Country Listing

South Korea Table of Contents

South Korea

Population Trends


Figure 6. Population Growth Rate, Selected Years, 1949-85

Source: Based on information from Korea Institute for Population and Health, Journal of Population and Health Studies [Seoul], 8, No. 2, December 1988, 11; and Republic of Korea, National Bureau of Statistics, Economic Planning Board, Korea Statistical Handbook, 1987, Seoul, 1987, 8.

The population of South Korea has grown rapidly since the republic's establishment in 1948. In the first official census, taken in 1949, the total population of South Korea was calculated at 20,188,641 people. The 1985 census total was 40,466,577. Population growth was slow, averaging about 1.1 percent annually during the period from 1949 to 1955, when the population registered at 21.5 million. Growth accelerated between 1955 and 1966 to 29.2 million or an annual average of 2.8 percent, but declined significantly during the period 1966 to 1985 to an annual average of 1.7 percent (see fig. 6). Thereafter, the annual average growth rate was estimated to be less than 1 percent, similar to the low growth rates of most industrialized countries and to the target figure set by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs for the 1990s. As of January 1, 1989, the population of South Korea was estimated to be approximately 42.2 million.

The proportion of the total population under fifteen years of age has risen and fallen with the growth rate. In 1955 approximately 41.2 percent of the population was under fifteen years of age, a percentage that rose to 43.5 percent in 1966 before falling to 38.3 percent in 1975, 34.2 percent in 1980, and 29.9 percent in 1985. In the past, the large proportion of children relative to the total population put great strains on the country's economy, particularly because substantial resources were invested in education facilities (see Primary and Secondary Schools , this ch.). With the slowdown in the population growth rate and a rise in the median age (from 18.7 years to 21.8 years between 1960 and 1980), the age structure of the population has begun to resemble the columnar pattern typical of developed countries, rather than the pyramidal pattern found in most parts of the Third World.

The decline in the population growth rate and in the proportion of people under fifteen years of age after 1966 reflected the success of official and unofficial birth control programs. The government of President Syngman Rhee (1948-60) was conservative in such matters. Although Christian churches initiated a family planning campaign in 1957, it was not until 1962 that the government of Park Chung Hee, alarmed at the way in which the rapidly increasing population was undermining economic growth, began a nationwide family planning program. Other factors that contributed to a slowdown in population growth included urbanization, later marriage ages for both men and women, higher education levels, a greater number of women in the labor force, and better health standards (see Public Health and Welfare , this ch.).

Public and private agencies involved in family planning included the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea, and the Korea Institute of Family Planning. In the late 1980s, their activities included distribution of free birth control devices and information, classes for women on family planning methods, and the granting of special subsidies and privileges (such as low-interest housing loans) to parents who agreed to undergo sterilization. There were 502,000 South Koreans sterilized in 1984, as compared with 426,000 in the previous year.

The 1973 Maternal and Child Health Law legalized abortion. In 1983 the government began suspending medical insurance benefits for maternal care for pregnant women with three or more children. It also denied tax deductions for education expenses to parents with two or more children.

As in China, cultural attitudes pose problems for family planning programs. A strong preference for sons--who in Korea's Confucian value system are expected to care for their parents in old age and carry on the family name--means that parents with only daughters usually continue to have children until a son is born. The government has encouraged married couples to have only one child. This has been a prominent theme in public service advertising, which stresses "have a single child and raise it well."

Total fertility rates (the average number of births a woman will have during her lifetime) fell from 6.1 births per female in 1960 to 4.2 in 1970, 2.8 in 1980, and 2.4 in 1984. The number of live births, recorded as 711,810 in 1978, grew to a high of 917,860 in 1982. This development stirred apprehensions among family planning experts of a new "baby boom." By 1986, however, the number of live births had declined to 806,041.

Given the size and age structure of the population in 1990, however, substantial increases are expected over the next few decades. According to the government's Economic Planning Board, the country's population will increase to between 46 and 48 million by the end of the twentieth century, with growth rates ranging between 0.9 and 1.2 percent. The population is expected to stabilize (that is, cease to grow) in the year 2023 at around 52.6 million people. In the words of Asiaweek magazine, the "stabilized tally will approximate the number of Filipinos in 1983, but squeezed into less than a third of their [the Philippines'] space."

Data as of June 1990

Country Listing

South Korea Table of Contents