The Real Reason South Koreans Aren’t Having Babies
Gender, rather than race or age or immigration status, has become the country’s sharpest social fault line.
Updated at 6:53 p.m. ET on March 24, 2023
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On the days she’s feeling most generous toward men—say, when she sees a handsome man on the street—Helena Lee can sometimes put her distaste aside and appreciate them as “eye candy.” That’s as far as she goes: “I do not want to know what is inside of his brain.” Most of the time, she wants nothing at all to do with men.
“I try to have faith in guys and not to be like, ‘Kill all men,’” she says. “But I’m sorry, I am a little bit on that side—that is, on the extreme side.”
Her father, she says, was abusive and moved out when she was 6, and she has lived with her mother and grandmother ever since, a mini-matriarchy that suits her fine. She wears her hair in a bob, and on the day we met, she had on a black-denim button-down and a beige trench coat. In college, male classmates told her she’d be cuter if she “fixed her gay style.” The worst part, she said, was that they were surprised when she was offended—they thought they’d paid her a compliment. She is 24, studying for civil-servant exams, and likes reading Andrea Dworkin, Carl Sagan, and the occasional romance novel, which she considers pure fantasy.
Lee is part of a boycott movement in South Korea—women who are actively choosing single life. Their movement—possibly tens of thousands strong, though it’s impossible to say for sure—is called “4B,” or “The 4 No’s.” Adherents say no to dating, no to sex with men, no to marriage, and no to childbirth. (“B” refers to the Korean prefix bi-, which means “no”.)
They are the extreme edge of a broader trend away from marriage. By one estimate, more than a third of Korean men and a quarter of Korean women who are now in their mid-to-late 30s will never marry. Even more will never have children. In 1960, Korean women had, on average, six children. In 2022, the average Korean woman could expect to have just 0.78 children in her lifetime. In Seoul, the average is 0.59. If this downward drift continues, it will not be long before one out of every two women in the capital never becomes a parent.
Many countries’ populations are aging and, in some cases, shrinking. In January, China recorded its first population decline since the 1960s, when the country had been racked by famine. America’s birth rate has been falling since the Great Recession (though 86 percent of American women still have at least one child by the time they’re in their 40s). But South Korea’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world.
Marriage and children are more closely linked in South Korea than nearly anywhere else, with just 2.5 percent of children born outside of marriage in 2020, compared with an OECD average of more than 40 percent. For nearly 20 years, the Korean government has tried to encourage more marriages and more babies. In 2005, the government recognized low fertility as a matter of national importance and put forth its Framework Act on Low Birth Rate in an Aging Society, versions of which have been renewed every five years.
The government has tried expanding maternity leave, offering couples bigger and bigger bonuses for having babies, and subsidizing housing in Seoul for newlyweds. The mayor there has proposed easing visa restrictions to import more cheap foreign nannies, while some rural governments fund bachelors seeking foreign brides. In 2016, the government published a “birth map” online showing how many women of reproductive age lived in different regions—a clumsy attempt to encourage towns and cities to produce more babies. It prompted a feminist protest with women holding banners that read my womb is not a national public good and baby vending machine. The map was taken down.
In all this time, the country has spent more than $150 billion hoping to coax more babies into the world. None of its efforts are working. Many Korean metro systems have hot-pink seats designated for pregnant women, but when I visited Seoul in November, six months pregnant myself and easily tired, I was rarely able to snag a seat; they were filled with dozing elderly people.
There are a lot of reasons people decide not to have a baby. Young Koreans cite as obstacles the high cost of housing in greater Seoul (home to roughly half the country’s 52 million citizens), the expense of raising a child in a hypercompetitive academic culture, and grueling workplace norms that are inhospitable to family life, especially for women, who are still expected to do the bulk of housework and child care. But these explanations miss a more basic dynamic: the deterioration in relations between women and men—what the Korean media call a “gender war.”
“I think the most fundamental issue at hand is that a lot of girls realize that they don’t really have to do this anymore,” Lee told me. “They can just opt out.”
