Demographic Transition of Republic of Korea: waning youth, increasing elderly

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 The mountainous peninsula of Korea that extends to the Yellow Sea and Korean Bay got divided into two parts in 1945; one communist and the other democratic. They were officially named as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Republic of Korea (ROK) respectively and are popularly known as North and South Korea due to their geographic positions on the peninsula. The imaginary line called 38th parallel divides the two states. In this write-up I will be talking about the demography of only South Korea (ROK) before and after the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separated it from its Northern counterpart (DPRK). Only unless one has been living under a cave would one be not aware of the economically miraculous South Korea which is suitably known as one of the Asian Tigers. The irony here is that this economic miracle has been one of the reasons this Asian Tiger is becoming the Ageing Tiger. In other words, the elderly population would soon outnumber the significantly decreasing child population and South Korea is now facing what is known as below replacement fertility level or the lowest-low fertility level (Kim, 2005). This is not the problem faced by only South Korea; in fact, other Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore) too are worried about their waning youth and increasing elderly.


The transition of ROK from a poor, relatively less developed country into a thriving and fairly rich economy is corresponding to the transition in its demographic profile. Till 1910, the population growth was very low due to high birth and death rates. This period can be termed as Traditional Stage (Kim, 2005). During this stage, the society was typically agrarian and the mortality was fluctuating mainly due to famines, epidemics and wars. One of the characteristic of the ancient Korean society was that it was strictly hierarchical. During the Joseon Dynasty, the population was divided into five major classes. They were: First, a class of scholars and officials named as Yangban. they were at the top of the hierarchy and was considered as the nobel. Second was the class of clerks and specialists like doctors and accountants. It was called as Jungin i.e middle men. Third came the Korean mass society like the peasants, craftsmen, merchants etc and thus class is known as Yangmin. The fourth class i.e. the class of the butchers, tanners, entertainers etc was considered outcast. The last in the pile came the slaves. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea and turned it into a colony. With Japanese rule came the modern medical facilities and medicines. The population started to increase rapidly. The total fertility rate was as high as five but a transition was seen in the mortality. There were comparatively less death due to better medication. During this period, there was also the maximum emigration to the foreign lands. This period of Japanese rule can be called as the Early Transitional Stage (Kim, 2005).

Korea gained liberation in 1945 and the partition happened. After this ROK faced what Kim called Chaotic stage (1945-60). In this stage, population continued to grow rapidly with high fertility rate. But the years 1949-55 saw high mortality due to the Korean wars. There was massive arrival from Manchuria and Japan and refugees from North Korea during the war. There was social turmoil and ROK faced economic hardship. The Korean War stopped with the signing of cease-fire in 1953. General Park Chung, who held presidential post for three successive terms (1963, 67 and 71) brought many economic changes in ROK and the economy began to grow under his rule. This is the stage where transition in the fertility started and the population growth rate declined. This stage (1960-85) was called as Late Transitional Stage (Kim,2005). Industrial conglomerates know as “Chaebol” came up and transformed ROK into one of the World’s fastest growing economies. The most prominent of the chaebol were Hyundai and Samsung groups. South Korea became one of the leading exporters of cars and electronic goods. This brought in ROK, modernization, urbanization, economic development and family planning. Since 1985 till today the population growth rate continues to decline with the fertility rate reaching the under-replacement level. The mortality rate further declined substantially. This period is called as Post-transitional stage (Kim, 2005). This is the stage of Social development, globalization, expansion of education, changes in life style, gender equity, medical insurance etc.

The preliminary results of the 2010 population and housing census available on internet shows that the total population of ROK is 48.9 million (including 20,000 Chinese and 30,000 U.S. military personnel and civil employees) out of which 16% is the population falling in the age group 0-14 year, 72% in 15-64 year and 11% in 65 and above. Although the Population Growth Rate of ROK is declining, it is still one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 502 persons per kilo meter square. The drastic decline in Population growth Rate can be observed by studying the last 10 years population data of ROK. The growth rate decreased from 0.93% in 2000 to 0.2% in 2012.


