Korea’s Slow Boiling Demographic Crisis

Year Total fertility rate Rank Percent Change Date of Information
2003 1.56 193 2003 est.
2004 1.26 218 -19.23% 2004 est.
2005 1.26 214 0.00% 2005 est.
2006 1.27 213 0.79% 2006 est.
2007 1.28 205 0.79% 2007 est.
2008 1.2 216 -6.25% 2008 est.
2009 1.21 217 0.83% 2009 est.


This week on the radio, I talked about the rapidly aging population of Korea and its effects on Korea’s foreign relations. Please see the transcript below.

The above chart is available here; it is based on CIA data available here. ‘Total Fertility Rate’ means an average Korean female’s total number of children in her lifetime. ‘Rank’ indicates where the ROK fits among the 223 states and entities ranked by the CIA in terms of total children per female. Korea has one of the lowest replacement rates in the world. Note that even North Korea’s replacement rate is higher!

You hardly need to a be a political scientist to see the impact of population. Most of the time, people think of overpopulation as the great issue. In the 70s of course, we talked about a ‘population bomb,’ and Charelton Heston told us that Soylent Green is made of people. For the ur-classic in this area, read Malthus (the Norton Critical is superb). But for wealthy countries, the big deal is the opposite – aging and slow depopulation. (For a good introduction to the “Demographic Transition,” try ch. 19 of this.)

For IR the ramifications link directly to national power. Korea has very clear aspirations to great powerdom. It desperately wants to catch up to the weakest, flagging great powers like Japan, Russia or France. And it might; particularly if it can unify successfully sometime soon. But without people this  is simply impossible, and the collapse of Korean fertility portends all sorts of problems, not least of which is the slow loss of ability to climb the G-20 ranks. To see just how bad depopulation can ravage national power, look at Russia, which is literally imploding. Look here, at the chart at the bottom, to compare the ROK’s population trends to its big neighbors.

Dramatic population contraction will halt Korea’s otherwise successful rise the up the G-20 ranks, and provoke a nasty, divisive ‘culture war’-style domestic debate on immigration (somewhere Glenn Beck is smiling). Korea is one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous countries; only about 2% of the resident population is foreign. Immigration here is mostly a work-value and bride-importing affair. Very few (like me) actually reside permanently here.

All this is going to have to change though if Korea really wants to be a great power. Unless Korean women can be dramatically re-incentived (discussed in the transcript) to child-bear, and a lot, Korea will either have to become a multicultural society with sustained immigration (most likely from Southeast Asia), or content itself to stagnation and perhaps even decline. Japan is interesting case here, as it faced exactly the same choice in this generation. It selected decline and cultural integrity over growth and cultural pluralism. Japan’s population growth has ground to a halt; its average age is rising fast; and Russian-style de-population may have already begun (Wiki has a nice entry on this.) This dilemma is Korea’s future too; my guess is that Korea will choose the cultural integrity and decline route like Japan. I don’t think Koreans will be ready for awhile, if ever, to endorse the mass immigration that sustains US superpowerdom.





March 22, 2010


Professor Kelly comes to us each Monday to talk about big issues in Korean foreign affairs. And this week we are going to discuss Korea’s declining birth rate and its impact on Korean foreign policy. Hi, Dr. Kelly. This is not a topic we normally think of when discussing foreign relations.


That’s right, but Korea’s demography is changing so much and so fast, that it is in fact having an unanticipated impact on Korean foreign relations. You may have noticed that last week the government of Cambodia legally prohibited its nationals from marrying Koreans. I have never heard of such a law before, and it made headlines here too.


Yeah, I did see that. I was fairly surprised also. What was that all about? Who bans marriage?


The Cambodian government is worried that Koreans are ‘bride-hunting’ for poor women in Cambodia, and fears that this is a cover for human trafficking. So in this way, we see the rapidly contracting birth rate of native Koreans impacting diplomacy. Most Koreans are aware that the average Korean woman produces around 1.2 children. There is an emerging baby gap.


Right. But so what? If women and families don’t want to have a lot of children, why is that a problem? Why do people call this a crisis?


You said it exactly. The declining birth rate is in fact a marker that Korea is a freer place. Korean women are more in control of their reproductive decisions than before, which is certainly a good thing. However, for fairly obvious reasons, some children are still necessary, if only to be sure that the country still exists in a hundred years. And here is where the low birth rate is a collective or national problem, even if it reflects an individual good. It is a tough dilemma.


So how many children does Korea actually need?


Well, in the study of population, or demography, the traditional figure required to maintain a population over time is 2.2 children per female. This is called the replacement rate. The female must replace both herself, and the males in her society. Her husband obviously cannot have children. So that is two children right there. But other people also do not replace themselves, so the average women must actually have 2.2, not just 2, children. For example, permanently unmarried singles, children who die young, or homosexuals are also not replacing themselves.


I see. So why aren’t Korean women replacing at that rate anymore?


For fairly common reasons connected to modernization. As countries get wealthier and more liberal, women become more empowered. As they do, they delay marriage until later in life, and they have fewer children when they do. Child-bearing of course gets more risky as one ages. This is a pattern we have seen across wealthy countries. Italy too, for example, has a birth rate well-below replacement, and faces a similar slow-boiling demographic crisis.


This sounds like you are blaming women. That seems kind of unfair.


It certainly looks that way, but women by definition carry the greater, biological burden of reproduction. That in itself is unfair, I suppose. But Korea can make it easier for women to raise children. Other countries have experimented with flexible work hours for new mothers, as well as child-care facilities at work, so that woman can stay in the workforce. That last idea is partic-ularly effective, as parents are deeply uncomfortable with physically distant day-care services. New mothers especially want their children nearby. Quality daycare at work boosts birthrates by reducing the difficult trade-off between work and motherhood that is so common in Korea.


