A South Korean woman with a baby in her arms in front of Seoul City Hall in 2005.
Babies wanted. Lee Jin-man/AP

The country needs to convince more couples to have children. But its biggest city is no paradise for parents.

Lydia Park crawls after her nine-month-old daughter, Irene, who’s busy exploring a brand-new playroom inside a community center in Seoul, South Korea. Irene’s just woken from her nap and she’s full of energy.

First she heads for the colorful building blocks in the back of the room, then finds her way to pretend kitchen in the corner. She races another baby up a little ramp, and before long, she’s wading in a pit of pastel-colored plastic balls. All the while, Park’s reflexes are tested as she repeatedly stops Irene from putting toys into her mouth.

The two come here every so often; it’s a 10-minute bus ride from their home. Park especially likes that the play areas are separated by age. “Here, there are no big kids running around like crazy, so it feels safe,” says the 32-year-old former English teacher. It’s one of the many perks the government offers to encourage couples to have kids.

The cacophony of joyful squeals almost belies the fact that South Korea has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. It’s been on a steep decline since the 1960s and ’70s, when the government of this then-rural but fast-developing country implemented a national campaign pushing women to have no more than two children. In 1970, there were on average 4.5 births per woman (down from more than six a decade earlier).

Irene races another baby to the top under the watchful eyes of her mother. (Linda Poon/CityLab)

It worked—too well. Today, that figure stands at just 1.05, a record low. To stabilize its current population, South Korea would need to reverse the trend and double the current birth rate. With fewer young people entering the workforce, the social costs of supporting the elderly could quickly overwhelm the national economy.

Other urbanized nations are also dealing with variations on this depopulation bomb: Globally, the birth rate has been falling in nearly all regions since the mid-1960s, from almost five births per woman to just over 2.5 between 2010 and 2015. The figure is expected to drop further over the next few decades, down to just two births per women by 2100, according to the United Nations. That might be good news for the resource-strapped planet (which is expected to continue to gain population, hitting nearly 10 billion by 2050), but it will be a challenge for many nations that need to balance aging populations.

And perhaps nowhere else are the consequences more pronounced than in East Asia, where countries like South Korea, China, and Japan are facing workforce shortages and—in the case of the latter—a shrinking population. Despite years of encouragement from the government through cash payments and other, more curious, pro-natalist policies, fertility numbers continue to fall.

That’s why baby Irene is so precious—not only to her parents, but also to the government. Over the last decade, South Korea poured $70 billion into incentivizing childbirth, offering up some of the world’s most generous childcare subsidies, with extra perks for working parents and families with multiple kids.

For starters, the government doles out 500,000-won bonuses (about $500) to expectant couples to help cover prenatal expenses; for the first year after the child is born, parents get monthly cash allowances of up to 200,000 won—an amount that increases with each subsequent child.

The playroom Park and Irene go to costs just 2,000 won—less than $2—for two hours. Park can also place her daughter in a public day care center or a government-subsidized private one for free, part of a universal free child care policy established in 2013 to significantly reduce the financial burdens of raising a child. If both parents hold jobs, their children will often get to jump to the front of the line for centers that have long waiting lists. And that’s only a sampling of the suite of benefits Korean cities like Seoul offers to those having kids, from subsidized fertility treatments to free parking and housing assistance.

For young people who flock to metropolitan Seoul in search of better job opportunities, these benefits are crucial. They face a fiercely competitive labor market, making it a challenge to prioritize children. And many lack the support of their own parents, who live outside the city and who otherwise would have lent a hand.

The city, which holds about half of the country’s entire population, is thus playing a critical co-parenting role for its citizens, and for the nation itself. “The issue of child care is no longer a private matter in South Korea,” says Sung-Hee Lee, a lecturer at the University of Derby in the U.K. who studies socialized child care and the gender politics of East Asia. “Young moms especially understand that they’re not the only ones [responsible] for their children. It’s now a public matter.”

The free day care dilemma

Park and I are heading to a coffee shop, with baby Irene strapped to her mom’s chest in a baby carrier. Being a mom on the go in Seoul can be a challenge, she says. “Things here are all about business. It’s not really about how to help moms and babies feel comfortable going out.”

There are no high chairs in this coffeeshop, and bringing in a stroller would have been difficult, thanks to the lack of ramps. Irene stays strapped to her mom, playing with a plastic straw, as we talk.

Such small obstacles only scratch at the surface of why Korea isn’t the paradise of parenthood it so desperately wants to be, despite a slew of enviable government perks.

On paper, the South Korean parental safety net puts countries like the U.S., which offers no guaranteed maternity leave and is cutting funding for the poorest children, to shame. But in terms of boosting the birth rate, the government’s decade-old pro-natalist policy has yet to move the needle. This year, South Korea is expect to clock in at fewer than one birth per woman this year. In Seoul, it’s even lower: Last year, the rate was only 0.94 births per woman.

