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Where many pregnant women lose their jobs

Around the large war memorial in front of the subway station Gwanghamun Station in Seoul, children jump through colorfully illuminated water fountains that alternately shoot out of the ground.

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Where many pregnant women lose their jobs

Around the large war memorial in front of the subway station Gwanghamun Station in Seoul, children jump through colorfully illuminated water fountains that alternately shoot out of the ground. All around her, her parents and grandparents are taking photos and videos, and a few uninvolved passers-by stop and watch.

What is a common sight elsewhere is almost something special here, because you usually only see a few children on the street. South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world.

“The East is growing while the West is shrinking” – this belief has been a thing of the past since China announced a falling birth rate for the first time in decades in January. But in Asia, Japan, Taiwan and most of all South Korea are struggling with the aging population.

The cause of the increasing demographic problem is above all a lack of equality. Working women are discriminated against in South Korea: as soon as they become pregnant, many lose their jobs.

South Korea's gender pay gap, known as the gender pay gap, is the widest of any OECD country. But there are other reasons why more and more people remain childless - and thus jeopardize South Korea's economic success model in the long term.

A Wednesday afternoon in Seoul's Itaewon nightlife district. Irene Park is sitting in a trendy café with her laptop open. The 30-year-old, who declined to give her real name, works for a large tech company.

She studied economics at a top university in the country, speaks Chinese and regularly flies to Singapore and New York for work. She has a boyfriend she "might want to marry." But she cannot imagine having a child.

"If I have a child, I have to leave work earlier or work from home if they're sick," she says. Park doesn't know a single woman who has taken a year of maternity leave, although it is theoretically possible by law in Korea to take three years. “Five to six months is the maximum. If you take more, you risk losing your job,” she says.

In 2020, only 0.84 children were born per woman in South Korea, down from 0.81 in 2021. For comparison: in the USA and Germany it was 1.6, in Japan at least 1.3. For a population to remain stable or grow, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1. The demographic development in South Korea also has long-term negative consequences for the economy, because the shortage of skilled workers cannot be cushioned by labor migration, since the country has comparatively strict immigration laws.

Economist Park has been driven since childhood to be the best. Getting into the best school, getting the best degree, getting the best job, the best salary, the best training. "Everyone competes with each other, all the time," says the young woman.

Having a child would mean falling behind and giving up everything she worked so hard for. In fact, even highly educated South Korean women often lose their jobs as soon as they become pregnant.

Many companies do not comply with the legal requirements for parental leave in South Korea and also refuse to reduce working hours during pregnancy. Employees who actually apply for parental leave are disadvantaged or no longer promoted.

In South Korea, around 80 percent of high school graduates go to university and end up competing for a limited number of well-paid jobs. As it is almost impossible to find lucrative part-time jobs, mothers often take odd jobs. So it happens that highly educated Korean women end up sitting at the checkout in the supermarket.

The high cost of education also discourages women like Irene Park from starting a family. Public schools are free, but private schools are very expensive. Parents spend a lot of money on tutoring to give their child a better chance of getting into one of the top three universities in the country. A degree from there is often a prerequisite for the most lucrative jobs.

The OECD estimates that middle-class parents spend up to 30 percent of their income on tutoring. It is true that graduates of public schools also apply for the top universities, but their chances are much lower because they are at an educational disadvantage without additional private lessons in the afternoon.

"Women are less discriminated against than they used to be, but they are still paid less and treated less than men on the job market," says Youjin Moon. She works for the NGO Youth Welfare State Network in Seoul.

Together with a lawyer, she regularly advises women who, for example, are discriminated against in job interviews because they are asked about their relationship status, their marriage plans and a possible desire to have children. "That's still common in many companies," says Moon.

One of the main reasons why women in South Korea are no longer having children is that childcare is their sole responsibility, she says. There are state kindergartens, but the working conditions and salaries of the carers are so bad that many parents do not want to send their children to these facilities because of the poor quality.

Many children are therefore looked after by their grandparents. But if this option fails, it is usually the mother who has to quit her job and stay at home.

Only 55 percent of Korean women work, but almost 74 percent of men. And even if a woman works, she is disadvantaged. At 31 percent, Korea's gender pay gap is the largest in the OECD rankings - and has been for 26 years. Women receive only 69 percent of what men get in terms of salary.

However, to afford an apartment in Seoul, two salaries are often required. At the same time, rents have been rising for years - another reason why women are more likely to work than have a child.

However, these grievances do not stop at women – and have developed over decades. In less than 40 years, South Korea has transformed itself from the "poorhouse of Asia" into a modern tech center. After the Japanese occupation and the Korean War, there was an economic miracle in the 1960s that brought forth companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai.

In 1987 the transition to democracy followed. In an international comparison, South Korea developed extremely quickly, but at the same time the role model remained traditional and no strong welfare state was built. Socially weak, unemployed or pensioners often live in poor conditions and are largely excluded from social life.

Politics gives little reason to hope that this will change fundamentally. South Korea's conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol won last year's election by feeding on anti-feminist sentiments that have emerged in Korea as a counter-movement to MeToo.

Yeol advocated the abolition of the Department of Equality and Family and blamed feminism for the country's low birth rate. In South Korea there is no "structural discrimination based on gender," said the conservative - and thus won the voices of young, anti-feminist men in particular.

Many South Koreans suffer under the enormous pressure of their hyper-capitalist society, the country has high suicide rates, and according to studies, young people living there have been among the unhappiest in the world for years. Many cite the pressure to perform as the main reason. And yet South Korea is also known worldwide for its young fun society - at least for now.

In the evening, back in the trendy district of Itaewon, couples hold hands as they walk through the dimly lit streets, stroll past cocktail bars, clubs and the popular selfie photo shops. K-pop is pounding on every corner.

Seoul is teeming with young adults, perhaps the last generation that is still so numerous. Many women carry flowers in their arms that have been given to them by their companion.

But will these couples one day start a family? Probably only a few.

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