The morning sun illuminates the mountains behind the village of Bugil. At that time, the school bus with the engine running is waiting for the first student. 8 o’clock 28 min. Choi Won-sim comes stooping down the village streets.
“Mom, how are you?” the bus attendant greets as she helps 73-year-old Choi Won-sim up the steps.
The woman spent her whole life in the village of Bugil, located in the southwestern part of South Korea.
Country’s End is the name given to this area with its rugged coastline. The school bus drives past rice fields, low houses with curved roofs.
When Choi Won-sim was growing up, South Korea was a war-torn country. The girl had to work so that her family could make a living. There is no time left for school, and Choi Won-sim is only now learning to read and write.
Along with three other older women, Choi Won-sim is in third grade at Bugil Elementary School and can already write her name. A woman traces the arcs and lines of Korean letters with trembling fingers. The teacher praises her beautiful drawing.
The transformation is dramatic
Older women like Choi Won-sim are keeping schools in many parts of South Korea from closing because of the country’s shortage of children. The birth rate has fallen to new record lows, with a female South Korean woman having an average of 0.84 children in her lifetime.
There are no worse indicators anywhere in the world. At the same time, society is getting older. The village of Bugilo also feels what this means.
That morning, only three schoolgirls, two of them pensioners, were sitting in the 18-seater school bus.
“There used to be so many people here, children running around in the streets. Every school holiday became a holiday for the entire village,” recalls one senior citizen.
Another 88-year-old student says that 6 of her children attended this school. Back then, there were so many students that classes were held in two shifts – in the morning and in the evening.
In the 1970s, South Korean women had an average of 6 children. At the time, the government was trying to curb the birth rate. In the 1980s, the country’s Ministry of Health advised men and women to undergo a sterilization procedure. Some ads later warned: “Two children is too many.”
The birth rate has been declining as poor agrarian South Korea has transformed into an advanced economy. Many industrialized nations experienced this transformation: the richer the richer, the fewer babies born.
But nowhere has this change been as rapid and drastic as in South Korea. in 2018 the number of births dropped to one child per woman for the first time.
The old women of Bugil saw the village emptying. Their children have long gone elsewhere. Choi Won-sim’s daughter lives in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and sometimes sends her mother packages containing the popular national dish, Korean sauerkraut kimchi.
Morning meetings at the village school help seniors to suppress loneliness as well.
Bugilo Primary School now has 18 students in the first six grade levels. 10 hours in one room. 30 minutes an eight-year-old is sitting in front of the teacher and is studying mathematics. He is the only child in the second grade.
The boy was alone for the entire first school year. Now he attends music, art and sports lessons with several first graders. He is having more fun, says the teacher.
Primary school principal Shin Hyun knows every student’s name. This is his last job before retirement, and the man is saddened by the decline in the village’s population.
“As more and more families move out, we may have to close our school as well,” says Shin Hyun.
The two paths are incompatible
In just a few decades, South Korea has risen to the level of a digital economy. Progress has been achieved through sheer diligence, ambition, and often fierce competition.
But the economic development and the atmosphere of political openness did not become a pretext for the same rapid change of values: the society remained patriarchal and conservative in many areas.
Parents and grandparents have high expectations for young people. The ideal path in life is to graduate with excellent grades, later secure a good income, marry early and start a family.
But many realize that they can hardly satisfy the hopes associated with them. Living in Seoul, the capital of the country, where most of the jobs are located, is expensive.
Couples delay marriage. Most people get married at an older age and many decide to live without children.
The traditional division of spouses’ roles deeply rooted in the country is also unacceptable for young women. When South Korean women become mothers, they take on a greater share of child rearing, household chores, and the expectation of caring for older family members.
During conversations with Korean women, the words are often heard: “Having a baby means giving up yourself.” Many women often see two extremes: to give birth and sacrifice for the family, or to have a career and enjoy a comfortable life. They do not think that both can be reconciled.
“Maybe there is a middle ground, but I don’t know it,” says Lee Ga-hee, head of the travel company. She graduated from school with excellent grades, studied at a prestigious university, has a good job, and got married four years ago. Now the 35-year-old woman is only missing a baby.
Lee Ga-hee’s father calls his daughter selfish, but the woman decided: she is happy without a child.
Men have become privileged
Lee Ga-hee experienced what happens to working women who are pregnant – they become a problem.
Colleagues complain that they have to do the work of pregnant women.
“After having a child, many women do not progress professionally or return to work,” says Lee Ga-hee.
In no other country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is the situation of women at a greater disadvantage compared to men than in South Korea.
This is probably the biggest difference between women’s and men’s salaries.
Among 29 countries, working women in South Korea have the worst conditions, according to the British publication The Economist. The situation of mothers is particularly difficult, and Lee Ga-hee believes that politicians do not want to acknowledge this problem.
