South Korea’s Fertility Collapse

Recent reports indicate that South Korea’s Total Fertility (TFR) rate has dropped to 0.7 children per woman, a staggeringly low figure. Although below-replacement fertility is now found in all high-income countries except Israel, all others have significantly higher birth rates than South Korea. According to the United Nations Population Fund (2023), no other sovereign state has a TFR below 1.0. Other sizable countries with very low rates, such as Italy, Spain, Ukraine, China, and Japan, report TFR numbers of 1.2 and 1.3.

The fertility collapse in South Korea is generating a lot of attention, with many observers warning of a pending disaster. Ross Douthat, writing in the New York Times, claims that:

There will be a choice between accepting steep economic decline as the age pyramid rapidly inverts and trying to welcome immigrants on a scale far beyond the numbers that are already destabilizing Western Europe. There will be inevitable abandonment of the elderly, vast ghost towns and ruined high rises and emigration by young people who see no future as custodians of a retirement community. And at some point there will quite possibly be an invasion from North Korea (current fertility rate: 1.8), if its southern neighbor struggles to keep a capable army in the field.

Such warnings may be overblown. The possibility of a demographic-led invasion, moreover, is  complicated by North Korea’s own low and declining fertility, which reportedly brought Kim Jong Un to tears earlier this week. It must also be mentioned that not everyone regards demographic collapse as a negative phenomenon. Many environmentalists welcome it, viewing the Earth as grotesquely overpopulated as it is.

The South Korean government, however, is deeply very concerned about its birth dearth. It now offers significant subsidies for childbearing, including $10,500 in cash. At least one city has set up its own match-making services. According to a recent NPR story, “South Korea has moved aggressively to stem the decline in births, and its actions provide a model for steps other governments can take to address the issue.” Such framing, however, is little short of bizarre; as South Korea’s demographic initiatives are clearly failing, they can hardly be regarded as a “model.” Other countries, most notably Czechia, have significantly increased their fertility rates and thus provide much better models. But it remains doubtful that South Korea could successfully follow their lead.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine some of the explanations offered for South Korea’s fertility collapse. For today, we will simply look at birth-rate variation across the country, looking for geographical patterns that might help illuminate the issue.

We begin with a simple map of South Korean TFR by province and other first-order administrative divisions. As can be seen, fertility rates are extremely low across the country. The only area with a TFR above 1.0 is Sejong (officially, Sejong Special Self-Governing City). Sejong was established in 2007 as a planned and spacious city that will eventually replace Seoul as South Korea’s capital. Most governmental ministries have already relocated there. As the Wikipedia article on the city notes, “Sejong uses its new development to market itself as an alternative to Seoul, offering luxury living at a fraction of the cost.” It is not surprising that uncrowded and relatively inexpensive Sejong would have a much higher fertility rate than Seoul – 1.12 as opposed to 0.59 –  as the density and costliness of Seoul are often offered as explanations for its extraordinarily low birthrate.

Otherwise, it is difficult to find any specific factors that might contribute to South Korea’s fertility variation from province to province, which are not, in any event, particularly pronounced. Per capita GDP, for example, does not appear to be significant, as can be seen in the paired map posted below.

Province-level mapping, however, offers a crude and cloudy window into population dynamics. Unfortunately, the only detailed fertility map of South Korea that I have been able to find dates to 2010, when its TFR was a 1.2. As can be seen, several parts of the country at the time had fertility rates over 1.8. Comparting this map to one of population density reveals some interesting but not unexpected patterns. To clarify one of them, I have outlined the areas with relatively high fertility (over 1.8) at the time on a dot-map of population density. As can be seen, all these higher-fertility zones were characterized by low or moderately low population density, at least by South Korean standards. Some areas of very low population density, however, also reported extremely low birth rates. Also unsurprisingly, major cities in 2010 were also characterized by extremely low fertility. An interesting partial exception, however, was the extraordinarily economically productive city of Ulsan in the southeast. From 2010 to 2015, Ulsan’s TFR rose from 1.37 to 1.49; since then, however, it has plummeted to 0.85 (2022).

Although off-topic, the source of Ulsan’s economic productivity is heavy industry. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the city:

Ulsan is the industrial powerhouse of South Korea, forming the heart of the Ulsan Industrial District. It has the world’s largest automobile assembly plant, operated by the Hyundai Motor company the world’s largest shipyard, operated by Hyundai Heavy Industries and the world’s  third largest oil refinery, owned by SK energy. In 2020, Ulsan had a GDP per capita  of $65,352, the highest of any region in South Korea.

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