In the 1960s, the average South Korean woman gave birth to six children during her lifetime. Forty years later, South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world-slightly more than one child per woman.
The sharp decline in fertility threatens the social harmony and "sustainable development of Korean society." Concern over the "national crisis of super-low fertility" has prompted calls for political and cultural changes from unexpected quarters.
"Crisis" is not too strong a word. Its low fertility rate means that South Korea will soon become an aged nation. Within 25 years, Korea will go from 7 percent of its population being over 65 to 20 percent. In this respect, it will become much like its neighbor and rival Japan-a homogeneous society whose low birthrates threaten its survival.
Along the way, South Korea's export-driven prosperity will fall prey to its demographics. As the number of working-age people declines, more and more of its economy will go to supporting its aging population. Currently, there are seven working-age people for every retiree. Within 10 years, that number will be reduced to four and a half. By the middle of this century, the ratio will be close to one-to-one-simply not sustainable.
After years of encouraging families to have only one child, the government has done an about-face. It established a "Low Fertility Rate and Aging Society Commission" under the direct control of the president.
But as Choi Seon-jeong realizes, government policies aren't enough. He notes that attitudes "towards marriage and having children has changed a lot among the younger generation. They think more highly of relationships with their partners and are less likely to depend for fulfillment on their children."
Choi called on "religious groups . . . to advocate respect for life, abortion prevention and positive values on marriage and parenthood, [and urge] the younger generation to form families and have children."
This is good advice for any society. What makes it extraordinary is that Choi is the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea!
Commenting on the irony, Choi says that "as the needs of Korean society have changed" his federation's goals have changed. They are now promoting "child-bearing and child-rearing."
"Needs of society," promoting child-bearing and child-rearing, respect for life? You won't hear those words from American Planned Parenthood officials. Their sole concern is personal autonomy-the "right to choose" is so sacrosanct that even talking about respect for life is seen as a threat to individual autonomy, and talking about the birth dearth is depicted as an attack on the freedom of women.
What's happening, you see here, is that the Koreans are recognizing what Phillip Johnson, the great scholar, calls the postmodern impasse. In today's "I'll do it my way" relativistic society, with no over-arching moral truth, when we get what we want-that is, choice and self-gratification-we discover we can't live with it.
Fewer kids mean that we become extinct. And their worldview, they discover, just doesn't work.
The Koreans have come to their senses. Maybe they can get their American counterparts to face reality as well.