The plummeting fertility rate has its roots in the rapid transformation of Korean society. After the Korean War, many people migrated from villages to work in urban factories for miserable wages, as part of a state-led economic transformation that became known as the “Miracle on the Han River.” High-school and college enrollment shot up. A prodemocracy movement eventually led to the toppling of military rule in 1987, and to new freedoms. After the 1997 financial crisis, companies restructured, and Korea’s corporate culture—known for demanding long hours in exchange for job security—took on the precarity familiar to Americans.
But gender roles were slower to evolve. Chang Kyung-sup, a sociologist at Seoul National University, coined the term compressed modernity to describe South Korea’s combination of lightning-fast economic transformation and the slow, uneven evolution of social institutions such as the family. More and more women entered higher education, finally surpassing their male counterparts in 2015. But educated women were still often expected to drop out of the workforce upon marriage or motherhood. The family remained the basic unit of society, and both the old order and the new assigned familial responsibilities nearly exclusively to women. Women’s ambitions have expanded, but the idea of what it means to be a wife and mother in Korea has not. As a result, resentments on both sides of the gender divide have flourished.
On a sunny day in November, I met Cho Young-min, 49, at a café in Gangnam. After more than two decades in marketing, she runs a business creating urban gardens. She sees the gender war partly as a result of that disconnect in expectations, and the fact that, for the first time, men and women are now genuinely competing for jobs.
The unemployment rate in Korea is relatively low, less than 4 percent, but it’s significantly higher for people in their 20s. Mandatory male military service—South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea—gives women what many men perceive as an advantage in the labor market, a head start of 18 months to two years. Women counter this with data on the pay gap, the largest in the OECD at 31 percent.
“To women’s minds, before, they had a very small portion of the pie, like this”—Cho held her thumb and index finger close together. “Now they are expanding the portion, bit by bit. It’s still very small compared to the men’s portion. But to men, they are losing.”
Last March, Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president on a wave of male resentment. He pledged to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which he said treated men like “potential sex criminals.” And he blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rate, suggesting that it “prevents healthy relationships between men and women,” adding that this was “not a problem that can be solved by giving out government subsidies.”
According to exit polls, nearly 59 percent of men ages 18 to 29 voted for Yoon, while 58 percent of women in that age group voted for the liberal candidate. One commentator declared it the “incel election.” Several people noted to me that in a country as ethnically homogenous as South Korea, the election emphasized the extent to which gender, rather than race or immigration status, has become the key social fault line.
Cho Jung-min had always planned to be married by 23. Her mother had married young, and given birth to her at 22. Cho loved having a young mom; the two of them watch the same TV shows and admire the same singers. “I wanted to do the same thing for my child,” Cho told me. But when she was 17 or 18, she’d mentioned her marriage plan to a friend. “Then why are you struggling so hard to study and go to university?” her friend asked. Good question. “That was one of the turning points,” she told me. Cho is 32 now and single.
We met at an Indian restaurant near her office. Cho has wavy black hair and swanned in wearing a stylish wool coat and sparkly scarf. She had studied and worked in France for years, but moved home during the pandemic. She is now a corporate strategist at a luxury e-retailer, where many of her workdays stretch until 10 or 11 p.m. (This is not uncommon: Last week a government proposal to raise the cap on the legal workweek from 52 hours to 69 hours was abandoned after young people and women’s groups protested.)
These hours provide Cho with little opportunity for dating, which, anyway, has not been a resounding success. She’s gone on four or five blind dates in the past two years. (Blind dates set up by friends or colleagues, as well as large matchmaking companies, are common ways of meeting people in South Korea, where online dating is not as widespread as it is in the U.S.) She found the men closed-minded, with “a traditional way of thinking.” Men, she said, “always want to debate with me: ‘Why are you thinking that way?’ They all need to teach me.” She doesn’t tell them she’s a feminist. Her mom has warned her not to, because she thinks it could be dangerous.
When I asked why she thought young Koreans were retreating from dating, Cho immediately brought up physical safety. “These days, there is a lot of violence during dating, so we start to feel very afraid,” she said.
In 2016, a 34-year-old man murdered a woman in a public restroom near the Gangnam metro station in Seoul. Although he said he was motivated by women routinely ignoring him, police blamed mental illness. This was a germinal event for many Korean young women, who were furious and terrified; it could have happened to anyone.
