Family life | South Korea

The silent protest of women in South Korea

The East Asian country has a demographic problem: its population is ageing rapidly but many women have no desire to have children
Two women in winter clothes can be seen in an urban environment. Behind them are the billboards of a large shopping centre.

A popular, seven-story wedding hall in a Seoul suburb had once hosted over 10 wedding celebrations and thousands of guests each week was recently converted into an adult daycare center. Not far away, a yellow-painted kindergarten building that once brimmed with nearly 100 children has become a nursing home. Just like them, hundreds of wedding halls, daycares, and kindergartens across South Korea have closed down in recent years due to a lack of clients, often replaced by “kindergartens for the elderly” or nursing homes -- because fewer and fewer South Koreans marry or have a baby.

It is a snapshot of a society that has the lowest birthrates in the world, and whose population is aging faster than any other countries. The number of registered marriages or childbirths in South Korea has plummeted to historic lows for years, and now the country recorded the world’s lowest birth rates for three years in a row. An average woman in South Korea was expected to have 0.78 babies in her lifetime as of 2022 – far below the global average of 2.23, or 1.46 in Germany – and the number is widely expected to sink further to another global record low of 0.72 for 2023.

The phenomenon, often called “marriage strike,” or “birth strike” in South Korea, however, is anything but surprising for Mimi Kim, a Seoul office worker in her mid-30s.  

“I simply feel that getting married or having a child is not a very wise decision for a woman”

“In South Korea, the right question you have to ask is not ‘why wouldn’t women marry and give birth?” but “why would they marry or give birth – considering everything?” said Kim, one of the so-called “no-marriage” women in the country who choose not to marry or to give birth.

The “everything” she was talking about includes gender inequality that is still deeply ingrained in South Korea’s family life and notoriously male-dominated corporate culture, which belies its reputation as an economic, technological, and cultural powerhouse.

Even in double-income families, women have to spend three times more time on household chores and childcare than their husbands, and, what’s worse, women who are the family breadwinners still spend more time on domestic responsibilities than their stay-at-home husbands. Women often face open discrimination or bullying at work for giving birth or taking maternity leave – so much so that even the country’s top baby formula producer has been accused for years for demoting or pressuring female workers who marry or have a baby to quit (gender discrimination at workplace like this is often blamed as a reason why South Korea has recorded the largest gender pay gap among the developed countries for decades, although the country’s women are one of the most educated in the world).

In an urban environment, an elegant woman is seen on the street looking sideways. She seems a bit tense ü

According to a survey conducted in 2022, 65 per cent of young women do not want to have a child and 55 per cent do not want to get married


Women who have babies without getting married are so stigmatized that nearly 90 percent of such “unmarried moms” lose or give up their jobs around childbirths (so much so that births out of wedlock account for only 2.5 percent of all births in South Korea – compared to the OECD average of 42 percent, or 33 percent in Germany). At the same time, over 70 percent of single parents – a majority of them women –haven’t received any child support from their former partners under the country’s child support law often criticized for being toothless.

“The government kept telling women to have more children…but how can we, in a place like this?” Ashley Park, a young mother who had been pressured to quit by her employer -- a major pharmaceutical company -- after getting pregnant with her only child, told me.

Minji Kwak, a 38-year-old TV writer who runs a popular podcast for other no-marriage women like her, also voiced a similar sentiment. She told me once that the excessive dual burden on married women and other patriarchal norms in the country’s family life “forces many women to give up on marrying.”     

To be fair, many young South Koreans men are also reluctant to marry or have a child, and a slew of reasons have been blamed for the low birthrates: sky-high housing prices that make it almost impossible for young couples to find a place to live together (most young South Koreans live with parents until getting married); stagnant wages and huge costs of children’s education that make many to believe that having a family is an unaffordable luxury; or the notoriously long working hours (South Korea has one of the longest working hours in the world) that make many young people to think that having meaningful work-life balance is all but an impossible dream.   

“President Yoon Suk-Yeol denied that there is such a thing as structural sexism”

But data unequivocally show that young women shun marriage, childbirth, or even dating far more than their male peers. According to one survey, 65 percent of young women did not want to have a baby and 55 percent did not want to marry, compared to 48 percent and 43 percent among men, respectively. Over 62 percent of young single women were satisfied with their relationship status, far higher than 38 percent among single men. In another, only 4 percent of women in their 20s and 30s -- like Kim -- saw marriage and childbirth as essential parts of a woman’s life. Surveys also showed that those who experienced sexual discrimination or felt that South Korea lacked social inclusiveness were more likely to avoid marriage and childbirth. 

A wave of feminist movement that swept South Korea in the late 2010s and early 2020s also played a part: “no marriage” has become a common phrase among young women. Some even vowed to never give birth, marry, date, or even have sex with men under a slogan called “4B,” or the “4 Nos”, although many single women – like Kim – do not necessarily see their lifestyle as a political statement.

“I have no problem with interacting with my male colleagues or male acquaintances, but I just don’t want to be romantically involved with men,” Kim said. “I just feel that marriage or childbirth is not a very wise life choice to make as a woman. The potential risk seems simply too big.”

Two women can be seen on a dark evening street in winter clothes, walking in different directions

Faced with the looming demographic disaster, the South Korean government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars for the past decade to encourage more people to have babies. But those supports, mostly cash handouts for newlyweds or new parents, have barely addressed the issue of gender inequality. This pattern became even more prominent after the rightwing president Yoon Suk-Yeol took power in 2022 on an antifeminist platform, denying the existence of structural sexism and claiming feminism makes it difficult for young men and women to date each other thus is blamed for low birthrates. And young men in their 20s and 30s resentful of feminism were one of Yoon’s avid supporters – revealing a growing ideological gap with young women who tend to be more progressive.

“I just go my way quietly and stay away from men”

One survey illustrated this growing divide between young women and men in their worldview – including their views on marriage. When asked about what people of the opposite sex need to change most in order to make them more marriageable, women said men’s views on division of household chores. Men said “feminism.”

Against this backdrop, women like Kim quietly quit the idea of marriage and childbirth.

“I don’t say publicly I don’t want to be romantically involved with men—who knows what kind of backlash I’d face by saying that in this social climate?” she said. “I just quietly go my way, minding my business, and keeping my distance from men.”