Can childbirth subsidies solve South Korea’s low birth rate?

A childcare facility recruiting new children. Photo provided by Eunjeong Lee.

Korea's fertility rate dropped to 0.72 children per woman's lifetime in 2023, marking a historical low for both the country and the world.

The plunge from six children per woman in 1960 to the current status is considered the most rapid fertility decline in human history. If the decline continues, South Korea’s population will be halved to 26.8 million by 2100, which may result in an irreversible decline in productivity and economic growth.

For about two decades, the South Korean government has attempted to stimulate births through incentives and subsidies. In 2024, the government increased the amount of birth subsidies to KRW 2 million (USD 1,500) for the firstborn and KRW 3 million (USD 2,250) for every additional birth. For the first two years of a baby’s life, the parents will receive 18 million won (USD 13,000) in subsidies and a KRW 100,000 (USD 75) monthly allowance until the child reaches the age of seven.  

Despite policy intervention, the trend has not been altered, and the country’s conservatives have started blaming feminism for the low fertility rate in recent years.

The current President, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People's Power Party, framed himself as an anti-feminist during his 2021 campaign. He claimed that feminism prevented healthy relationships between men and women and that it created an environment “ill-suited for having and raising children” and vowed to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Eventually, Yoon won the presidency with 59 percent of the votes from men aged 18 to 29, while only 34 percent of women from the same age group endorsed the anti-feminist politician. However, Yoon has failed to reverse the trend of population decline. South Korea's fertility rate plummeted further from 0.81 in 2021 and 0.78 in 2022 to a record-low 0.72 in 2023. 

The social cost of child-rearing

If the government wants to alter the declining birthrate, it might have to raise the subsidy to KRW 100 million (approximately USD 74,000) per childbirth. As shown in a recent poll conducted by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission, 62.58 percent of the respondents said they would be motivated to actively have children if the government handed out 100 million won for subsidy per childbirth.  The survey results and discussions in the comment section reflect the perception that the “cost” of having a child in South Korea is too high. Here are two comments from the poll's discussion thread:

아이를 낳을 생각이 있는데 1억을 주니 좋다가 되어야 하는데 , 1억을 주니 확신은 없으나 낳자 or 1억 때문에 아이를 낳는다는 부모로서 차원이 다른 문제입니다. 후자로 아이를 낳게 될경우 아동방임이나 학대 또는 시도지원 정신과 지원 등 부차적인 세수가 더 나갈거 같아 현금 일시급 지금은 세수 낭비라고 생각합니다.

It should be ‘I want to have a child, and 100 million is good to have’, but it’s a whole different story if you are saying ‘They are giving out 100 million, so I will have a child even though I’m not so sure about it’ or ‘I will have a child because they are giving out 100 million’. If the latter becomes a reality, I think that it could lead to additional welfare spending due to neglect, abuse, and mental health support. This is why I believe a lump-sum cash handout is a waste of tax revenue.

주변에 자녀 양육하시는 분들의 공통된 의견은 이것입니다. “아이를 낳아 기르는 것이 살아가는데 있어서 장점이 되야 하는데 오히려 패널티가 된다” “1자녀가 2자녀 보다 2자녀가 3자녀보다 학원도 더 많이 보낼 수 있고 맛있는 옷, 좋은 옷도 사줄 수 있는데 누가 더 낳겠냐?”

여기 글 남기시는 분들 중 딩크족이나 비혼자들은 각종 혜택 부여에 대하여 반대를 하던데~ 이것 국가적 문제임으로 개인적인 이익만 생각하여서는 안 됩니다. 기혼자들이 낳은 자녀들이 성장하여 제공하는 각종 서비스를 …무임승차하는 태도도 아주 나쁘다고 생각이 됩니다. 저출산 정책은 간단합니다. “아이를 많이 낳아 기를 수록 이득이 되게!”

The common opinion of those around me who are raising children is: ‘Having children and raising them should be an advantage in life, but it actually becomes a penalty’.

Having fewer children to take care of — one compared to two, and two compared to three — allows you to send them to more Hakwons (private educational institutions and extracurriculars), buy them nicer clothes and food. So who in the world would want to have more children?Among those who leave comments here, DINK (dual income with no kids) and unmarried people are opposed to the subsidies and benefits. Since this is a national issue, we should not only think about personal interests. This attitude of free riding on services provided by the children of married couples is also very bad. A policy solution to the low birth rate issue is simple: “Make it more beneficial to have more children!” 