A 2021 study by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 16 percent of South Korean women had experienced some kind of intimate-partner violence—a category that included emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as a range of controlling behaviors. A smaller survey in 2016 by the Korea Women’s Hotline, a nonprofit group, found that 62 percent of the participants had recently experienced such behaviors while dating. In one 2015 study of 2,000 men, nearly 80 percent reported having behaved in an abusive or controlling way toward a dating partner.
Not long ago, Cho was on a bus waiting to get off at her stop when an SUV pulled over. A man got out and started throwing bowling balls into the street. A woman climbed out after him, crying and screaming, and he began hitting her. Cho called the police. “I thought it was only on the news,” she said. “I realized that it can also happen to me.”
Many women I interviewed said that their childhood had been marked by domestic violence and that they feared being hurt by men they might date, or filmed in an intimate moment.
Meera Choi, a Yale doctoral student, is researching gender inequality and changes in family formation in South Korea—what she calls a “crisis of heterosexuality.” When I expressed my surprise at how prevalent fears like Cho’s seemed to be, she estimated that 20 of the 40 women she had recently interviewed about these issues had experienced either familial or dating violence.
Many of the women I spoke with said that patriarchy and sexism haunted their earliest memories. Some had grown up waiting until all the men in their families had finished eating before sitting down to their cold leftovers. They’d watched their parents dote on their brothers. They’d been hit by fathers and sexually harassed at school. They’d grown up and gone to job interviews and promptly been asked about their marital status.
But many said they had only come to articulate these experiences after encountering feminism—frequently online. They described a moment of awakening, perhaps even radicalization. They read about femicides, stalking, and digital sex crimes, known as molka, reported cases of which have been on the rise since 2011.
The world over, men are loud on the internet. The Korean website Ilbe.com, known for its overt anti-feminism, receives about 20 million visits each month, in a country of just under 52 million people. (Its users are anti- lots of other things too: anti-LGBTQ, anti-liberal, anti-immigrant). The Ilbe community has elements of the alt-right and the manosphere; some have likened it to 4chan or incel forums. Users refer to Korean women as kimchinyeo, or “kimchi women,” stereotyping them as vain, materialistic, and manipulative. Men share sexist memes and complaints about reverse discrimination that one Korean writer has described as “paranoid misogyny.”
In 2015, some women began to fight back. They created a website, Megalia, where they practiced the art of “mirroring”: They adopted the same rhetorical devices, sick humor, and misogynistic tropes, but used them to make fun of men. In response to the objectification of Korean women and complaints about their small breasts, women poked fun at Korean men for, they claimed, having small penises. The Megalia logo was a reference to this: an image of a hand with the thumb and pointer finger close together. They flipped the gender of common refrains about women, posting comments like “Women prefer a virgin man” and “Men should stay in the kitchen.” Jeong Eui-sol, a lecturer in gender studies at Chungnam National University in Daejeon, describes this as “troll feminism.”
Megalia shut down in 2017, after many users left for a new feminist community, Womad. But feminist ideas were traveling in other ways too. The novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, about the sexism that characterized a Korean woman’s life from childhood through motherhood, sold more than a million copies, and was made into a popular film. Kim Jo-eun, a sociologist studying gender and demography at KDI School of Public Policy and Management, in Sejong, found a sharp rise in the number of Google searches for misogyny and feminism after the Gangnam murder. Searches for feminism rose again in 2018, when Korea’s #MeToo reckoning began.
Distrust and even hatred between women and men, Kim believes, are the key to understanding South Korea’s declining birth rate. It’s not that women are with a partner and “thinking about having one or two more babies,” she told me. “It’s that you just don’t want to be in a relationship with men in Korea.”
Although Megalia’s methods were controversial, it accomplished its aim of making misogyny visible. In Helena Lee’s view, the success of the online feminist movement was that it showed women whom they were dealing with, and why men were not worth appeasing. “You don’t have to do plastic surgery; your appearance is not your worth; you don’t need to have long, flowy hair; you don’t have to do makeup; nurturing or mommying your boyfriend is not good for you,” she said, reciting some of the ideas that she and fellow feminists sought to impart.
