18 February 2016
South Korea is facing rapid aging. Major repercussions are anticipated. Innovative approaches and a new mindset will help to defuse this impending demographic crisis.
As South Korea grapples with an increasingly strident and pugnacious North, another major crisis looms – albeit silently – on the horizon. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects (UNWPP), 6,347,434 Koreans or 12.7% of South Korea’s population were aged 65 or above in 2014. By 2026, an astounding 10,678,883 Koreans or 20.5% of the population are expected to be aged 65 or above. What is truly striking about this sharp increase in the number of senior citizens is that only 550,999 Koreans or 2.9% of the population were aged 65 or above when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Within a few decades, South Korea had turned into an aged society with major repercussions anticipated ahead.
South Korea’s rapid aging is the culmination of two key factors. Firstly, South Koreans are living longer. Between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and 2014, life expectancy in Korea jumped by 33.6 years from 48.2 to 81.9, UNWPP data shows. Meanwhile, the country’s birth rate plunged – from 38.0 births per 1000 population in 1953 to just 9.1 births per 1000 population in 2014. An inexorable consequence of this sharp increase in life expectancies and plunging birth rates is that at some point, total population will start to decline. Indeed, the UNWPP projects that (from 50,074,401 in 2014), South Korea’s population will peak at 52,714,671 in 2035 before declining steadily at least until the end of this century.
Crucially, South Korea’s rapid demographic transition is not simply an issue of the sheer number of senior citizens in the coming years – major fiscal, economic, social and security implications for the country are also expected.
… Tan Teck Boon is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Lee Sang Ok is a visiting RSIS research fellow from the Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea.
RSIS / Online
Last updated on 19/02/2016