Population Growth Rate (%)

Birth rate (%)








































                                Table1.  Source: CIA World Factbook (web) accessed on October 11th,2012.

A profound change in the values and attitudes regarding marriage, life style choice, parenthood and gender equity is responsible for the striking change in the population growth rate and birth rate. Birth rate depends on the fertility level and also on the age structure of the population. Thomas Malthus proposed that if the population would grow, the economy couldn’t support it. However, in ROK the opposite is experienced which means that the economy has grown but the population growth is declining instead of rising. This would imply that in the future there will be shortage of man power, less demand and eventually, the market would come down and economy would decline. Today, an average Korean women has less than 1.2 children which is very much below the level needed to keep the population existing atleast at its current state.

The state’s incorrect perceptions and actions towards the population of ROK during the 1960s can be blamed for the condition today. The number of live birth recorded in 1978 was 711,810 which grew to 917,860 in 1982 making the family planning experts anxious of the “baby boom”. The government activities during 1980s affected the fertility rate to the maximum and the number of live births on 1986 declined to 804,041. Hence, it can be postulated that 1980s was the turning point in the history of ROK’s demography. The total fertility rate which tells about the average number of births a woman will bear during her lifetime fell from 6.1 births per female in 1960 to 4.2 in 1970, 2.8 in 1980, 2.4 in 1984 and a sorry state of 1.2 in 2012.


                         TFR of Korea



                    Source: The graph is prepared by the author with help from U.S Census Bureau, International Database (web), October, 11, 2012.



In the year 1962, the government propounded various nationwide official and unofficial birth control programmes due to the concern about how rapidly increasing population can weaken the economic growth. The Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea and the Family Planning Institute of Korea actively played their roles in encouraging people to have small families. There were slogans like “we cannot escape from poverty if you have a baby whenever you want”. In the 1970s, the slogan of family planning changed to “to raise two children well, regardless of their sex”. In the 1980s, free birth control devices and information was given to the people. There were classes on family planning methods for women and special subsidies and privileges were granted to the parents underwent sterilization. In the year 1984, more than five million South Koreans were sterilized. Abortion was legalized and the government suspended medical insurance benefits for maternal care for the woman with three or more children. Korea’s traditional Confucian value system has strong preference for sons as they are considered to be carrying on the family name and are expected to take care of their parents in the old age. Hence, people with daughter continued to have children until a son is born. The government then encouraged the couples to “have a single child and raise it well”. This perhaps is the reason for the unhealthy sex ratio in the 80s and 90s and the ultrasound technology was available by then which helped the expectant couples to know the sex of their fetus at an early stage of pregnancy. The abortion of female fetus increased and by 1993, the sex ration at birth was 116 boys for every 100 girls which was significantly different from the natural sex ratio of 105 boys for every 100 girls. Later on the slogan of population policy shifted from “to raise two children well regardless of their sex” through “two children are also too many, let’s just get one child and raise him/her well” to papa, I don’t want to be alone. Mom, please have my younger sister or brother”.                                                                                                                                               south korea poster 

 The poster used by the Korean Government to motivate people toward favorable family planning.  

The population pyramid of ROK for the year 1975 gives a clear picture of the increased birth rates, high fertility and rapidly increasing population. The child population (0-14 year) is larger than others. High mortality during 1949-55 as a result of the Korean wars can be distinctly observed as there is a sharp decline in the length of the bar showing the age group 20-24. In 1975, ROK was a young country and the burden of ageing did not exist. The pyramid is almost in its perfect shape with more young people and less old people which is the characteristic if the demography of a developing economy. The country’s population increased to 46 million in the late 90s.