What the movement did not do, most agree, is enlighten men or change their views. Instead, for men who already felt victimized and angry, it helped turn feminism into a dirty word.
If Korean women chafe at men’s expectations of them, the reverse is true as well.
Men are still expected to be breadwinners, and they work an average of five more hours a week than women—40.6 hours versus 35.2. Many Koreans still expect that the man or his family will buy a newlywed couple’s home, even when both partners have careers. Indeed, one study found that parental income is a strong predictor of whether a man will marry, but has no effect on marriage rates for women.
I met Ha Jung-woo at a café one evening after work. Ha is 31, tall and handsome, with a warm smile and impeccable manners, the kind of guy you wish you could clone for all your single straight girlfriends. He went to the University of Texas at Austin and had a serious relationship there, with a Korean American student. After they broke up and he moved home, he met another woman here. They shared the same values, he said. If they watched a movie together, they would cry at the same things, and if they were reading the news, they’d get angry over the same things. He liked that she laughed a lot.
In 2021, they got engaged. The date was set, the venue booked. Both sets of parents had agreed that they would, together, help buy the newlyweds an apartment; her family would cover 30 percent of the purchase price, Ha 20 percent, and his father the remaining 50 percent. But then his father’s textile business suffered some setbacks, and he could put up only 30 percent. Ha was happy to take out a loan—he had a secure job. But he says that the news of his dad’s diminished circumstances spooked his fiancée’s family, and she called off the engagement.
Ha was devastated. He asked her: “Is it your decision or your parents’ decision?” When she said it was her decision, he gave up.
Yoon Jun-seok is in his second year of a combined master’s and Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at the prestigious Korea University. When we met at a café near campus, he wore a San Francisco Giants hoodie, and black slide sandals with the Giants logo on them. He has few female friends, and has never had a girlfriend. He doesn’t feel that dating is “necessary” right now. At 25, his only priority is to finish his doctorate, which will take another five or six years, and then line up a steady job.
At that point, he’ll be about 32. Then, and only then, does he think he might make an effort to date. “If I can get married, then maybe I prefer between 35 and 40,” he said. “Raising kids in Korea costs a lot.”
In a 2020 survey of 1,000 South Koreans in their 30s, more than half of men who did not wish to marry cited financial concerns as their main hesitation; a quarter of women said they were “happy living alone,” while another quarter named “the culture of patriarchy and gender inequality” as their chief objection to marriage. (Another recent survey by two matchmaking companies found that women were reluctant to marry because they anticipate an asymmetrical division of housework, whereas men hesitated because of “feminism.”)
On my first morning in Seoul, I met Jung Kyu-won, a bioethicist who teaches law and medicine at two universities in the city, for coffee. We had been emailing about the gender war, and he had asked his male students if they would speak with me. The young men weren’t comfortable being interviewed, but they shared their thoughts with him, which he summarized for me. (That it was so much easier to find women willing to talk about these issues than men seemed perhaps connected to the problem itself.) They had a long list of complaints, many of which boiled down to a lack of trust in potential female partners, and resentment over the expectation that they would bear nearly all the financial responsibilities in a relationship.
Jung is in his late 50s and has been divorced for many years. He recently read an article about women’s expectations for a husband, he told me, and realized that he himself, despite his professional accomplishments, didn’t meet their salary requirements.
Some young people I met wish things were different. Shin Hyun, 20, is a devout Christian studying comparative literature and culture at Seoul’s Yonsei University. He is close to his parents, who always told their children, “You guys are my greatest reward.” He’s keen to marry and experience parenthood for himself one day. “I don’t think you can feel a love that’s greater than parental love,” he told me.
Walking around Seoul, I began to wonder where the children were hiding. Throughout the city, I saw “no-kids zones”—restaurants and cafés with stickers on their door announcing the establishment’s no-kids policy. But the children must be somewhere, right?
One evening, I went with a translator to Daechi-dong, an area in Gangnam famous for its concentration of hagwon—cram schools. He pointed up at the office buildings lining the boulevards, noting which schools were on which floors—this one was known for languages, that one for math. At about 9:30 p.m., cars (all with moms at the wheel) pulled up to idle by the curb. By 10, children and teenagers of all ages, laden with heavy-looking backpacks, streamed out into the street.