Currently, the social cost of child-rearing in South Korea is mostly taken up by women. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 World Gender Gap Report, Korean fathers (with children aged six or below) take up about 18 percent of household caring responsibilities, while mothers take up more than 67 percent. The gender gap in non-paid caring work is the biggest among developed countries.

In a group interview with female university students about Korea's low birth rate, one interviewee responded that the biggest reason for low birth rates is:

경력 단절이라고 생각한다. 육아휴직 후 복직해도 안정적으로 일할 수 있는 환경이 마련돼야 하는데 그렇지 못하다. 나는 이제 막 일을 시작한 사회초년생이다. 추후 아이를 낳고도 경력을 쌓고 싶다. 그런데 우리나라에선 아이를 낳았다고 하면 ‘이제 회식 못 가겠네’ ‘술 못 마시겠네’ ‘애 보러 가야 하니까 야근 못 하겠네’란 식으로 눈치를 준다. 갑자기 대기 발령을 내리거나 일을 그만두게끔 유도하기도 한다.

I think it's career interruption. Even if you return to work after parental leave, the environment should be stable enough to work in, but it often isn't. I am just starting my career as a newcomer to the workforce. I want to continue building my career even after having children. But in Korea, if you have a child, people often give you hints like ‘Now you won't be able to attend company dinners,’ ‘You won't be able to drink,’ or ‘You can't work overtime because you have to go take care of the child.’ They may even suddenly put you on standby or pressure you to quit your job.

Rising feminism and sexism

At the same time, Korean women have become increasingly independent. The decrease in birth rates during the 1980s and 1990s coincided with a rise in women's college enrollment rates, which have surpassed those of men since 2008. While women are becoming more competitive in the labour market, they cannot enjoy equal opportunities due to the presumption of their gender role: South Korean women still earn 31 percent less than men as of 2022, and their employment rate is also 18.8 percent lower than men. 

Even worse, married women in Korea have to endure the double burden of their day job and household work, and many are forced out of their work due to childbirth and the presumption of women's responsibility in childcare. Moreover, women are more likely to sacrifice for the family because of the gender income gap. Hawon Jung, an independent journalist, highlighted women’s discontent with the presumption of women's role in managing domestic duties:

In fact, in 2022, only 28 percent of women had a positive perception toward marriage, compared to 43.8 percent of their male counterparts. Moreover, 65 percent of women do not want a child after marriage, while only 43.3 percent of men don’t. 

Instead of addressing the problem of gender inequity, policymakers, especially right-wing politicians, reinforced women’s role in childrearing. A most controversial example is the launch of a new government program, “Mapping births in Korea (대한민국 출산지도)”, that triggered outrage by women who felt that statistics highlighted by the map, including the number of fertile women by region, depicted women as childbearing machines or walking wombs who were solely responsible for solving the demographic crisis.

The lack of gender sensitivity reflected in the map triggered a feminist hashtag movement against the government’s rhetoric:  #저출산_대신_저출생_쓰자  (#it’s not childbearing, it’s birth), to shift the usage of the term from 저출산 low child-bearing to 저출생 low birth. In December 2016, after less than six months, the government shut down the program website.

Around the same time emerged a new radical feminist movement 4Bs or 4NOs (4비非) — meaning no sex, no dating, no marriage, and no childrearing with men. Korean is a romanised language and the word “비” is pronounced as “B” and it means “No”.

YouTuber Baeck Ha-na, a vocal advocate for the 4Bs campaign, said in an interview with News Trust in 2020:

The more I dated, the more I felt like I was losing a part of myself… When you get married, it is like you are working for two families and you are made to feel like a baby machine.

The idea originated from a novel, “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982″ written by Cho Nam-Joo in 2016. The book describes the life and psychology of an ordinary mother living in the Korean patriarchal and misogynistic culture.

Coincidentally, a survey conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2015 and publicised in 2016 indicated that almost 10 percent (9.6) of women white-collar workers had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and most did not file complaints or report to authorities. 

The discontent against gender and sexual violence eventually exploded through the #MeToo movement. The Korean #MeToo campaign was kickstarted by Seo Ji-hyun, an incumbent prosecutor who, in January 2018, exposed her experience of sexual violence within the workplace. More personal stories of workplace sexual harassment emerged in a variety of industries, from the entertainment sector to public services, such as the education sector. Two months later, on March 22, 2018, a marathon protest occurred in downtown Seoul, with more than 200 women sharing their personal stories of sexual assault and harassment:

Then another mass protest took place in May 2018 against the country’s so-called spycam porn epidemic

Rounds of mobilisations against gender and sexual violence helped build momentum for the 4 NOs campaign.

