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Gender discriminations among young children in Asia

 | 
Isabelle Attané
, 
Jacques Véron

Part III - Gender discriminations among young children in Korea, Taiwan and Pakistan

9. Changing Trends and Regional Differentials in Sex Ratio at Birth in Korea: Revisited and Revised1

Doo-Sub Kim

Résumé

Les normes et les valeurs donnant la préférence aux fils, par rapport aux filles, sont une composante essentielle de l’organisation sociale coréenne traditionnelle, particulièrement en ce qui concerne la famille. En dépit des changements socio-économiques récents, la plupart de ces caractéristiques perdurent.
Dans la seconde moitié de la décennie 1980 et dans les années 1990, la forte baisse de la fécondité dans ce contexte de préférence pour les fils a conduit à une élévation continue du rapport de masculinité à la naissance et aux jeunes âges naissances. Les tendances récentes et les différentiels régionaux sont analysés par l’auteur. Une attention particulière est accordée aux mécanismes et aux implications des comportements de reproduction favorisant les garçons.
L’auteur souligne en outre le retournement de tendance observé depuis le milieu des années 1990, avec une lente diminution du rapport de masculinité des naissances dans les différentes régions de Corée. Il explique cette nouvelle situation par les changements intervenus dans les comportements des jeunes couples de même que par les efforts du gouvernement visant à promouvoir le statut de la femme.

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 An earlier version of this paper was published in the Asia Journal 2.1 (June 1995). This paper has (...)

1There has been an abundance of historical documents, classical teachings, folkways and taboos that reveal a strong preference for sons in Korea (Lee 1973a and 1973b, Kim 1969: 218-374). For the survival and continuation of the society and economy, various norms and values favouring sons over daughters became an important part of the traditional social system, particularly the kinship institution and related normative culture (Kwon and Lee 1976, Cho et al. 1982). The normative emphasis on sons was so strong in traditional Korea that a wife bearing no son could be deserted by her husband or his family. Despite rapid socio-economic changes, many of these traditional elements still exist as institutionalized values in Korea.

2Son preference plays an important role in determining family size. It has been pointed out that strong son preference might provide a serious barrier to the attainment of low fertility (Lee 1982, Park 1983; Arnold 1985, Arnold and Liu 1986). However, this concern has proved to be groundless. Despite a strong son preference, Korea has achieved a fertility rate much below the replacement level, as have a number of East Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (United Nations 2002).

3In the second half of the 1980s and the early 1990s, however, to accommodate a strong son preference and low fertility at the same time, a new demographic phenomenon of a high sex ratio at birth emerged in Korea. Similar patterns were also observed in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong (Roy 1994, Park and Cho 1994).

4The main objective of this study is to provide explanations as to why and how the sex ratio at birth has risen recently in Korea. The pattern of changing trends and regional differentials in sex ratios from 1960 to 2001 is analysed. Attention is given to the causal mechanisms and implications of son-selective reproductive behaviour. Two simulations were conducted to show how prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion raise the sex ratio at birth, and, at the same time, play a role in lowering the level of fertility.

Recent Trends in Sex Ratio

5The mid-1980s can be recorded as an important turning point in the history of Korean demography. Korea completed the full pattern of the demographic transition, and has been approaching a stationary population with negative growth potential in the offing (Kim 1992, 1993, 2002). Despite traditional cultural factors such as strong son preference, motivations for small families arose and spread widely over the course of rapid industrialization and urbanization (Kim 1988, Kwon 1990, Kwon and Kim 2002). Fertility is now far below the replacement level. The crude birth rate and the total fertility rate were estimated to be as low as 11.6 and 1.30, respectively, in 2001. The annual growth rate of the population was estimated at 6.3 per thousand in 2001, as low as those of developed countries (KNSO 2003). Under the current age structure, it is projected that Korea will experience population decline from the early 2020s (KNSO 2003).

6Since the mid-1980s, when Korea stabilized with a low level of fertility, a distorted sex composition has become a serious issue. There are three major factors in sex composition: sex ratio at birth, sex differentials in mortality and sex-selective migration. It is generally agreed, however, that the Korean population after the late 1950s can be regarded as an almost “closed population”, and that the sex ratio of the total population has become a function of the sex ratio at birth and sex differentials in mortality (Kwon et al. 1975, Kim 1992, 2002).

