The last children on South Korea's ageing island After decades of national urbanisation and a long-gone birth control drive, the island of Nokdo encapsulates the demographic slump that saw the population of Asia's fourth-largest economy drop for the first time last year.
March 18, 2021 / 01:50 PM IST
After decades of national urbanisation and a long-gone birth control drive, the island of Nokdo encapsulates the demographic slump that saw the population of Asia's fourth-largest economy drop for the first time last year. (Image: Reuters)
At 10 years old, Lyoo Chan-hee wishes he wasn't one of the last three school kids left playing on the beaches of the Nokdo island. "It would be great if I have more friends here because I can have more options to play," said Chan-hee. Instead, he often plays with Kim Si-young, aged 66, and one of the last 100 or so residents of a once-vibrant fishing village emblematic of the demographic crisis unfolding in South Korea. (Image: Reuters)
"I want to protect Nokdo but it's depressing to see fewer and fewer people here," said Kim. South Korea has become the world's fastest-ageing society with the lowest birth rate anywhere in 2020, according to the World Bank. (Image: Reuters)
The nation's fertility rate slid to just 0.84 in 2020 from 4.5 in 1970, Statistics Korea data showed. Amid the nation's economic rise since the 1970s, producing world-class manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, more women began to enter the workforce as family planning campaigns, including sterilisation, took effect in the 1970s and 1980s. (Image: Reuters)
More recently, soaring home prices in Seoul metropolitan area, where almost half of the nation's 51 million population now lives, have been blamed for fewer babies in the country, while last year the coronavirus pandemic also discouraged couples from marrying and having babies. (Image: Reuters)
The Bank of Korea expects the nation will overtake Japan as the oldest society in the world sooner than 2045—its earlier projection—as its "fertility rate is declining at a much faster pace than expected" amid the pandemic, the bank said in a December report.
To replenish the workforce, the government plans to encourage more women and senior citizens to work and create new visas to attract foreign professionals. (Image: Reuters)
Back in Nokdo, Chan-hee's father Lyoo Geun-pil, 42, is one of the island's younger residents, working as a pastor at the island's only church since 2016. Lyoo described Nokdo as a "heavenly place" as his three children can run around freely, worrying only about where to find wild goats or gulls to chase rather than look out for traffic. (Image: Reuters)
Lyoo plans to stay in Nokdo as long as his pastoral position allows him to but knows the family can't stay here forever, not least because learning facilities are restricted to a single makeshift mini-classrom and a teacher dispatched from the mainland. "I'm also worried this place might disappear soon," he said, expressing the sense of foreboding that's troubling hundreds of rural towns all across South Korea. (Image: Reuters)