Part of the challenge is economic. The government’s financial assistance program isn’t enough to cover child care costs for many parents. A recent survey by the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education of more than a thousand households with young kids found that parents on average spent 198,000 won each month per child (roughly $200), on top of their monthly allowance. Park says she and her husband spend roughly 1 million won, or $1,000, each month for necessities like clothing, diapers, food, and doctor’s appointments.

Young Keum Lee helps her two-year-old daughter Jiweon put her shoes on at a local day care center. (Linda Poon/CityLab)

And the free day care that the government provides has been a challenge to offer nationwide, offering a cautionary tale to places like Berlin—which just became the first city in Germany to scrap day care fees. Government-subsidized private day care centers make up 94.7 percent of the country’s 43,770 total centers in 2013, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. The sheer volume may seem adequate, but some centers can have more than a 100 children on their waitlist. There’s a small number of fully public day care centers, but they’re in very high demand, because of concerns that the private centers cut costs by underpaying caretakers or hiring untrained ones. Private day care centers have recently come under fire after a caretaker suffocated an 11-month-old while trying to put him to sleep and after a four-year-old died inside a hot minibus.

“Until now the government has focused on who provides the service and whether it is free,” Lee tells CityLab. “But service quality is very important because child care is not just a product.”

Twins Jiwoong (left) and Jiweon (right) spend the afternoon with their mother at a kid’s cafe in Seoul. (Linda Poon/CityLab)

The result is long waiting lists for high-quality day care centers and tension between working and full-time moms about whose children should be prioritized. Most recently, the government has introduced customized child care, in which full-time moms can admit their children for free from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and children of working moms from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Critics point out that this doesn’t always help lower-income families in which parents work irregular hours.

The national government has been working to address the issue: South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to expand and strengthen child care policies earlier this year and announced plans to build 450 new public day care centers over the next four years. “The government will have to do many things in the child care sector, but the most urgent task may be to increase the proportion of children using national and public kindergartens and child care centers,” he said during a visit to a public child care center in Seoul back in January. He also pledged to increase the monthly allowance to 300,000 won ($300) starting in August.

Adding more public day care centers has been difficult, Lee says, in part because of limited funding at the local level and partly because of strong lobbying from the private sector. As a result, many parents improvise; they get assistance from grandparents when they can, hire nannies, or pay to send their kids to private kindergartens. “When the service quality isn’t good enough, the burden of having to find informal care will go back to moms,” Lee says.

To capitalize on the care gaps and help make room for kids in South Korea, commercial “kid cafes” have saturated Seoul. These are coffeeshops, usually themed, with indoor playgrounds to keep kids entertained and tables for adults. Some let kids play for free, as long as the adults order food or drinks. Others charge by the hour: One in Incheon city, for example, charges 15,000 won per child and 3,000 won per adult for two hours, and then 500 won every 10 minutes.

The seating area, where many mothers are gathered, is separate from the play area in a kid’s cafe in Seoul. (Linda Poon/CityLab)

Curious, I follow 40-year-old Young Keum-Lee and her two-year-old twins to such a cafe in Seoul’s quiet neighborhood of Gunja, where they live with her sister’s family and their mother in a multi-level house. The cafe is every kid’s dream come true, with a large area to run around and a “game zone” with a mini-foosball table and plastic toy sets. But a quick look around reveals that the cafe is really there for the mothers, who—in a rare moment of peace—get to sip coffee and chat with their friends in a separate seating area, their backs turned to where the kids are playing.

Work and life, out of balance

But money and access to child care is hardly the only barrier to boosting births, University of Derby’s Sung-Hee Lee says. She points out that the government’s emphasis on opening more day cares also reflects something else in South Korean society: the primacy of work over family. “Why should we need 12 hours of free child care?” she asks. “This is crazy. Parents should have the time to look after their children.”

In Korea’s exhausting work culture, time spent in the office often eclipses time spent at home, and the burdens of raising children can bar women from climbing the corporate ladder—leaving them feeling as though they can’t have both a career and a family.

According to a 2017 report in the New Frontiers of Educational Research, South Korea was the only country among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2013 whose day care enrollment rate is higher than that of maternal employment. Currently, participation in the labor force among women stands at just 53.1 percent, compared to 74.5 percent among men. That falls behind China, the U.K., and the U.S.,  where female participation in the workforce stands at 61, 57, and 56 percent, respectively. And South Korean women who do work earn just 63 percent of what men make.

Under current law, women are guaranteed three months of paid maternity leave with a maximum payment of 1 million won ($1,000) a month from the government, and they can take as much as a year off. But thousands of Korean women don’t take up the offer, for fear of either being fired or losing their position in the company. The latest statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare reveal that while there were 393,000 births recorded in 2016, only about 90,000 women took maternity leave. (It is worth noting that due to the lower employment rate among women, many who gave birth that year were not working to begin with.)

