Positive signs from the UN
Demography is Destiny

Vincenzina Santoro
23 Feb 2010
Reproduced with Permission

As part of the annual meetings of the Commission on Social Development at the United Nations recently, The Republic of Korea sponsored a "side event" entitled: "Low Fertility and Aging Society in East Asia." The presenters were a research director from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the Ambassador of Population issues of the Republic of Korea and a Korean Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. A few officials from the Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs were also present - and we engaged in a wonderful conversation afterwards.

Korea has the lowest fertility rate among the 30 OECD (most developed) nations: 1.19 in 2008, its population has started to decline and the population is aging rapidly. This has to be put into perspective. The Korean Government has had a very strong "family planning" policy since 1962. Now they are concerned about the consequences they have wrought. One of the officials, in his opening remarks stated outright that the current population situation "is not sustainable." (It will be interesting to see whether the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development will take note when they meet in a couple of months…!)

Recent trends in Korea have included later marriages, an increase in the number of never married women, a failure of the fertility rate to recover after deep economic crises (the latest was the Asian currency crisis of 1997), a higher sex ratio at birth, and survey results that show a gap between the ideal number of children and actual births (similar results were found in the European Union) if conditions were better, and a recognition that in countries where fertility is higher there is a large number of out of wedlock births. On the last point, one chart showed Norway with an 'illegitimacy' rate of around 50%! Out of wedlock births in Korea are almost nonexistent. Charts of population structure, once known populations pyramids, now look more like quadrants and projections out to the end of the century make the diagram look more like a light bulb!

In response to a question, one Korean (from the East-West Center) said, almost in a whisper, that the government is trying to reform abortion policy so that "fewer conceptions end in abortion."

In conversations with some government officials (they appreciated my question on the role of grandparents in helping raise grandchildren where mothers worked and day care might not be available), I suggested that the "family planning" policies and strategies of the past ought to change and that perhaps they should now focus on "planning families." They liked my re-phrasing! We laughed and I added: "Remember you heard it here first!"

It was remarkable that such a conversation should occur on UN turf - but this may be yet another example of how rapidly things are changing and how one has to be 'at the right place at the right time' to pick up this intelligence. In my view, this is the third positive signal on population matters that I have noticed in UN circles in just a few months!