South Korea's fertility rate ranks among the lowest in the world.
CNN  — 

South Korea recorded more deaths than births in 2020 for the first time ever, prompting calls for action to revive the country’s falling fertility rate.

For years, South Korea has struggled with a growing demographic crisis. The country’s fertility rate – the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime – has repeatedly hit record lows, and ranks near the bottom of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Meanwhile, South Korea’s population continues to age, sending the country into a demographic decline.

But last year’s census data, released by the Ministry of Interior and Safety on Monday, appears even more alarming.

There were only 275,815 births, a record low – compared to 307,764 deaths, a 3.1% increase in fatalities from the previous year. This is the first time South Korea has hit the “population death cross,” when the number of deaths surpasses births, the ministry said in a news release – and the first time the total population has shrunk.

The population continues to age rapidly, the census showed: 32.7% of people are in their 40s and 50s, and nearly a quarter are over the age of 60.

“The constant decline in birth rate shows that low birth rate remains as a big issue in Korea,” the release said. “There needs to be a fundamental change in the governmental policies such as welfare, education, and national defense, accordingly.”

The release didn’t mention causes of death, or how much the Covid-19 pandemic influenced last year’s figures. The pandemic has killed 981 people in South Korea so far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

But Korean experts have previously warned that the pandemic could skew the number of births and deaths – both because of the higher number of Covid-related deaths, and because the circumstances of the pandemic could discourage couples from having children.

In a report published in December 2020, the central Bank of Korea warned that the country’s falling birth rates and aging population would likely “accelerate” due to the impact of Covid-19. The pandemic caused greater job and income insecurity for young adults in their 20s and 30s – potentially disrupting their plans to start a family. Economic and personal anxieties may cause them to delay having children; in some cases, a temporary postponement on childbirth could turn permanent, said the report.

The bank warned that South Korea may soon have the highest proportion of elderly people in the world, and urged stronger policies and childbirth incentives to sustain the country’s economy.

Other countries with low fertility rates have also seen their demographic difficulties deepen during the pandemic. Japan, which has struggled for years with low birth rates and an aging population, saw the number of reported pregnancies and marriages fall in the first half of 2020.

In October, Japanese Minister of State for Measures for Declining Birthrate Tetsushi Sakamoto told reporters that the pandemic might be discouraging people from getting pregnant and starting families.

There are similar reasons behind both Japan and South Korea’s population decline – a major one being a demanding work culture that makes it difficult to balance careers with family life.

There is also a trend to delay or avoid marriage. In 2018, a majority of South Koreans aged 20 to 44 were single, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHSA). Among those who were not dating, 51% of men and 64% of women said they chose not to date so they can enjoy their hobbies or focus on education. Many say they just don’t have the time, money, or emotional capacity to go on dates.

In an effort to combat the falling birth and marriage rates, South Korea’s government has implemented a number of initiatives and policies. In 2018, the government lowered maximum working hours from 68 hours a week to 52 hours last year, with some experts pointing to the declining fertility rate as a motivator.

More recently in December, the government released its 4th Basic Plan for Low Fertility and Aging Society, which lays out their plans for population policy over the next five years, including offering cash bonuses for childbirth, subsidies for childcare, and expanded benefits for multi-child families.