South Korea is the most expensive country in the world to raise a child till the age of 18, according to a recent study—the findings of which provide a clear explanation for the nation’s falling fertility rate and looming population crisis.
The annual study by the Beijing-based YuWa Population Research Institute ranked South Korea at the top of the list of nations for raising a child, with the cost coming to 7.79 times the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, reported. That works out as Korean Won (KRW) 365 million (€251,562/ $271,957).
China is second on the list, with the cost of bringing up a child 6.9 times per capita GDP, followed by Germany at 3.64 times and France at 2.24 times. As expenditure on childcare is on the rise, the number of children being born in the world’s 10th-largest economy is dropping. Figures released in March show that the nation’s fertility rate stands at 0.78, i.e. for every 100 women, 78 babies will be born throughout their lifetimes.
Also Read | Is it rude to ask ‘how old are you’? Not in South Korea
Falling fertility rate
This is the lowest figure in the world and a sharp decline from a rate of 1.48, seen as recently as 2000. In 1980, South Korea’s fertility rate stood at 2.82 and a solid 5.95 in 1960. Experts warn that the nation will have to maintain a fertility rate of 2.1 to have a stable population without resorting to immigration.
For Koreans, a large sum of childcare expenditure goes towards educational expenses beyond regular public schooling. In 2022, the Chosun Ilbo pointed out, Koreans spent KRW26 trillion (€17.94 billion) on private cram schools for their children, a figure that works out as KRW524,000 (€361.53) each month per child.
“Korea is a very education-focused society, and for most families, extra lessons after regular school ends are just accepted as normal,” said Han Ye-jung, a lawyer with a 31-month old daughter.
Cram schools are known as “hagwon” in South Korea and children often start when they are 4 years old, typically to learn English as they play, Han told DW. “This is a big trend in Seoul at the moment and people pay a lot of money every month for these English kindergartens because they believe it is easier for children to learn the language when they are young and it is a really important skill to have,” she said.
Also Read | Explained: How South Korean movies are dominating world cinema
Han admits that she often discusses education options when she meets up with friends or family members, with her cousin’s daughter recently enrolling at an English kindergarten. Another factor behind parents’ decisions to send kids to afterschool classes is the high number of working mothers in South Korea, with cram schools providing a place for children to be supervised.
- South Korea is the most expensive country in the world to raise a child till the age of 18, according to a recent study.
- For South Koreans, a large sum of childcare expenditure goes towards educational expenses beyond regular public schooling.
- South Korea’s society emphasises education, and given the high number of working mothers, more parents opt to send children to after-school classes.
Focus on English, math
And while private institutions also offer sports classes or instruction in music or other cultural pursuits, Han agrees that most classes are for English and math—the subjects critical to ensuring students get into a good high school, followed by a good university and, hopefully, a good career.
“A good private education on top of regular school is meant to make sure that a child gets good grades and a place at one of the best universities,” Han said. “And that should mean a good job, so getting into a top university is critical as it guarantees success in life.”
Park Saing-in, an economist at Seoul National University, agrees that an exceptionally large proportion of household income is spent on education—and remains unconvinced that the “competition” is positive for young people.
“To my mind, there is too much competition in the education sector in Korea, especially when it comes to university entrance exams,” he told DW. “Clearly, the more a child studies, the better chance she or he will have of getting into a good university, and while younger children may do things like afterschool classes in sports or music, that eventually gets narrowed down to the subjects they need to get into university.”
Also Read | South Korea’s struggle to clamp down on ‘cram schools’ as the private tutoring industry remains lucrative
‘Preying on parents’
An editorial in the Chosun Ilbo also accused cram school operators of “preying on [parents’] anxieties” and encouraging them to pay vast sums of money to keep up with what the rest of society expects.
Weighed down by the cost of putting a child through many years of extra tuition, it is “no wonder Korea’s birth rate is so low,” the paper states. Park—who has no children—is hopeful that Korean society might gradually change and place less emphasis on school learning and more on a relaxed childhood.
“It won’t happen in the near future, but I hope it is something that we might see one day in the future,” he said. “I believe a good education is important and will lead to a good university and career, but many people in Korea—myself included—believe that spending on private education has gone too far and we need a better balance.”