The fourth highest-level task force in South Korea aims to increase the number of births in the next four years.
About 145 billion was allocated to achieve this goal. euros.
Care in kindergartens and schools should be expanded. Mothers and fathers can receive up to 11 thousand. EUR support if they go on paternity leave together for three months.
“These actions are like pouring water into a hollow bucket. I belong to the target group of this family policy, but I do not feel that I am being paid attention to. Women need products that really help,” says Lee Ga-hee.
For example, acceptable working conditions for mothers. But a well-educated South Korean woman is often left with only one option: return to full-time work or quit, Lee Ga-hee says.
When asked about mothers working part-time, she laughs: “Part-time in South Korea means you get minimum wage, like working as a cashier in a supermarket.”
There is an education fever
Lee Ga-hee describes the country’s society as struggling to create a favorable environment for parenthood. She is referring not only to business culture, but also to the high expectations placed on mothers and children.
All this is rarely more clear than during South Korea’s matriculation exam day, known as Suneung. Last year they were held on November 18.
It is the most important and possibly the worst day in the life of every South Korean schoolboy. He has to decide on the future path of his life. Everyone’s goal is to enter one of the top three universities in the country. This ensures a good job in a big company and even improves marriage prospects.
On that day, the whole country seems to hold its breath. Clerks come to work later to keep the streets clear. Policemen escort schoolchildren who are late. Airplanes are not allowed to take off and land when the English test is in progress.
When Seoul International Airport suspended flights on Nov. 18 last year, the pastor of a Presbyterian church in the Daechi Ward held a service for Suneung.
The Daechi area is famous for its prestigious schools and ambitious parents. The Brainvalley Institute, located next to the church, offers additional courses.
Many parents believe that their children would not be able to get good grades in the Suneung exams without extra tutoring. As a result, students study mathematics or English up to 10 p.m.
This can cost parents around €500 per month. Often three-year-old children learn English in the afternoon.
“I can’t stand this racing,” says Lee Chan-kyung, who runs a bar in Seoul.
The 37-year-old woman calls herself an atypical Korean: “I wouldn’t want my child to have to experience the burden of this race.” But it’s hard to avoid South Korea’s education fever.
About a third of married women in the country say that the main reason for not having children is the high cost of education.
“You must find a good kindergarten and school. That means you have to move into a suitable residential area, and they are expensive,” says Lee Chan-kyung.
She and her husband refuse to have a family, primarily for financial reasons. A couple can only pay for two rooms of 75 square meters. m apartment in a smaller urban-type settlement near Seoul, which is an hour’s drive from Lee Chan-kyung’s bar.
“We just can’t afford to have a child,” says Lee Chan-kyung.
The woman became convinced of the correctness of her decision during the coronavirus pandemic, when her bar had to be closed several times due to the crisis caused by COVID-19. Lee Chan-kyung’s husband, who used to make music, now delivers food on a scooter.
Sometimes, Lee Chan-kyung’s heart sinks when a man admires their friends’ children.
“I might think about having a baby if I didn’t live in South Korea. But for the sake of his happy childhood, I should leave my homeland,” says the woman.
Attracted young families
It seems that the political class, whose typical representatives are mostly older men, cannot find answers to questions about the concerns of young couples. South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, elected in March, faces enormous challenges: the more elderly people, the higher the cost of the health care system and the burden of pensions. The labor market will lack specialists.
It seems that it is the region around the village of Bugilo, where the old ladies attend an empty school, that has tried to do what is necessary.
The county leadership lured young couples with impressive child money and sent gift bags with children’s clothes and food packages.
The birth rate has increased for several years since 2019. is decreasing again, which shows that money alone does not solve the problem, says Shin Pyong-ho, 61, head of Bugil village.
The man moved here eight years ago: after the death of his son, Bugil, a beautiful and quiet place, became his refuge. Shin Pyong-ho didn’t want the village to be gone, so he devised a plan.
He pondered what is most needed for families to start life. In the village of Bugilo, young couples have to find what is missing elsewhere: good and cheap housing, a guaranteed income and a guarantee that their children will be properly taken care of.
Last November, the county leadership supported the project of the Bugil village chief for 230,000. amount of euros. With the permission of the owners, Shin Pyong-ho renovated 15 houses with like-minded people and appealed to all families in South Korea: Bugile couples could live almost rent-free for housing and would receive support when looking for work. In schools, children would be provided with care throughout the day.
Many told the village chief that Bugil’s past life could not be revived. Some called for the elementary school to be demolished and a retirement home built in its place.
198 families from all over South Korea called the village leader and asked, “Isn’t this all real?”
In the end, Shin Pyong-po and his associates selected 20 families who are now moving to new homes.
“We are trying to create a small utopia in the country,” says the head of Bugil.
The bustle should return to the village again. The kind that old ladies in the third grade of primary school still remember.