March 24, 2023 - 10:17am

In an article for the Atlantic, Anna Louie Sussman examines why South Korea’s total fertility rate has fallen so precipitously. In what the Koreans call a “gender war”, Sussman suggests that the cause is the “deterioration in relations between women and men”. “I think the most fundamental issue at hand is that a lot of girls realize that they don’t really have to do this anymore,” one South Korean women tells the author. “They can just opt out.”

The fertility issue is hardly unique to South Korea. Look at the comments on any piece in the UK media about our own falling birth rates, and at least half will say something along the lines of “good thing too.” “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people” is the view taken by David Attenborough, along with many other environmentalists and feminists. You don’t have to look far to find people cheering on the dwindling of our species.

But it is odd to hear such passivity from South Koreans, of all people, given that their government is certainly not relaxed about low fertility. In 2005, it introduced the ‘Framework Act on Low Birth Rate in an Aging Society’ in an attempt to reverse the trend, and has so far invested $150 billion in pro-natal policies. All to no avail, as the Atlantic piece makes clear. 

The existential threat to South Korea is more urgent than for most countries. With a total fertility rate of 0.78, South Korea’s current population of 51 million will likely decline to just 15 million by 2100. Meanwhile the North Korean population of 26 million is expected to drop only slightly to 23 million. In other words, South Korea’s much poorer, much more authoritarian neighbour is currently half its population size — but, within the lifetimes of babies being born in Korea today, that balance will be upturned. 

The example of South Korea should be a warning to those who welcome a decline in the size of the global human population, because the truth of the matter is that birth rates are not falling evenly across the whole world, and nor are they falling gently. What we are seeing, instead, is precipitous falls in some rich countries, and among some sub-populations in particular, leading to some extreme political phenomena. 

Take the UK, which is likely to face enormous demographic changes as a result of uneven fertility rates. For instance, it is becoming increasingly clear that one of the strongest predictors of fertility is religiosity: more religious people have more children, and a tendency towards religiosity is moderately heritable. Having suffered the humiliation of the atheist revolution, it seems that believers are set to have the last laugh. Which is bad news for secular feminists, among others, given the very direct conflict between their values and those of the ancient religious traditions that are set to surge. 

But then here’s the thing: the future belongs to those who show up, which means that the South Koreans who hope that the whole country will “simply disappear” are likely to get their wish. The question we have yet to answer is whether it is possible in the long term to sustain the kind of affluent, urban, secular culture represented by South Korea, or whether we will always revert back to the poverty, parochialism, and rigid control of women that characterised most of human history. In other words, is it possible to be modern and fertile? So far, the answer appears to be ‘no’. 

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.