SEOUL – Trying to raise the world’s lowest birth rate is among the missions of South Korea’s welfare ministry — a challenge starkly illustrated when one of its own working mothers died at her office.
The 34-year-old woman was an elite employee who had passed the highest category of the highly competitive civil service entrance exams.
A mother of three, she had only returned from maternity leave a week before her death last month, and immediately went back to working 12-hour days.
She returned to the office on the Saturday. On the Sunday, she was there again at five in the morning to finish early and take care of her children later in the day, according to her colleagues.
Instead she suffered a heart attack and they never saw her alive again.
Her death has prompted widespread soul-searching over the difficulties faced by overburdened and exhausted working mothers in a deeply workaholic and male-dominated society — which desperately needs to encourage more births.
South Korea’s fertility rate — the number of babies a woman is expected to have during her lifetime — has been declining for years and now stands at 1.2, the lowest in the world in the latest World Bank tally. The global average is 2.4.
Experts call it a “birth strike”.
The civil servant who died has not been named, but Kim Yu-Mi, a 37-year-old IT engineer with two young daughters, said she could “totally relate to her”.
“It is exactly the reality for all working mums all across South Korea,” she said.
She was one of the minority of South Koreans who took advantage of the legally available one year of parental leave, which is paid for by the government.
Since 2006 authorities have pumped more than 100 trillion won ($88 billion) into hundreds of programmes aimed at encouraging people to marry young and have larger families. But they have failed to arrest the trend.
Kim describes herself as “extremely lucky” for being allowed to go back to work.
“At least my employer did not kick me out when I asked for a maternity leave,” she said. “In the past, female employees like me were simply told ‘Go home and never come back’.”
But when she returned to the office after her first maternity leave, she added, she often worked past 9 pm, making reading a bedtime story impossible.
“Sitting with my child to play and eat dinner together was an unimaginable dream.”
According to official statistics, the average South Korean works 2,113 hours a year, the second-longest among OECD member nations, where the mean is 1,766. Mexico ranks number one.
But local surveys indicate the reality is even longer, and, as in Japan, there are regular reports of “death by overwork”.
At the same time, in double-income families, men spend only 40 minutes a day on house chores or childcare compared to three hours for women.
The cutthroat corporate culture, and a deep-rooted patriarchy that sees women as the sole family caregiver, are pushing ever more women to shun marriage, said Lee Na-Young, sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
The vast majority of children are born in wedlock in South Korea, but the marriage rate has steadily declined to hit a record low of 5.9 per 1000 people last year.
“South Korean women are expected to be modern career women at daytime and traditional housewives as soon as they go home in the evening… so why bother to get married?” Lee said, noting the burden on working women is far heavier in the South than elsewhere.
“In this environment, I wouldn’t be surprised even if more South Korean working mothers are exhausted to death,” she added.
“This trend among young women, called ‘birth strike’ or ‘marriage strike’, is a very reasonable, rational choice for them to survive socially and economically.”
In the wake of the civil servant’s death, the welfare ministry has banned working on Saturdays and moved to discourage weekday overtime.
Asia’s fourth-largest economy has seen ever more women joining the workforce and increasingly taking the top spots in competitive exams to become lawyers, diplomats, school teachers, accountants and other professionals.
But a shortage of affordable, reliable daycare centres also means women are faced with having to give up their careers to stay at home if they become mothers.
The birth rate problem will not be solved without a change in attitudes that see women as “nothing more than tools for making babies”, the major Dong-A Ilbo daily said.
Would women be happy to give birth in a society where “a working mum who just returned from a maternity leave dies like this?” it asked in an editorial. “No, they have become too smart to do so.”