[COLUMN] The National Assembly, the birth rate and the way out of hell

By Park Sae-jin Posted : February 17, 2023, 23:25 Updated : March 16, 2023, 18:13

[Courtesy of Michael Breen]

[This article was contributed by Michael Breen, the CEO of Insight Communications and a former foreign correspondent]

SEOUL -- The National Assembly last week passed a motion to impeach Lee Sang-min, the Minister of Interior and Safety, over the Itaewon tragedy. It’s now up to the Constitutional Court whether to approve or reject it. Reading this news, I found myself thinking about Korea’s falling birth rate. I know this makes little sense but let me try to explain the connection.

Readers will, of course, remember the images of the Halloween accident. They were like scenes from hell. The crowd became too dense for people to maneuver and hundreds in one section toppled en masse down one of the narrow sloping alleyways. In all, 159 young people died and around 200 were injured.

We have high expectations of leadership at such a time. We expect a reasonable investigation and, at the same time, we expect leaders to act responsibly and with dignity. 

But our politicians squabble in a way that is unseemly. We get the impression that their hold on power is more important to them than the reason we, the people, allow them to have power. They are like restauranteurs insisting on their right to serve us bad food.

Now the police investigation is complete, they are showing their yangban contempt for the seomin police and arguing about its recommendations. The side in power says it’s okay, while the side which thinks it should be in power says it doesn’t go far enough. Some demand that even the president should resign, but the Assembly thinks it’s sufficient to embarrass him by impeaching his interior minister. Where is the dignity? Where is the honorable resignation, rather than forced expulsion, of the police chief or minister to pre-empt this farce? We know they did not personally harm anyone, but leadership is about collective responsibility not individual guilt. And where is the dignity of the opposition? This politics of yelling and blaming and defensiveness gives us a feeling like we are in hell. 

And that, I would suggest, is the connection with the falling birthrate.

Koreans have the distinction of having the lowest fertility rate in the world. We’ve been sliding for decades and have been at the bottom now for four years. Each year we break our own record and the figure gets even lower. This is clearly a long-term problem, the consequences of which strike us, not at once but in slow motion, slow enough to get accustomed to. 

President Yoon Suk-yeol recently revealed that the state has spent KRW 280 trillion of taxpayer money trying to solve it over the last 16 years. I am sure his administration will continue this apparently futile spending. Given that the definition of madness, as somebody once said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, then there’s another reason to feel like we are in hell, or some weird hospital waiting room very similar to it.

I am sure by now that the reader can see where I am going with this. It is the Hell Chosun explanation which says the reason so many people are not marrying and having babies is because they feel this society is hell. And in this hell, even efforts to make it less hellish just seem to make it worse.

Of course, the hell we are talking about is not physical. It is not as if North Korea has invaded and millions of us are piling into squalid camps in Busan. Nor is it the hell you would experience if you were to escape to Busan and find all the ships gone and not a soul left behind. Nor, I would argue, is it the hell of childcare and hagwons and interrupted careers that everyone talks about.

It is the hell of meaninglessness. It’s the inability to answer the question, what’s the point? Why should I make the effort? Why should I endure hardship? For what better purpose? If I can’t find an answer, why should I bother? The low birth rate and other things, including the suicide rate, which is the fourth highest in the world, are symptoms of people turning their back on life.

How did it come to this? The ancestors endured all kinds of suffering for their blood lineage. More recently, Koreans worked the longest hours in the world for national development. If filial piety and nationalism no longer prevail to motivate people, what does?

What ethical outlook shields those among us who are not battered by the winds of materialism, over-competitiveness, obsession with external attractiveness and other things that make us feel like weary losers? 

It’s hard to say what exactly it is because I think it is both instinctive and elusive, like the thing at the edge of your vision that disappears when you turn to look at it. But it is something like this: people do not deliberately seek joy or meaning, but they find it comes to them when they willingly devote to something outside of themselves. This is ironic because you would think that the best way to find happiness would be to keep examining yourself and doing things for yourself until you locate it. But it seems to appear as a corollary when you make effort toward people and things that lie outside of yourself.

Thus, the natural pursuit by the young adult of a life partner and the natural desire they have for a baby and then grandchildren and the way they order their lives to sustain their creation. Without the struggle and hardship encountered, it does not happen. In this way, the negative factors become positives.

Perhaps then the best way out of hell is not to moan and give up, but to be grateful and welcome it and think of other people. Perhaps then, instead of criticizing them, I should be thanking the National Assembly members for their hard work as they look for other people to try and impeach.
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