Ok. I get it. So what does this have to do with foreign policy?


Well, another way fill the gap of missing Koreans is to import people from other countries and koreanize them. So if you can’t birth more Koreans, then how about asking people to come and join your polity? In other words, immigration. The US, for example, has kept its average national age low basically by importing people. As in Korea, Americans with wealth and education have fewer children, but the ensuing baby gap is filled by immigrants. By contrast Koreans are deeply unsure about immigration. What immigration there has been, is frequently so focused on the birth-rate problem that it is more properly called bride-importing than immigration.


So immigration is probably a big coming issue in Korea foreign policy?


I think so. The treatment of foreign brides in Korea and their multicultural children is clearly growing into a major political issue now. It’s in the newspapers a lot, and the debate on multiculturalism more generally is firing up. My own university, Pusan National, is going to have its first major conference on this in a few months. But obviously immigration raises all sorts of diplomatic questions. Home countries are likely to worry about their immigrants, as Cambodia’s decision last week showed. And immigrants usually keep old ties for at least a few generations. Now, most immigration into Korea comes from Southeast Asia, and immigrant treatment, particularly if there is abuse of foreign brides, is likely to provoke diplomatic tension.


Ok. Well, are there any other effects of Korea’s demography on its foreign policy?


One big one – national power. Strong countries need growing, young populations. Russia today is a good example of the slow erosion of national status if your population implodes. Russia’s population shrinks by 700,000 people a year. You can’t be a great power unless you have the sheer numbers to really compete. Japan has the same problem; its population has been stuck around 130 million for the last 20 years. By contrast the US grows by something like 2% a year. So if Korea really wants to climb the ranks of the G-20 and compete against the likes of Britain, France, and Japan, it needs a young and growing population. This is not the case right now.


So what should we do?


One thing Korea should not do is blame its women. I saw a commercial on Arirang TV the other day telling women that it is their national duty is to have children, not just pursue financial security. Such divisive, male-oriented rhetoric will only provoke unnecessary gender conflict with Korea’s modernized women. Much better would be work rules to ease the work-children trade-off potential mothers dislike so much, especially on-site child-care. Also a major national discussion on immigration would help. Perhaps Koreans would prefer a declining birth rate to serious immigration; Japan does. This will slowly reduce Korea’s G-20 role. But that is price Japan prefers, because it fears immigration will be very culturally disruptive. Koreans may think the same way. We just don’t know Korea’s preference yet, because the issue is so new and the national debate has not really begun.

22 thoughts on “Korea’s Slow Boiling Demographic Crisis

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  2. Also, Korea’s desire to shorten its mandatory military service could further reduce the amount of draftable soldiers. In addition, shortened service affects the military’s overall competency due to the lack of experience. It would need to ramp up its officer recruits.


    • Thanks for the comment. I don’t get much technical commentary, so I appreciate that.

      I didn’t think about that too much. My sense is that the value of conscription is fading. It has been phased out just about everywhere, as you point. Conscripts suffer from quality issues, because they might not want to be there (see Russia). Also, the slow evolution toward ‘netwar’ and ‘transformation’ simply means you need fewer people. Remember that if there is a Korean war, most of the destruction of the KPA will occur through endless allied airstrike sorties. The ROKA will provide the infantry cushion to absorb any KPA ground advance, but large Southern numbers aren’t needed for that, because Korean terrain makes any conflict defensively balanced. So basically, US and Korean airpower is just going to bomb away at KPA armor and C&C until the government collapses, just like in Iraq 91 and Kosovo ’99.

      Try here: http://asiansecurityblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/24/start-admitting-that-the-us-commitment-to-sk-is-weakening/.


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  5. It will be interesting to see how Korean officials handle this slow, but inevitable crisis. I was aware of the population problems facing both Russia and Japan, but did not think about its effect on their positions as world powers. Since Japan does not want to have immigration, does it seem likely that Korea a homogeneous country will follow the same path?

    The radio interview brought this issue to light in a lucid manner. Do Korean parents put any pressure on their offspring to have children? Does the population in general feel that this issue is something that needs to be addressed, or are they too content to be modern and wealthy?


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  7. Although Koreans are becoming more aware of discrimination against immigrants in the workplace and in broader society, I think it would be hard for the government politically to make any decisions that conflict with the idea of ethnic nationhood that is so commonly held as self evident. In Korea, I would say the impulse toward national duty is more natural than cultural openness, and it is one that has been mobilized to garner support for the government since the separation of north and south. Perhaps this explains why a TV commercial urging women to have more babies seemed more viable than one promoting the virtues of a multicultural society. I think it would take a lot of cultural campaigning in the other direction before the government would be able to make any decisions that would allow more immigration. Do you agree with this, or does it seem likely that Korea will be able to open up to more immigration?


    • I think economic need will force an openness to immigration, even if the population is wary of the cultural influx. I think Koreans are learning from Japan’s troubles, and Korea right now already has a foreign population large enough to suggest it is at least willing to experiment with openness. Add in a collapsed fertility rate, and I do think Korea will eventually embrace immigration. But now for another 10-20 years.

      Thanks for reading.


  8. DR Kelly, I am interested in any information about the conference about this topic at your University. Namhee Ngoc-Giao Won. I am a Korean-Vietnamese. I am doing research about this topic. Thank you for your help. namheewon@yahoo.com

    “The treatment of foreign brides in Korea and their multicultural children is clearly growing into a major political issue now……debate on multiculturalism more generally is firing up. My own university, Pusan National, is going to have its first major conference on this in a few months. …. Now, most immigration into Korea comes from Southeast Asia, and immigrant treatment, particularly if there is abuse of foreign brides, is likely to provoke diplomatic tension.


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