Kim Ji-hyun, a professor at Cha Fertility Center, checks a patient at the clinic, in Bundang, South Korea, April 30, 2022. Picture taken April 30, 2022.
Kim Ji-hyun, a professor at Cha Fertility Center, checks a patient at the clinic, in Bundang, South Korea, April 30, 2022. Picture taken April 30, 2022. Reuters / HEO RAN

In South Korea, fewer women are having children and those who do are in no rush. The sky-high costs of housing and education make financial security a must. Social mores also dictate the need to be married.

Lim Eun-young, a 34-year-old public servant, says she is not ready to start a family due to the costs and as she only began dating her boyfriend several months ago. But worried that her biological clock is ticking, she had some of her eggs frozen in November.

Lim was one of about 1,200 unmarried single women who underwent the procedure last year at CHA Medical Center - a number that has doubled over two years. CHA is South Korea's largest fertility clinic chain with about 30% of the IVF market.

"It's a big relief and it gives me peace of mind to know that I have healthy eggs frozen right here," she said.

Freezing eggs to buy reproductive time is an option increasingly explored by women worldwide. But in South Korea, which has the dubious distinction of having one of the world's lowest fertility rates, the dramatic jump in women using CHA's services throws into sharp relief the economic burdens and social constraints leading to decisions to delay or even forgo having children.

The fertility rate - the average number of children born to a woman over her reproductive life - in South Korea was just 0.81 last year. That compares with an average rate of 1.59 for OECD countries in 2020.

That's also despite enormous sums spent by South Korean authorities on subsidies and perks for families with children. The government budgeted 46.7 trillion won ($37 billion) last year to fund policies aimed at tackling the country's low birth rate.

Much of the blame for South Korean reticence to have children is laid on a highly competitive and expensive education system that makes cram schools and private tutoring a fact of life for most kids from a young age.

"We hear from married couples and watch reality TV shows about how expensive it is to raise kids in terms of education costs and everything, and all these worries translate to fewer marriages and babies," said Lim.

Housing costs have also surged. An average apartment in Seoul, for instance, costs an estimated 19 years of South Korea's median annual household income, up from 11 years in 2017.

Cho So-Young, a 32-year-old nurse at CHA who plans to freeze her eggs this coming July, is also keen to get to a better place financially before having a child.

"If I get married now and give birth, I can't give my baby the kind of environment I had when I grew up...I want better housing, a better neighbourhood and better food to eat," she said.

But even when finances are less of a consideration, being married is seen as a prerequisite to having children in South Korea. Just 2% of births in South Korea occur out of wedlock compared to an average of 41% for OECD countries.

In fact, while single South Korean women are able to freeze their eggs, they can't legally proceed with a sperm donation and the implanting of an embryo unless married - an issue thrust into the spotlight by Sayuri Fujita, a Japanese celebrity and single mother based in South Korea who had to go back to Japan for a sperm donation.

That needs to change, argues Jung Jae-hoon, a social welfare studies professor at Seoul Women's University, noting marriages in South Korea dropped to a record low of 192,500 last year. That's down around 40% from a decade earlier. Even when looking at marriage levels in 2019 to discount the effect of the pandemic, the decline is still a huge 27%.

"The least the government can do is to not get in the way of those out there who are willing to shoulder the financial burden of having a baby," he said.

Even more worrying are the statistics showing a sharp drop-off in willingness to have children at all.

Some 52% of South Koreans in their 20s don't plan to have children when they get married, a massive jump from 29% in 2015, according to a survey conducted in 2020 by the country's gender and family ministry.

($1 = 1,276 won)