It is incredible how rare babies are becoming in the Republic of Korea. In 2018, the country’s total fertility rate (the number of babies a woman will have on average in her lifetime) crashed down to 0.98. That’s far below the rate of 2.1 considered necessary for a stable population and is about the lowest in the world (Taiwan and Singapore might be other contenders for that title). This lack of babies is not a new problem and the effects have already begun to be felt: in 2016 the working-aged population (those aged 15-64) began to decline. The national statistics agency predicted last year that the population as a whole would peak in 2028, and perhaps as early as 2023.
However, it appears from the 2019 figures that these estimates were probably far too sanguine. Early estimates for last year suggest that the total fertility rate continued to decline. Up until November 2019, South Korea posted 44 consecutive months of falling year-on-year birth and overall births were down over seven per cent from just the year before. November 2019 was also the first month in which South Korea’s population declined naturally (more deaths than births) since records began being tracked in 1981. All of this means that Statistics Korea has brought forward its estimates: the South Korean population probably peaked in 2019 (around 51.5 million people) and will start to decline this year. Similarly, the continued lack of births means that the population is rapidly ageing. Again though, the expected ageing rate will probably have to be revised in light of the continued low fertility rate.
All of this means that South Korea has some real issues to face. First, its population has a direct bearing on its ability to defend itself. With fewer young males to serve in its largely conscription-based military, the government is preparing to reduce the size of its armed forces by a sixth within three years (to 500,000 troops). Technology is going to be relied upon to make good this shortfall, but one wonders how much that can do so, especially if further cuts are necessary.
The other, related, concern that South Korea has due to its demographic decline is economic. The OECD has already estimated that the decline in the working age population has begun to reduce the country’s economic growth potential. Furthermore, an ageing labour market is likely to be less innovative and dynamic. At the same time, future pension and healthcare costs will continue to rise while the number of workers to pay for those increased costs decline.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.