   With the decline in fertility rate, the shape of the population pyramid of South Korea for the year 2002 is almost a like a hut. The children are comparatively less than the adults in and above the age group 20-44 years. Those who were born in 1975 also belong to this group in 2002 (25-29 years). Which implies that the mortality in this group is static and also that the number of people migrating from or to the state is almost equal. The economy has become very rich. Globalization is the prominent feature of economy now and the competition and insecurities in the labour market has increased. The number of males in every age group till 45-49 is more than the females in that age group which tells that sex ratio imbalance existed reflecting the traditional Korean system that valued males more than females. The top bars of the pyramid show that the life expectancy of Korean women is more than that of Korean men. This turns out to be the common feature of the aging population in almost every country. There can be many reasons for the long living of women. One of them which is also considered as the most important also is that men have only one X chromosomes where as women have two. So the if there’s some disease, men are most likely to get weaker as they do not have any additional X- chromosomes. The other reason can be the estrogen, a female hormone that naturally protects women from cardiac and other middle age diseases. Hence they reach to their 60s without many problems and live longer as they develop diseases when they grow further but men get them at an early age. There are various other psychological, behavioral and biological reasons that can explain women’s long living.

Today, a decade later South Korea faces the problem of a rapidly aging population. There is an extraordinary growth in the aging population of Korea and the population of children is declining at an alarming rate. The population pyramid has changed from the hut shaped 2002 pyramid to a diamond shaped pyramid with lesser young people and a large portion of middle-age individuals. The percentage of elderly aged 65 and above has sharp rise from 3.3% in 1955 to more than 11% in 2012. Although the imbalance in sex ratio still exists but now as couples prefer only one child, they are now not much bothered about the sex of the child. Gender equity is gaining importance but number of children is decreasing. It is feared that if the same trend continues, the elderly population would be 20% by 2026.

                                  asset upload file793 6096

                                   Source : Google images Source: Population Reference Bureau

                               Korea 2002

                         Source: The pyramid is prepared by the author with help from U.S Census Bureau, International Database (web), October, 11, 2012.


                             Korea 2012

                         Source: The pyramid is prepared by the author with help from U.S Census Bureau, International Database (web), October, 11, 2012



Caring for the Elderly is the new challenge ROK has to take care of and bear cost of pensions and health care. Moreover, due to rapid aging, there would be an imbalance young-old percentage of workers which might lead to less innovation and vibrancy as the youth would be very less. The decrease in population growth rate might lead to a shrink in the labour force. As an increasing share of people is entering their 50s and 60s, they usually get retired either by will or by the company rules. Hence, there would be a decrease in the economically active population.



The issue has been prioritized by the government on its agenda. The economists fear that diminishing population growth rate would lead to diminishing national consumption and savings which would eventually lower the economic growth rate. Various pro-natal, pro-rearing policies are being enacted by the government that will encourage women to have children. Women tend to marry later in life and sometimes by then its’ too late to start a family. Working couples think twice before having a baby. The conventional social-cultural environment in South Korea is one of the major factors that make women reluctant to get married. The government of the President Lee Myung Bak is trying hard to encourage more births by bringing flexibility in the labour market. Under different schemes, pregnant women are given special privileges. Men are being motivated to get involved in the family and participate in the child rearing process and so lessening the burden from the female. Females must be given equal importance as men so that the Korean legacy remains and the economy continues to grow.  






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  4. 4.Population Reference Bureau
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  8. 8.U.S. Bureau of Census, International Database.
  9. 9.CIA,
  10. 10.National Statistical office of the Republic of Korea (web).
  11. 11.Kim,Doo-Sub, 2005, Theoretical explanations of rapid fertility decline in Korea


        The Japanese Journal of Population, Vol. 3, no.1 (2005)















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  • Population is one of the important factors which shape out an economy. Population of a nation also take part to determine the size of that economy. But the age of population is also an significant element for any economy. The reason is, age of a person is directly related to his productivity thus the age of population also determines the production capacity of the aggregate economy. The above article beautifully demonstrates the demographic characteristics of the ROK. From economic perspective Korea, as this economy is growing older, is going to face an impact on its productive capacity in near future. While, Older age not only affect production capacity but also increase burden on the government taking responsibility of senior citizens. Thus ROK should take cautious measures to maintain the age of its population.

    from Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India

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