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South Koreans told to go home and make babies

By John Sudworth
BBC News, Seoul

South Korean woman takes a photo of her baby sitting on a pushchair, April 2009
South Korea has one of the world's lowest birth rates

South Korean government workers are being presented with an unusual suggestion - go home and multiply.

At 1900 on Wednesday, officials at the Ministry of Health will turn off all the lights in the building.

They want to encourage staff to go home to their families and, well, make bigger ones. They plan to repeat the experiment every month.

A ministry spokesman told the BBC that "Family Day" would encourage staff to spend a little more time at home.

By helping staff who work long hours to rediscover the importance of family, the hope is policy might have an impact on birth rate, even if only indirectly.

The country has one of the world's lowest birth rates, lower even than neighbouring Japan.

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Office lights switched off for South Korea's procreation family day

Boosting the number of newborn children is a priority for the government, which is staring into the abyss of a rapidly ageing society, falling levels of manpower and spiralling health care costs.

The Ministry of Health, now sometimes jokingly referred to as the Ministry of Matchmaking, is in charge of spearheading this drive, and it clearly believes its staff should lead by example.

Generous gift vouchers are on offer for officials who have more than one child, and the department organises social gatherings in the hope of fostering love amongst its bureaucrats.

But critics say what is really needed is widescale reform to tackle the burdensome cost of childcare and education that puts many young people off starting a family.


Your Comments

The cost of nursery care in Korea can be four times that of a full-time university student's tuition. Plus, many parents feel compelled by competition to have private tutoring for their kids, even in primary school. An average family spends up to 50% of their income on one child's education so it's no wonder only the well-off can have two or more kids, and the poorest can't even begin to start families. The emphasis on education here is a bit extreme.
David Karaolou, Seoul

Family is of the utmost importance in Korean society. It is difficult, however, to provide an exceptional childhood, a world-class education and a head-start in life to more than one or two children per family. All of these appear to be mandatory to a "successful" Korean life. Without lowering the cost of education, Korea's birth rate will remain stagnant, or in decline.
Anon, Seoul

I spend quite a bit of time in Seoul on business and I can confirm that the Koreans work extremely long hours. The young software engineers will work till 0300 or 0500 and then stagger in the next day at 1100 ashen faced. Obviously, this leaves no time for procreation. One Wednesday last year they were all sent home at 1800 for a half day and nine months later two babies arrived on the scene. Now, it is company policy to take a half day (ie stop at 6pm) on Wednesdays, but they tend to sneak back in to get working again.
James Mahon, Dublin Ireland / Seoul South Korea

It says something about Korean civil servants that sending people home once a month at 1900 is early. However the likelihood of this resulting in a change is slim. There are plenty of diversions between the office and home. Korea is a very social country where after work dinner/drinking parties are more the norm than exception. It is entirely probable that this effort could have quite the opposite effect than intended.
RJC, South Korea

It is normal for women who have a baby to be fired in Korea. Given this situation, women do not want to have a baby. Moreover, the government in Seoul doesn't say anything to support a family. It's quite ridiculous.
Seongjin, Gwangju

I am a 30 old Korean man studying and staying in Paris. First of all, I am sick of this kind of show from the government. Young Korean couples worry about the burden of caring and raising children. There are not enough public day nurseries and private ones are extremely expensive. But it's not just the cost of childcare, housing is also expensive and even less affordable on a pension. The most serious problem is in education. The majority of students attend private classes after school which is very costly.
Sangwook Lee, Paris, France

In South Korea I see my co-workers working all the hours God sends. They only have 10 days off a year and an additional seven to 10 days off for national holidays (in South Korea, if a national holiday lands on a weekend, it is lost). Also, there is not much job security in terms of when a woman falls pregnant. A co-worker of mine told me that if she fell pregnant her job would not be guaranteed on her return to work ie there is no real maternity leave! These things have to be changed if the South Korean government want to increase the birth rate. There are few monetary incentives and the biggest problem for women is job security.
A P, Seoul

It baffles me how governments tend to focus on the issues which are not a priority. Instead of looking so far into the future, they need to focus on the people who are actually living here and now, namely the homeless, those in poverty or struggling financially and emotionally. Should they succeed in creating a country that is at present giving its people a higher standard of living and a positive environment in which to live, then maybe couples will have a little more incentive to make additions to it's population! Governments do not need nor do they have the right to interfere in a matter that mother nature has been dealing with since life began!
Edel O'Driscoll, Osan, South Korea

This issue may also have something to do with the long working hours endemic to the cities of Korea, where the majority of the population now live. Late nights at the office means social evenings are either spent drinking with work colleagues or put off altogether because people are too tired - neither of which are ideal baby-making conditions. The intense study culture as well as mandatory military service for men means many Koreans put their potential family life on hold until much later, often well into their thirties. Until Korean workers feel it's ok to go home before their boss at least once in a week they simply won't have time for match-making!
Alex Davies, Seoul, South Korea



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