Korea is experiencing a demographic upheaval this year. The number of births plunged to 406,300 last year, a strong indication that it will further fall to below 400,000 as early as this year.
The economically active population aged 15-64 will start shrinking for the first time this year and country will become an aged society with the proportion of people over 65 exceeding 14 percent of the population.
Only 406,300 babies were born last year, down 32,120 from a year earlier and an all-time low, according to tentative data released by Statistics Korea on Wednesday.
The total fertility rate -- the average number of children that would be born to a woman between 15 and 49 years -- shrank to from 1.24 to 1.17 on-year. The figure is still higher than the all-time low of 1.08 in 2005. In other words, the decrease in births is largely due to the decrease in women of childbearing age.
The economically active population will start dwindling this year after it peaked at 37.63 million last year. It is forecast to drop to 30.7 million in 2037. In January there were 7.03 million elderly people in Korea, or 13.6 percent of the population, which means the figure will likely reach the 14-percent level that make it an aged society by year's end.
With Korea facing the demographic cliff, calls are getting louder for a more effective strategy to boost the birthrate. The developments also require an overhaul of college entrance and army recruitment quotas, which are still based on 600,000 births a year.
The number of 18-year-olds who start college will dwindle from the current 610,000 to 400,000 in 2037, but the college entrance quota is still 560,000. "You can't just shut down lots of universities", said Prof. Cho Young-tae of Seoul National University. "Instead colleges could be remodeled as adult education centers for those in their 40s and 50s".
As for conscription, the number of 20-year-olds will dwindle by from 350,000 to 210,000 over the same period. "Some 450,000 young men are currently conscripted into the Army each year. If every single 20-year-old were conscripted, society would suffer a serious manpower shortage", Cho added. "Now is the time to consider introducing a voluntary enlistment system to recruit long-serving career soldiers".
The aging of society, meanwhile, puts huge pressure on pension funds and the social safety net. While the number of young taxpayers is dwindling, the current 7 million elderly population will more than double to 16 million by 2037.
Health insurance funds are also in trouble. Old people now spend 37 percent of the insurance funds, and the figure is expected to increase to 70 percent by 2037. The National Pension Service will likely run out of funds by 2060 as fewer people are paying pension fees and more are claiming the money.
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