Gender equality in Korea still lags behind several other OECD countries, with company practices reflecting outdated norms about women’s role as the caretaker of a family. Other non-mandatory work-life balance policies—like flexible or reduced work hours and in-office child care—vary depending on the generosity of the companies. Women themselves often feel like they have to give up their careers in order to raise a family—and for women of childbearing age trying to fight their way up the ladder, career often takes priority.

That helps explain why marriage rates in South Korea have fallen to a record low, and women (married and unwed) make up the majority of single households, which form the largest share of all homes. According to a survey cited in Agence France-Presse, only 68 percent of female college students intend to marry, citing “dual burdens at home and work” as top concerns. (By comparison, 86 percent of American Millennials say they want to get married someday—just later in life.)

Indeed, despite the government’s best efforts, the ages at which women marry and have children continue inching upwards. The average age of South Korean women who gave birth in 2016 hovers around 32, the highest of all the OECD countries. And the share of mothers who had a child within the first two years of marriage sat at 68.1 percent, down 1.3 percent from 2015.

Working mothers who do take maternity leave often say it’s hard to come back to work. Even finding part-time work is a struggle for Keum-Lee, who left her job at a trading company to raise her twins, Jiweon and Jiwoong. “My kids are too young to be sent to a full-day day care center, so they only go for a half-day,” she says through an interpreter, adding that she sends them to day care so she can get other household chores done. “It feels like I’m shackled to them right now.”

Jiwoong takes a break from playtime at the kid’s cafe while Keum Lee catches up with her nephew. (Linda Poon/CityLab)

Others, like Park, leave their jobs because of a lack of support from their employers. The school she worked at would not extend her maternity leave beyond the mandatory three months, she says. “Among the teachers who have already had kids, we were saying that [the school] is kind of hinting at you, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time for you to move on,’” she says. “But for me to drop [Irene] off somewhere after three months, that was just unimaginable.”

Keum-Lee’s sister, Young Hwa-Lee, has managed to keep her position as the secretary to the head of the food company Shin Dong Bang Corp., but it wasn’t easy, “When I had my first child, I didn’t feel the discrimination much,” the 45-year-old mother of two says through an interpreter. “But when I had my second child and came back from maternity leave, people looked at me strangely—as if to question why I would want to return after having two kids.”

Another challenge to parents: South Koreans are notorious for keeping long work hours—and that’s not including the expectation to bond with coworkers and bosses afterwards. The hoesik (or “staff dinner”)—filled with grilled meats, karaoke, and lots of alcohol—is part of the country’s “work hard, play hard” culture and can last well into the wee hours. In an intensely hierarchical society, refusing such an invitation can affect career prospects, which makes it hard for parents to juggle this work-life balance issue.

One mother recounts the emotional struggle of choosing her job over her son, who’s now four years old. “Work usually ends at 6:30 p.m., but it’s hard to leave when your boss is still there,” 39-year-old Hye Jin-Jeong, who works in the HR department for a major retail company, says through an interpreter. She’s referring to a concept known to Koreans as nunchi, which, among other things, refers to the unspoken rule that employees should stay in the office until their bosses leave. The practice is not uncommon despite the government’s recent attempts to limit the workweek from 68 hours a week to 52.

“When my son started talking, he would often ask me why I came home so late and tell me how lonely he was,” Hye says. “At the time, I felt like I had to choose between earning money and being with my child, and I felt really guilty.”

To encourage more shared responsibility, the government has been calling on men to take paternity leave: up to a year off with a maximum monthly payment of 1.5 million won ($1,500) from the government for the first three months. The policy has been around since 1995, but 2017 marks the first time more than 10,000 men took advantage of it. The number is slowly rising—more than 8,000 men took time off in just the first half of 2018, according to Korea’s labor ministry. Still, that makes up just 17 percent of all people who took family leave in that same period.

In that sense, the government’s child-friendly policies clash with those of employers. “The head of the company may think that the woman is going to give up her work anyway when she has a kid,” Hwa-Lee tells CityLab. “So she doesn’t get promoted because it’s considered a loss for the company.”

It’s these kinds of deep-seated cultural habits that have proven stubbornly resistant to government policies and kid-friendly investments. Making South Koreans make more babies isn’t just about more funding or better access to subsidized child care—it’s about changing “the societal image [of motherhood] and the pressure keep women shackled to her child,” says Hwa-Lee.

That image might be the one that haunts 28-year-old Bae Jeong-Been. She’s working her way up a major retail company and has been married for three years; she plans to wait at least one or two more before having kids. She’s heard the stories from friends who are parents—both the good and the bad. Right now, a baby is just not a priority.

“My husband and I wanted to enjoy married life for the first few years,” she tells me. “I also worry about time for self-improvement. I still have a lot to learn. But if I have a baby I can’t do all the things I want.”

Funding was provided by the Bernard van Leer Foundation to support our project, “Room to Grow,” about raising tiny humans in the city. Sign up here to receive email updates on the series.

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