South Korea’s Baby-Making Blackout

A pregnancy test indicates the word 'fired' in place of a positive or negative result, on a pink background.  Text at the bottom reads, '<br /><br />
For every birth, a career dies.  In Italy, 52% of women are forced to quit their job after giving birth to a child.  But the chance of reconciling maternity and career is an essential requirement of civility that the State must commit to guarantee.  Because women deserve a Country where being mothers means opportunity, not renunciation.In Seoul, the Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Family Affairs has now explored a new tactic to boost South Korea’s population growth: turning out the lights. At 7 PM today, and once a month subsequently, the lights in the government building will be turned out.

Generous gift vouchers are on offer for officials who have more than one child, and the department organises social gatherings in the hope of fostering love amongst its bureaucrats.

But critics say what is really needed is widescale reform to tackle the burdensome cost of childcare and education that puts many young people off starting a family.

The complaint of the burdensome cost of childcare and education is highly relevant when examining who comprises the South Korean workforce. Overall, in 2005, Korean women represented 42% of the workforce. But a glance at 2001 numbers reveals that in 2001, 90% of South Korean college-educated men entered the workforce, compared to just 54% of college-educated women. This suggests that, unsurprisingly, jobs that are lesser-paid or so-called “unskilled” remain roles filled by women.

Ordering citizens to “make babies” is already heteronormative, but a troublesome aspect of the policy is that it is inevitably targeted toward men. When a workforce is more male, asking employees to procreate reinforces the role of men in Korean homes as decisionmakers about both finances and reproductive health.

At The Grand Narrative, graphs representing Korean women’s employment by age bracket indicate Korean women’s tumultuous entry and exit from the labor pool. Or, as the author phrases it, “For every birth, a Korean career dies.”

Does the new “lights out” policy reinforce the inevitability of higher birth rates driving more women out of the workforce? Perhaps it just indicates that it was not women, but Korean male authorities with working privilege, careers less affected by the struggles of childcare, who brainstormed the experiment.

Ad via The Grand Narrative, from the Italian women’s magazine Grazia.

Join the Conversation

  • Athenia

    Hmm. I never thought of it that way.
    I mean, I’ve always looked at it that Asian societies value work time over family time so this seems to be their way of dealing with that. This isn’t just a problem for young people, it’s problem for people who already have a stay at home spouse and kids.
    If they set into motion policies that were more family friendly to begin with, they’d get more babies and more women in the workforce.

  • Crumpet

    I do wish people would open their minds a bit more and at least consider that there are plenty of modern people who are simply opting out of parenthood by choice and not as a reaction to poor maternity leave or a lack of subsidized child care. If you gave me 10 million dollars, a full staff of live-in help and a surrogate, I still wouldn’t want a baby. People today simply have more options when it comes to reproduction and many are choosing alternatives.

  • analog

    I’m just annoyed that no one mentions the MOST obvious way to increase South Korea’s population: immigration. There might not be “enough” (I put this in quotes, because who gets to decide these things) babies born in South Korea, but there are certainly LOTS and LOTS of babies born in other parts of the world. In some places, maybe even “too many” (also in quotes).
    Why doesn’t the government try to find ways to encourage immigration, instead of procreation?

  • Honeybee

    “Ordering citizens to “make babies” is already heteronormative”
    I dunno, if the only biological way for 2 humans to procreate is with a man and a woman, it seems disingenuous to complain it is heteronormative. There is NO other way this can happen!
    “a troublesome aspect of the policy is that it is inevitably targeted toward men. When a workforce is more male, asking employees to procreate reinforces the role of men in Korean homes as decisionmakers about both finances and reproductive health.”
    I find this interesting. Perhaps I need to research this more, but whenever I hear about trying to get more babies born, I think it’s targeted towards women. After all, women are the ones who get pregnant and have babies. And thus ultimately, it should be the responsibility of women to decide if and when they will have a baby.

  • Honeybee

    While I am not in anyway defending or advocating for this, I think the reason is obvious – they want to increase the KOREAN population, which is not necessarily the same as increasing the population of the country.


    Because they want to keep the Republic of Korea “racially pure” – they don’t want more babies, they want more “Korean” babies.
    And you have to be 100% ethnic Korean to be considered Korean by these guys – that’s why Amerasian Koreans and other biracial Koreans are not considered to be “real Koreans” even if they were born in the country and speak the language fluently.

  • Ariel

    Gay and infertile couples have adoption, artificial insemination, and all sorts of other tools to create a family. How does turning the lights off at work force gay couples to go home and do any of these things faster? That was my reasoning. Not a huge complaint.

  • konkonsn

    This is true for a lot of “population crisis” countries. Japan has the same problem with the media scaring everyone that birth rates are going down. But could you perhaps make it easier to be a Japanese citizen so people who already live in the country could be counted as part of the society? Nope…never thought of that one…

  • analog

    Exactly, so why not call out this policy for what it is – Racism.
    All of the media attention talks about the sexist implications, and posters here talk about how it is heteronormative. It certainly is those things, but at base, it is rooted in bigotry and prejudice.
    As far as the South Korean government is concerned, the problem isn’t that less babies are being born, it is that less of the RIGHT babies are being born.

  • Brianna G

    All around the world, there are people who are starving, homeless, and jobless and yet are perfectly capable of doing jobs that south Koreans themselves are likely uninterested in doing– the lower-income labor jobs required to support an aging population. Yet instead of importing their population, South Korea apparently will only be satisfied if they have more Koreans?
    Besides having negative impacts on women in the country, this move seems very racist.

  • Melanie

    I’m glad people are also calling out the racism in this. I was born and raised in the US but am now attending college in South Korea (I’m white by the way, if that matters) and while many people there are sooo friendly, like any where else in the world they have their fair share of racists. I don’t want to comment on it too much, because I’ve only been there a few months and don’t want to sound like I’m calling everyone there a racist, because they’re not, just usually the people that hold government power.
    My boyfriend there is telling me that he’s seeing commercials about how lonely only children are, so it must be more than just the lights off policy.