7Table 1 presents the trends in sex ratios for the total population and the population under 5 years old from 1960-2000. It is clear that the pattern of sex ratios for the total population appears to be fairly balanced and stable. No drastic change is observed in Table 1. The sex ratio for the total population continued to increase slightly in the 1960s, and peaked at 102.4 in 1970. But the trend has reversed afterwards, and slightly declined to 100.7 in 2000.

Table 1: Trends in Sex Ratio for the Total Population and the Population under Five Years Old, 1960-2000

Year

Total Population

Population under 5 Years Old

1960

100.7

108.0

1965

101.4

107.6

1970

102.4

108.1

1975

101.4

109.5

1980

101.8

107.2

1985

101.7

107.8

1990

101.3

112.0

1995

100.7

113.4

2000

100.7

110.2

Source: KNSO (1988, 1992, 1997, 2002).

8According to the UN population database, the sex ratio for the world population was estimated to be 101.3 in 2000. The sex ratio for developed countries was 94.4, indicating a greater female population than male population. In contrast, the ratio was 103.0 in developing countries: a larger male population than female population. Sex ratios for major countries are as follows: U. S. A. 96.5, U. K. 94.5, Japan 95.9, France 95.0, China 105.9, Philippines 101.4, and Thailand 97.0 (United Nations 2002).

9In contrast, sex ratios at birth have been measured at about 102-107 in most countries (United Nations 2002, Weeks 1989). Along with a strong son preference, Korea has maintained a relatively high sex ratio at birth. It is clear in Table 1 that the level of the sex ratio for the population under 5 years old, which reflects sex ratios at birth in the past 5 years, is much higher than the level of the sex ratio for the total population. In particular, the sex ratio for the population under 5 years old was 113.4 in 1995, revealing an increase of 5.6 points from that of 1985. It was 12.7 points higher than the one for the total population in 1995. This implies that there has been a substantial excess of sons over daughters at birth since the mid-1980s, when fertility in Korea became stable at a low level.

10Such a sudden rise in sex ratios at birth is not a phenomenon exclusively observed in Korea. Evidence shows that several East Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong also experienced an increase in the sex ratio at birth around the mid-1980s. The sex ratio at birth in China increased abruptly from 108.5 in 1984 to 111.4 in 1985, and further jumped to 113.8 in 1989. Taiwan had been maintaining a sex ratio at birth around 106-107 from 1960-1986. But the sex ratio rose to 108 in 1987, and was recorded at 110 in 1990 (Park and Cho 1994).

Regional Differentials in Sex Ratio

11It is assumed in this study that son preference is associated with norms and institutionalized values influenced by the socio-cultural structure of the community. Evidence indicates that geographical region plays a significant role in the variation of sex ratios. Distortions in sex ratio at birth turn out to be most serious in the city of Taegu, and in the provinces of Kyongbuk and Kyongnam. As shown in Table 2, in 1995, sex ratios for the population under 5 years old reached 122.8 in Taegu, and measured over 118 in the two provinces. In particular, Taegu and Kyongbuk, which have strong parochial ties popularly known as “TK”, disclosed record high sex ratios. The sex ratio for the population of 4 year olds in Taegu was 125.3 in 1995, indicating that the male population was 25 per cent larger than the female population. The sex ratio for Kyongbuk province was estimated as 122.6 for the population of 2 year olds. In contrast, in the cities of Kwangju, Inchon and Seoul, sex ratios for the population under 5 appeared to be slightly lower than the national average. The provinces of Jeonbuk, Jeonnam, Cheju, Kyonggi and Kangwon also showed relatively low sex ratios.

Table 2: Sex Ratio for the Population under Five Years Old by Residence, Region and Age, 1995

Table 2: Sex Ratio for the Population under Five Years Old by Residence, Region and Age, 1995

Source : KNSO (1997)

12A further examination of the sex ratio distribution by parity suggests that sex ratios at birth for the first child have been relatively not too high in the past two decades. However, high sex ratios at birth keep growing unacceptably as birth order progresses. Figure 1 shows that sex ratios at birth for the third and the fourth child began to rise dramatically in the mid-1980s, and peaked at the highest level at over 200 in the early 1990s. After that time, a slow downward trend in the sex ratio at birth at high parity can be observed in Figure 1 and Table 3.

