Backlash over reported South Korean plan to exempt new fathers from military service

Yoon Suk-yeol is seeking a ‘bold’ plan that can be felt by the people to boost ailing birth rate

Shweta Sharma
Monday 27 March 2023 13:21 BST
South Korea fertility rates: Govt encourages growing families

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Louise Thomas

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The South Korean government’s potential plan to grant exemption to men who will have three or more babies before turning 30 has sparked outrage for forcing parenting on young couples.

Even though there is no official confirmation of the proposal but speculations have been rife after a report suggested that authorities could be considering the bold move to boost the ageing country’s ailing birth rate.

It comes after president Yoon Suk-yeol ordered his cabinet to come up with a “bold and sure measure” to boost the low birth rate which “can be felt by the people”.

The members of the conservative People Power party are considering a proposal to exempt men from military services if they have three or more children before they turn 30, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported, citing party officials.

“It is not a finalized plan, but opinions have come out at the idea level and are being reviewed,” an official who was not named told the newspaper.

The bold decision becoming a reality has sparked outrage among people as South Korea desperately seeks measures to boost the country’s declining birth rate to prevent an impending demographic crisis.

South Korea’s statistics agency announced in January that the country’s birth rate – the number of babies born in a year – plunged further by 4.7 per cent in November 2022 from the previous year.

The country’s total fertility rate – the average number of babies born to each woman in their reproductive years – declined to an all-time low of 0.78 in 2022, according to Statistics Korea, from recommended 2.1.

It was the lowest since 1970, when the statistics agency began compiling related data.

Several people on South Korean social media called it an “unrealistic” idea that will not only force unprepared couples to have babies but also ignore women’s rights and wishes.

“This is going to put a lot of vulnerable women at risk. Maybe more so,” a Twitter user said responding to the report.

“It’s almost like they’re ignoring the fact that it’s women who are opting not to have kids and rewarding men if they somehow con women into having three babies for them,” a user named Tamar Herman said.

Some said it will “encourage teenagers to give birth”, reported local media outlet Kukmin Ilbo.

“Who would have three children to avoid going to the military?” another said.

A user suggested the South Korean government should resolve underlying issues that deter couples from having babies.

“Better solve that housing crisis, tackle the gender wage gap plus solve the rampant issues of misogyny and patriarchal systems that negatively affect women and the whole society first. Financial support for families is a nice start but the government needs to do more than that,” a comment said.

In a briefing on 8 March, the president’s spokesperson Lee Do-woon asked the members: “Please come up with bold and sure measures for the low birth rate so that they can be felt by the people”.

The presidential Committee on Ageing Society and Population Policy is expected to hold a meeting which will be chaired by Mr Yoon in the “near future” to discuss the measures, Yonhap news reported.

Under South Korean law, most able-bodied men are required to perform 18-21 months of military service. However special exemptions had been granted for athletes and artists who excel in certain international competitions that have been tied to national prestige.

Last year, the members of the K-pop band BTS were ordered to serve their mandatory military duties under South Korean law after the issue that whether they should be granted exemptions because of their artistic accomplishments was hotly debated in the country.

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