For the first time ever, South Korea's population has seen a downturn, with the decline likely exacerbated by the pandemic. Census figures reported by Yonhap show a count of 51,829,023 at year's end, a nearly 21,000 drop from 2019, per the Guardian. The population had risen over the past 10 years, though the growth rate had plummeted from 1.49% in 2010 to 0.05% by last year. An aging population, with nearly a quarter of the country's total said to be 60 and older; a declining birth rate (South Korea is said to have the lowest fertility rate in the world, per UN stats); and the high price of housing and education are all noted as factors. Deaths outpaced births in 2020, with 307,764 deaths—a 3.1% jump from 2019, per CNN—and 275,815 new arrivals. Experts also note South Korean women are increasingly balking at marriage and motherhood.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has likely made the situation worse, the Wall Street Journal reports. Although South Korea's statistics agency had previously warned that the nation would see a population decline in 2021, the coronavirus seems to have sped things along thanks to job losses and marriage delays, which probably led to couples holding off on having kids. "It's too early to see these factors impact birth rates now, but we're expecting to see the effects come through 2021 and 2022," a Yonsei University sociology professor says. Incentives by the government to encourage couples to keep having kids, including cash payments and housing stipends to families with multiple children, haven't made much of a dent in moving things along. The government predicts that if the trend continues, South Korea could see a population as low as 39 million by 2067. (Read more South Korea stories.)