Backlash from antifeminist men

The feminist protests triggered a severe backlash from the Korean manosphere (male-dominated communities notoriously known for spreading antifeminist and misogynist views such as Ilbe). Paradoxically, academic research suggests that antifeminist Korean men, engrossed in the idea of male victimhood, have negative attitudes toward marriage. They perceive marriage and family as institutions favouring women, trapping men into the protector role and causing them to lose their economic and personal freedom. This attitude was reflected in the degrading term “mam chung” (맘충), which literally translates to “mother worm”, which originated in the online community DC inside.

Widespread antifeminist discourses have led to a gradual retreat of gender issues in mainstream politics. This trend was evident in this year's general elections, where only three of the major parties included gender equity among their top agendas. The two main parties, which took 94.3 percent of the seats, reflected a significant reduction in gender equity-related policies compared to the previous election, often grouping various gender policies under the slogan of “Solving the low birth rate problem”. Meanwhile, the gender war continues, with both men and women feeling victimised by institutions of family and marriage, as well as by the financial burdens placed on younger generations in a declining economic future. In this context, the Korean birth rate problem is caught in a gridlock. 

In an interview with Chosun Ilbo, a 28-year-old man, Park Saehoon, explained why some men are also choosing to postpone or forego marriage and having children:

사회 통념상 남자가 여자보다 두 배 이상 결혼 자금을 대야 할 텐데, 치솟은 집값을 감당할 수 없어 결혼은 30대 중반 이후로 미루려 한다.

According to social norms, men are expected to contribute more than twice as much to marriage expenses as women, but I can't afford to keep up with the soaring housing prices, so I will probably postpone marriage to after mid-thirties.

Against such a background, gender law professor Yang Hyunah urged the reform of family law and the introduction of a law to make space for the existence of diverse families:

현재 한국 가족은 극도로 소규모화되고, 저출생과 고령화가 급속히 이루어지며, 이른바 결혼 적령기의 청년세대는 법률혼을 기피하고 있으며, 이혼과 재혼에 대한 사회적 거부감은 상당히 줄어 들었습니다. 이러한 가족과 사회의 변화의 맥락에서 볼 때, 법률혼만을 고집하며 ‘정상가족’만을 다루는 한국 가족법의 시간대는 너무 뒤쳐져 있는 것은 아닌지 돌아보아야 합니다. 

앞으로의 가족정책은 대안적 생활동반자법을 속히 입법하여 ‘다양한 가족’을 국가가 승인하고, 한국의 고학력의 여성인력을 적극 활용함으로써 국가의 장기적 발전을 도모하고, 냉정한 시장 노동의 격무에 시달리는 남성 근로자들도 돌봄 노동의 보람을 함께 나눌 수 있는 방향을 제시하도록 이 자리의 법률가 및 실무자들께서 힘써 주시기를 당부 드립니다.

Currently, Korean families have become extremely small in size, and the trends of low birth rates and rapid aging are accelerating. The younger generation is avoiding legal marriages, and social stigma around divorce and remarriage has significantly decreased. In the context of these changes in family and society, it is necessary to examine whether Korean family law, which only deals with ‘normal families’ and insists on legal marriage, is too outdated.

The future family policy will depend on our ability to quickly legislate an alternative living partner law to allow the state to recognize ‘diverse families’. We can promote the country's long-term development by actively utilizing Korea's highly educated female workforce, and at the same time, provide support to male workers, burdened by the demands of the cold labor market, with the opportunity to share in the rewards of caregiving labor. I urge the legal professionals and practitioners in this room to strive toward this direction.

The definition of ‘family’ under current Korean civil law restricts family members to relations by birth (blood relations) and by marriage (spouses). Yong Hye-in of the Basic Income Party, first proposed the alternative living partner law (‘생활동반자법‘) at the national assembly in April 2023, to introduce a new category of family relations based on the virtue of cohabitation and mutual aid. Similar to civil partnerships around the world, it would allow two adult individuals of Korean nationality to form a partner relationship, giving them rights comparable to married couples, such as the right to adopt and tax benefits.

While the alternative living partner law presents a promising solution to extend government support for births, adoption, and childcare to families outside traditional legal marriages, doubts remain about whether the current government will consider such a nontraditional approach. This is especially true given the recent decline in gender equity discussions in mainstream politics and the rising antifeminist sentiment among young men, which has become a significant political force of its own. Currently, the 4th Master Plan for Population Policy and Ageing Society (2021–2025), published by the Presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy, does not include any significant measures around immigration or support for recognising alternative families beyond single parents and single-person households.

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