The national statistics body reported Wednesday that the fertility rate, or the average number of children expected per woman, fell to 0.78 in 2022 – down from 0.81 the previous year.
Countries need a fertility rate of 2.1 to maintain a stable population, in the absence of immigration.
South Korea’s birth rate has been falling since 2015 and the country recorded more deaths than births for the first time in 2020, a trend that has continued since.
In 2022, the country recorded about 249,000 births and 372,800 deaths.
Similar demographic declines are being seen in several other Asian countries including Japan and China, raising concerns there will be too few people of working age to support the ballooning elderly population.
Meanwhile, Korean women are also having children later in life. The average age of childbirth in South Korea was 33.5 last year.
Experts say the reasons for these demographic shifts across the region include demanding work cultures, stagnating wages, rising costs of living, changing attitudes toward marriage and gender equality, and rising disillusionment among younger generations.
But despite the economic factors at play, throwing money at the problem has proved ineffective. Last September, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol admitted that more than $200 billion has been spent trying to boost the population over the past 16 years.
The South Korean government has introduced various initiatives such as extending paid paternity leave, offering monetary “baby vouchers” to new parents, and social campaigns encouraging men to contribute to childcare and housework.
But experts and residents say more support is needed throughout a child’s life – as well as change on several deep-rooted social issues. For instance, South Korean society still frowns on single parents, with IVF treatment not available to single women.
Couples in non-traditional partnerships also face discrimination; South Korea does not recognize same-sex marriage and regulations make it difficult for unwed couples to adopt.