South Korea to see population plummet to 1970s levels, government says

FILE PHOTO: A woman holding up her baby is silhouetted against the backdrop of N Seoul Tower, commonly known as Namsan Tower, in Seoul, South Korea, October 2, 2018.   REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

A woman holding up her baby is silhouetted against the backdrop of N Seoul Tower, commonly known as Namsan Tower, in Seoul, South Korea, October 2, 2018.Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters/FileSeoul, South KoreaCNN — 

South Korea, the country with the world’s lowest birth rate, expects it to fall even further in the next two years while its overall population is expected to plummet to levels not seen since the 1970s.

The new data underscores the demographic timebomb that South Korea and other East Asian nations like Japan and Singapore are facing as their societies rapidly age just a few decades after their dramatic industrialization.

South Korea’s total fertility rate, the number of births from a woman in her lifetime, is now expected to drop from 0.78 in 2022 to 0.65 in 2025, according to the government’s Statistics Korea.

In a worst-case scenario, that rate could go as low 0.59 births per woman in 2026, the agency said.

It is expected to gradually come back up to 1.08 in 2072, Statistics Korea said, but that is still far below the 2.1 births per woman needed to maintain a stable population in the absence of immigration.

In comparison, the United States’ fertility rate was expected to be 1.66 births per woman this year, and rise to 1.75 by 2030, according to the Congressional Budget Office, but the US will still see population growth because of immigration.

Many European and other industrialized nations also face aging populations, but the speed and impact of that change is mitigated by immigration. Countries like South Korea, Japan and China, however, have shied away from mass immigration to solve their working age population issues.

With scant immigration, South Korea’s total population is expected to drop from 51.75 million in 2024 to 36.22 million, a level not seen since 1977, according to Statistics Korea.

In a worst-case scenario, South Korea could see a population as low as 30.17 million, the country’s population in 1967, the agency said.

Whichever estimate is used, there’s no question South Korea will be a highly aged country by 2072 as the median age will increase from 44.9 in 2022 to 63.4 in 2072, Statistics Korea said.

It added that the annual number of newborns in the country is expected to drop from 250,000 in 2022 to 160,000 in 2072 – a 65% decrease.

South Korea’s birth rate has been falling since 2015 and the country recorded more deaths than births for the first time in 2020, a trend that has continued since.

Similar demographic declines are being seen in several other Asian countries including Japan and China, raising concerns there will be too few people of working age to support the ballooning elderly population.

Experts say the reasons for these demographic shifts across the region include demanding work cultures, stagnating wages, rising costs of living, changing attitudes toward marriage and gender equality, and rising disillusionment among younger generations.

Meanwhile, North Korea is also hinting at population worries.

Speaking to a national conference of mothers in Pyongyang earlier this month, leader Kim Jong Un tasked the country’s women with “stopping the declining birth rate,” asking them to “give birth to many children,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Doing so exhibits patriotism, Kim said, and “our cause of building a powerful socialist country can be hastened faster.”

The United Nations Population Fund estimates North Korea’s fertility rate for 2023 at 1.8 births per woman.

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