A few nights later, I sat down with Lira, a cheerful woman in her late 40s who asked that I use just her first name for privacy reasons. She grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, when students attended hagwon only if they were weak in a given subject. Now the schools are essential for any kid who wants to get into a decent college. Lira’s daughter studied at a high-pressure hagwon, 30 to 40 minutes from their house, to get into a competitive high school. It cost about $2,400 a month, “a lot of our family’s expenses,” Lira said. When I asked if her husband helped with any of the arrangements—researching the best hagwon, the daily drop-off and pickup, the fresh meals and special treats she made to ease her daughter’s stress—it took her a minute to stop laughing before she could say no: “In Korea, child care is more the woman’s responsibility.”
Indeed, many of the mothers I spoke with, despite being married, sounded like what I would soon become: a single mom. At 40, I decided to use eggs that I’d frozen a few years earlier for in vitro fertilization—something that is not only frowned upon in Korea, but basically impossible: The Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology allows only married women to obtain donor sperm.
One day, toward the end of my trip, I visited a clinic run by CHA Fertility Center. I was surprised, given CHA’s growing egg-freezing business, to hear a director of the center tell me that she personally doesn’t support women becoming single parents, because “it’s not good for the child.” But as young people eye the heterosexual nuclear family with more and more skepticism, South Korea may need to accept, and even support, other models.
Very few rich countries have successfully reversed a decline in fertility, and none has climbed back above the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman after dropping below it. Paul Y. Chang, a Harvard sociologist who studies family life in Korea, sees the material and social challenges there as intertwined. “If you provide housing for every single unemployed man, my guess is they’ll be a little bit less misogynistic and less angry at the world,” he said. Similarly, “if we’re able to somehow force companies to pay women equally, and give them promotional pathways that are equivalent to what the men get, then I’m sure that it would take the edge off the feminism.” A more secure society could make people more comfortable planning for a future that includes marriage and children.
But most of the women I spoke with pushed back on these ideas. Some considered Korean society irredeemably misogynistic. Many women said they were happy living with their pets; others had started dating women.
Park Hyun-joon, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, directed the Korean Millennials Project, for which he and colleagues surveyed about 5,000 Korean adults ages 25 to 49. He has found that many Koreans see family as “a luxury good.” But he also acknowledged the divergence in values between women and men, an issue that is less easily solved by policy interventions. “I clearly see why Korean women don’t want to get married to Korean guys,” he said. “Their political and cultural conservatism probably makes them pretty unattractive in the marriage market.”
Or as one young woman I spoke with put it, her friends “kind of hate men, and they are afraid of them.”
I wondered whether the real luxury Park was referring to was trust—the capacity to believe that tomorrow will be better than today, and that your fellow citizens are working to make it so.
I asked many people whether they thought South Korea was losing anything in its spurning of reproduction. Some had trouble grasping the question. A few mentioned something about having to pay higher taxes in the future. One woman, a 4B adherent, said she jokes with her friends that the solution to South Korea’s problems is for the whole country to simply disappear. Thanos, the villain in The Avengers who eliminates half the Earth’s population with a snap of his fingers, didn’t do anything wrong, she told me. Meera Choi, the doctoral student researching gender inequality and fertility, told me she’s heard other Korean feminists make the exact same joke about Thanos. Underneath the joke, I sensed a hopelessness that bordered on nihilism.
After talking with so many thoughtful and kind young people, I mostly felt sad that, a generation from now, there will be fewer like them in their country. One morning outside my hotel, I watched a father in a suit and trench coat wait with his young son on the corner. When a school bus pulled over, he helped the boy on, and stood there waving and smiling at him through the bus’s windows as the little boy trundled down the aisle to his seat. The father waved frantically, lovingly, as if he couldn’t squeeze enough waves into those last few moments in which he held his son’s gaze. He was still smiling long after the bus drove off.
Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
This article originally misattributed the findings of a 2016 study on dating violence to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. In fact, that study was conducted by the Korea Women’s Hotline. We have added a more recent study by the ministry for further context. This article has also been updated to correct the date of the study of abusive behavior among Korean men, and to clarify the kinds of behaviors that study examined.