South Korean authorities are reportedly considering an alternative to mandatory military service for men. According to a recent report by the South Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, the ruling conservative People Power party is exploring unconventional means of increasing births after its leader, President Yoon Suk-yeol, ordered “bold and sure measures” to tackle the country's demographic disaster.
The proposal would allow young fathers of three or more children to be exempt from military service. The reason for the proposal is to boost South Korea's birth rate, which has been declining since the 1970s and currently stands at a record low of 0.78, the lowest in the world.
The South Korean constitution mandates that all able-bodied males between 18 and 35 years old are required to serve in the military, except for a rare few who are exempted, such as athletes who play on the World Cup team or win medals at the Olympics. Many South Koreans consider military service as a man's rite of passage, and it is viewed as one of the primary duties of a citizen, along with paying taxes, working, educating children, and protecting the environment.
The proposal has received pushback from some quarters, with commenters online asking whether the government is encouraging teenagers to give birth or who would have three children to avoid military service. The decline in South Korea's birth rate is due to cultural norms relating to traditional gender roles and overwork, according to Erin Hye-Won Kim, associate professor of public administration at the University of Seoul. Some fear that creating an explicit benefit for men that comes with an implicit cost for women may deepen the country's social divide.
The government has previously dedicated more than $200 billion over the past 16 years to pro-natalist policies, which have so far failed to turn around the country's demographic trajectory. The ruling party is reportedly also considering a consolidation of child-rearing support subsidies to provide a monthly stipend of 1 million won per child until adulthood, a total of 216 million won ($169,000) over the span of 18 years.
South Korea is considering an alternative way for men to serve their country: if they have three or more babies before they turn 30, according to a new report. The proposal is an attempt to boost the nation's ailing birth rate, which has been on the decline since the 1970s, and just set a new record for the world’s lowest at 0.78. The country does not have enough youth to support its rapidly aging population and shore up continuous economic growth.
The ruling conservative People Power party is reportedly looking into unconventional means of increasing births after its leader and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered “bold and sure measures” to tackle the problem earlier this month. The party official says the plans are not yet “finalized,” but ideas are being “reviewed.”
However, the proposal to spare young fathers of three or more from service has received a lot of pushback. Commenters online responded, according to local media outlet Kukmin Ilbo, saying “Are you encouraging teenagers to give birth?” and “Who would have three children to avoid going to the military?”
Among South Korea’s young adults, marrying and having children are increasingly being put off or avoided due to a confluence of factors, from low-paying job opportunities to rising costs of living to growing desires to remain single.
Erin Hye-Won Kim, associate professor of public administration at the University of Seoul, says South Korea’s decline in birth rate hinges more on its national culture, specifically norms relating to traditional gender roles and overwork. She believes a radical change in approach will be needed. “We cannot ask people to have babies for the national economic growth or the sustainability of the country—we shouldn’t think of fertility as such [a] tool,” Kim tells TIME. “Instead, when the government tries to help people to have a happy life, I think [an] increase in fertility would follow naturally.”
Jeffrey Robertson, an associate professor from Yonsei University in Seoul, calls the idea “laughable,” telling TIME that it fails to see the unwanted costs young people associate with starting a family. Cho Kyu-suk, a coordinator at the Seoul-based Center for Military Human Rights in Korea, tells TIME the military exemption proposal is not “totally irrational.” Conscription can play a factor in limiting the conditions for families to have children, he explains. A sergeant is paid 676,100 Korean won (or just over $500) monthly, way below the 2.64 million won (about $2,000) an average household spends per month.
The South Korean constitution describes national defense as one of five primary duties of a citizen—along with paying taxes, working, educating your children, and endeavoring to protect the environment.
Proposal to Boost Birth Rate Receives Pushback
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