After trying for over a year to persuade more South Korean women to have babies, Chung Hyun-back says one reason stands out for her failure: “Our patriarchal culture.” Ms. Chung, who was tasked by the previous government with reversing the country’s plummeting birthrate, knows firsthand how tough it is to be a woman in South Korea. She chose her career over nuptials and children. Like her, millions of young women have been collectively spurning motherhood in a so-called birth strike.
A 2022 survey found that more women than men — 65 percent versus 48 percent — don’t want children. They’re doubling down by avoiding matrimony (and its conventional pressures) altogether. The other term in South Korea for birth strike is “marriage strike.”
The trend is killing South Korea. For three years in a row, the country has recorded the lowest fertility rate in the world, with women of reproductive age having fewer than one child on average. It reached the “dead cross,” when deaths outnumbered births, in 2020, nearly a decade earlier than expected.
Now, about half of the country’s 228 cities, counties and districts risk losing so many residents they might vanish. Day care centers and kindergartens are being converted into nursing homes. Ob-Gyn clinics are closing, and funeral parlors are opening. At Seoksan Elementary School, in rural Gunwi County, the student body has shrunk from 700 pupils to four. When last I visited, the children couldn’t even form a soccer team.
Young Koreans have well-documented reasons not to start a family, including the staggering costs of raising children, unaffordable homes, lousy job prospects and soul-crushing work hours. But women in particular are fed up with this traditionalist society’s impossible expectations of mothers. So they’re quitting.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, elected last year, has suggested feminism is to blame for blocking “healthy relationships” between men and women. But he’s got it backward — gender equality is the solution to falling birthrates. Many of the Korean women shunning dating, marriage and childbirth are sick of pervasive sexism and furious about a culture of violent chauvinism. Their refusal to be “baby-making machines,” according to protest banners I’ve seen, is retaliation. “The birth strike is women’s revenge on a society that puts impossible burdens on us and doesn’t respect us,” says Jiny Kim, 30, a Seoul office worker who’s intent on remaining childless.
Making life fairer and safer for women would work wonders toward reducing the country’s existential threat. Yet this feminist dream seems increasingly far-fetched, as Mr. Yoon’s conservative government champions regressive policies that only magnify the problem.
South Korea’s demographic crisis was once inconceivable: As late as the 1960s, women had six children on average. But pursuing economic development, the state carried out an aggressive population control campaign. In about 20 years, women were having fewer than the 2.1 children needed for replenishment, a number that’s only continued to drop. The latest available data from South Korea’s statistics agency put the fertility rate at 0.81 for 2021; by the third quarter of 2022 it was 0.79.
Recent governments have indeed been alarmed by a rate that’s seemingly approaching zero. Over 16 years, 280 trillion won ($210 billion) has been poured into programs encouraging procreation, such as a monthly allowance for parents of newborns.
Many women still say nope. No wonder. There’s little escaping suffocating gender norms, whether in pregnancy guidelines to arrange clean undergarments for your husband before labor, or the dayslong kitchen drudgework for holidays like the Chuseok harvest festival. Married women are saddled with the lion’s share of chores and child care, squeezing new mothers so much that many give up professional ambitions. Even in dual-income households, wives daily spend more than three hours on these tasks versus their husband’s 54 minutes.
Discrimination against working mothers by employers is also absurdly common. In one notorious case, the country’s top baby formula maker was accused of pressuring female employees to quit after getting pregnant.
And gender-based violence is “shockingly widespread,” according to Human Rights Watch. In 2021, a woman was murdered or targeted for murder every 1.4 days or less, according to the Korea Women’s Hotline. Women have dubbed the act of ending a relationship without getting a vicious reaction a “safe breakup.”
But women haven’t passively accepted the toxic masculinity. They’ve organized raucously, from Asia’s most successful #MeToo movement to groups like “4B,” which translates to the “Four no’s: no dating, no sex, no marriage and no child-rearing.” The country’s feminist movements have won the decriminalization of abortion and harsher penalties for an epidemic of spycam-porn crimes.
Many young Korean men, however, have declared themselves victims of women’s activism. President Yoon rose to power last year by leveraging this resentment. He echoed the dog whistle of men’s rights advocates, declaring that structural sexism no longer existed in South Korea and vowed tougher punishment for false reports of sexual assault.
Mr. Yoon’s government is removing the term “gender equality” from school textbooks and has canceled funding for programs to fight everyday sexism. “If you find gender equality and feminism so important, you can do it with your own money and time,” said one lawmaker in his party.
The government is also working to dismantle its own headquarters for women’s empowerment — the gender equality ministry. Established in 2001, it’s been transformative in normalizing parental leave for fathers and helping more women achieve workplace seniority.
Comments by the gender equality minister under the Yoon administration illustrate its abandonment of women. In September, Kim Hyun-sook rejected that misogyny was at play when a Seoul Metro worker stabbed a female colleague to death in a subway bathroom after stalking her for years. Ms. Kim also initially declared that the rape and killing of a college student on campus last June was not violence against women and shouldn’t be used to fan “gender conflict.”
So far, none of the measures implemented by successive governments have flipped the trends in marriage and childbearing. Worse yet, the current government seems to be actively undermining efforts that gave women hope. “This is a historical regression,” says Ms. Chung, who was the gender equality minister from 2017 to 2018. Society can’t end the birth strike without acknowledging women’s grievances, she says.
Motivating Korean women to reconsider marriage and children involves infusing every aspect of their lives with agency and equality. A feminist approach would remove obstacles to motherhood simply by enforcing existing laws against workplace discrimination. It would destigmatize births outside of marriage and make domestic duties everyone’s responsibility. It would condemn gender violence as reprehensible. A feminist approach would admit there’s a systemic problem.
It’s clear that countries with a disproportionate division of child care or lacking national paid parental leave, like Japan and the United States, also have plunging fertility rates. Same with China, where women inspired by South Korea started their own “Four no’s” movement; government data this month reveals its population is shrinking too. But countries with cooperative fathers and good family policies, like Sweden, or that recognize diverse companionships, like France, have been more successful at stabilizing or even bumping up births.
The United Nations projects that South Korea’s 51 million population will halve before the end of the century. Survival of the nation is at stake.
Hawon Jung (@allyjung) is the author of the forthcoming “Flowers of Fire: The Inside Story of South Korea’s Feminist Movement and What It Means for Women’s Rights Worldwide,” and a former Agence France-Presse reporter in Seoul. She splits her time between South Korea and Germany.
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