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Sunday, May 11, 2003

Now it's Korea's Turn

Nothing especially novel about this piece, except that we're talking about S Korea, and that few people are really aware of what is happening globally.

Just one school remains open in the village of Dongmyun, deep in the heart of South Korea's countryside in central Chungcheong province. There used to be four schools in the area. But in the past 30 years, the number of pupils has fallen dramatically from more than 1,000 to just over 100. Village head Hong Ui Jeong fears that without drastic action, communities like his may die out totally. With fewer than 20 babies born last year, he is doing what little he can to try to reverse the trend. To couples who give birth this year, he will offer a cash incentive - money that comes out of his own salary. 'The population in Dongmyun is dropping by about 100 people every year,' he said. 'To stop our village dying, I decided to offer 100,000 won (S$145) to every couple if they had a baby.'

One mother who has benefited from that offer is Ms Kim Sun Deok, nursing her two-month-old son, Song Do. 'I think it's better than nothing, but it's not enough to help bring up a child,' she said. 'Anyway, many of my friends tend to marry later in life, and by then it's too late to start a family.' Other regions with dwindling populations are also taking steps such as offering couples a silver bracelet for their newborn - to show how highly valued they are. Meanwhile, government officials are getting worried over the declining birth rate. Rural communities like Dongmyun are the worst hit. About half of the village population is over the age of 65, and only 10 per cent of women are of child-bearing age. Younger couples are also moving out of the countryside to cities in search of better jobs and a better lifestyle.

The falling birth rate is evident across the country. More working couples are put off by the high costs of raising children and the lack of adequate childcare and social welfare facilities. Mr Shim Jae Kwon of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party said that, in the past, South Korea focused on achieving rapid economic development - and welfare issues were not a top priority. He admitted that unless rapid steps were taken, the country could begin to suffer economically and face serious manpower shortages. A shrinking workforce will have to support a growing elderly population. And the country could lose its economic edge.

After decades of actively promoting birth control - which was implemented until 1996 - population advisers are now considering what was once unthinkable: introducing new policies to promote child birth. Said Mr Kim Seung Kwon of the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs: 'The most important thing is that the government needs to share the economic burden by providing more family allowances and tax breaks.' Other ideas include longer maternity leave and more public child-care facilities. But unless such measures are implemented soon, many dwindling rural communities such as Dongmyun may not survive.
Source: Straits Times

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