was a must, down from 82.3 percent of the boys and 63.1 percent of the girls in 2012. Only 1 9.8 percent of the respondents agreed to the statement "One should have children once you get married." Sixty-one percent agreed that "One can have children without getting married." Eight out of 10 believed "unmarried couples can live together," while 52 percent agreed that "same-sex marriages should be legalized." Other polls have shown that Koreans in their 20s and 30s cite financial reasons such as unaffordable homes for not getting married, or the weighty cost of raising and educating children for not having them. Prices of homes in Seoul have indeed soared over the past decade, and the amount of money parents spend on children's lessons outside schools has been rising in tandem with the ever-growing shadow education industry. The Korea Development Institute said in a recent report that the country's diminishing birth rate is related to the scarcity of jobs at large companies where more employees, compared to small businesses, can actually exercise their legal right to take maternity and childcare leav e. Citing OECD figures, the state-funded think tank said that large firms, or those with 250 or more employees, provided only 14 percent of jobs in Korea, compared to over 40 percent in Germany, the UK, France, and 58 percent in the US. Wages at small firms were also much smaller than that of large firms. The KDI also divided universities into five tiers based on the Suneung scores required for entry, and found that graduates of schools in the top 20 percent tier earned up to 50 percent more compared to those of the bottom 20 percent by the time they were 40-44 years of age. Hence, the rat race to enter good colleges. There is no quick fix to the problem of people not having babies. One might think the government or philanthropists should join hands to pay parents 100 million won per childbirth -- which means 10 trillion won for 100,000 babies. But such policy on a national level is not viable as it would raise questions like until when, and what about childbirths after that, not to mention the risk of baby -for-money crimes. The only workable solution, which can take decades to produce visible progress, is to alleviate the concentration of everything -- manpower, medical and educational infrastructure -- in the greater Seoul area. Residents of the metropolis are too exhausted from the congestion and competition throughout their own lives to think about having kids. Young people leave small towns for education and jobs. Retired people don't move to the provinces mainly for medical reasons. In addition to the planned increase of student quotas in mostly medical schools outside Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, the government should drastically increase investment in national universities across the country and offer huge incentives to reputable private universities that move to the provinces. Local governments should learn from the example of Gangjin in South Jeolla Province, which saw its fertility rate jump 60 percent in a year to 1.47 thanks to its policy of paying a monthly childcare allowance of 600,00 0 won per child for seven years by cutting all less important expenditure. Source: Yonhap News Agency