Dear The next president-elect of the Republic of South Korea,
Dear Mr./Ms. President-elect,
Whoever you are, I congratulate you in advance.
Several months from now, when you will be inaugurated as the head of state of the Republic of Korea(South Korea), the nation will be facing numerous challenges that require your prompt intervention, like monetary compensation for the millions of self-employed population who were especially hit hard by the pandemic, ever-rising housing prices, polarising domestic political landscape, tension between the LGBTQ+ community and the Christian community over the anti-discrimination bill, an alarming rate of increase in household debt and many more - not to mention the environmental threat posed by climate change, of course.
At the very same time, you will also notice that there are lots of opportunities that South Korea could seize, namely the potential role she could play with the United States (and her allies) in containing China’s intrusively expansionist agenda and circumstances where South Korea could exert her soft-power that’s been garnered by the successes of South Korea’s cultural exports such as BTS, <Parasite> and <Squid Game>.
However, with this letter, I would like to exhort you to realise that there is no other issue that requires more attention from you than the miserably low birth rate of our nation. The situation on the matter has become so grave, that a low birth rate is ‘the’ existential threat to this country - both figuratively and literally.
Relatively speaking, South Korea is quite a nice place to live, at least for now. We are the tenth biggest economy in the world and citizens enjoy high levels of safety and freedom, despite the presence of unresolved military tension between us and our neighbour up north. However, this level of prosperity would be hard to maintain in near future, if today’s grim outlook of population growth is accurate.
The birth rate in South Korea was already well behind the replacement fertility rate (a rate of birth required to maintain the current population) of 2.1 (children per woman), but for the last five years, it has been declining consistently. For the past two consecutive years, South Korea’s birth rate has been, without exaggeration, the lowest in the world. Some experts estimate that the rate would be even lower this year - a stunning 0.7. If this trend is to continue, the total population of South Korea will decline below 50 million before the first half of this century, putting 97% of the nation’s municipal districts at risk of disappearing. About 45 years from now, the total population will decline below 40 million. 50 years later from then, there would only be 15 million people left - which is even less than the current population of Seoul, the nation’s capital, and Gyeonggi-do, the outskirt region of the capital, combined (25 million).
A robust military power is integral to defending a nation, especially for South Korea that is neighbouring with some of the most authoritative regimes in the world like North Korea and China. North Korea’s continuous cyber-terrorist attacks and rapid development in China’s computer technologies put South Korea’s military equipment in a vulnerable position, no matter how technologically advanced they are. This leaves the traditional understanding of war, that manpower is the bedrock of any military, relevant. Every unborn child is a potential commander of a warship, a hacker to infiltrate into enemy’s security system, and a diplomat who could persuade and negotiate with members of the international community to bring extra aids for soldiers and civilians. That is just how much jeopardising it is for South Korea to have too few people.
The existential threat posed by the low birth rate is not only military but also economic. South Korea’s population will not only decline but grow old. South Korea’s elderly poverty rate is currently three times the OECD average, which makes it unlikely that the nation will shrink the amount of government expenditure spent on the provision of elderly welfare. With a declining population, the only way to meaningfully make up for the increasing demands of elderly welfare is by raising taxes. The government will have to tease out every collectable penny from every taxable part of the economy, through imposing higher income tax, higher capital gains tax, or higher corporate tax. Selling off parts of nation’s territory to avoid default would sound less outrageous time after time, since no one occupies there anyway, after all. How could there be sustained investment and economic growth in such a country? Brain-drain will soon follow suit as well. Most of the talented, competent people, except for a few exceptionally patriotic ones, will decide to emigrate to countries where they could dream of a better future. Their decision is regrettable, but understandable, too.
So, Mr./Ms. President-elect, I sincerely urge you to treat every policy as a childbirth policy. This mindset is what has been missing in our country’s decision-makers for far too long. From a military/foreign policy standpoint, who would have children in a country where people are always mindful of the imminent threat from a different country? From an economic standpoint, what sort of parents would have their children suffer, both emotionally and economically, in an economy where even graduates of the most prestigious university of the country have to compete to become a janitor?* Being mindful of women’s rights issues, who would want to have daughters in a country where 74 women, minors included, were threatened to film themselves in a sexualised way (to say the least) by vulgar, sub-human animals** and those who use maternity leave are coerced to leave their workplace by no one other than the chairman of the company himself?*** Sorting out problems of all sectors of South Korean society is the only way to increase the birth rate.
*, **, ***: all those incidents did happen in South Korea.
In the 1950s, South Korea was a nation where people were so poor, that children ran after American soldiers, begging for a bar of chocolate. Now, as we truly begin to enjoy the heyday of our nation, we already see thunderstorms on their way from the horizon. This leaves many South Korean citizens, including me, often paralysed with a sense of hopelessness. We need a president who will ‘rage against the dying of the light’.
Coincidentally, the latest projections tell us that South Korea’s population will peak in 2027, the very year when your presidential term ends. I sincerely hope that you could turn the tide before it’s too late and make 2027 the year when South Korea’s birth rate started bouncing back.
Geun Tak Yoo
Geun Tak Yoo