13Table 4 presents the sex ratio distribution by region and parity using vital registration data, consisting of 728,515 newborns, in 1994, when sex ratios at birth peaked at the highest level in Korean history.

14Table 4 shows a clear positive correlation between sex ratio at birth and birth order, with minor exceptions in the city of Pusan, and in Chungnam and Kyongbuk provinces. Sex ratios at birth at parity 1 for most regions were found to be relatively not too high, although high sex ratios over 110 were found in Chungnam province. However, a steep rise in sex ratios for the third and fourth child is observed. Sex ratios at parity 4 (and higher) were estimated at over 260 in Taegu, Pusan, Kyongnam, and several other regions. In particular, sex ratios for Taegu were recorded at 320.1 for the third and 351.1 for the fourth child.

Figure 1: Trends in Sex Ratio at Birth by Parity, 1981-2001

Figure 1: Trends in Sex Ratio at Birth by Parity, 1981-2001

Source: KNSO (1996, 2003).

Table 3: Trends in Sex Ratio for the Population under Five Years Old, 1985-2000

Region

1985

1990

1995

2000

Whole Country

108.0

111.2

113.4

110.2

Major Cities

Seoul

108.9

110.2

111.7

108.7

Pusan

108.6

111.6

117.4

112.8

Taegu

112.3

125.2

122.8

115.1

Inchon

107.6

107.4

110.8

109.0

Kwangju

-

108.0

109.9

109.1

Taejon

-

115.4

113.8

109.9

Ulsan

-

-

-

114.3

Provinces

Kyonggi

106.5

108.0

110.7

108.9

Kangwon

106.4

107.4

110.9

108.8

Chungbuk

107.0

111.1

114.2

110.2

Chungnam*

107.6

109.2

112.1

110.2

Jeonbuk

106.8

106.6

109.3

108.5

Jeonnam**

107.4

107.5

109.8

109.0

Kyongbuk

109.0

121.7

121.3

113.5

Kyongnam***

107.9

115.2

118.6

113.0

Cheju

107.3

111.0

110.6

109.7

Note: * Includes Taejon population in 1985; ** Includes Kwangju population in 1985; *** Includes Ulsan population in 1985, 1990 and 1995.
Source: NBS (1987); KNSO (1992, 1997, 2002).

Table 4: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Parity, 1994

Table 4: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Parity, 1994

Source: KNSO (1995: 82-87).

15An analysis of the sex ratio distribution according to region and age of the mother discloses a similar pattern. Table 5 clearly shows that sex ratios maintain a relatively low level if the age of the mother is under 25. However, a clear pattern of a marked rise emerges in all regions as the mother’s age increases. The national average of the sex ratio for those whose mothers are in the 20-24 age group was 107.6 in 1994. The corresponding figures for the age groups 30-34 and 35-39 were 126.7 and 137.2, respectively. Such a rising pattern is particularly apparent in Kyongbuk, Taegu, Kyongnam, and Pusan as the mother’s age gets beyond 30. Due to the small number of cases, in Table 5, relatively high sex ratios for those whose mother’s age was below 20 can be noticed in several regions.

Table 5: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Age of the Mother, 1994

Table 5: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Age of the Mother, 1994

Note: -- Sex ratio is not calculated if the number of either sons or daughters is smaller than 50. Source: KNSO (2003).

16This pattern is markedly contrary to the normal trend, where sex ratios at birth decline as the parity and the age of the mother rise (Chahnazarian 1988). If we assume equal probability for male births across birth orders and mother’s ages, these variations in sex ratios in Tables 4 and 5 imply that there must be some kind of artificial manipulation to control gender, i.e., son-selective reproductive behaviour. The peculiar distribution of sex ratios according to birth order and mother’s age appears to be a joint product of widespread preference for small families as well as sons, and son-selective reproductive behaviour by birth order.

17Since the mid-1990s, a slow downward trend in sex ratio at birth has been observed in all regions of Korea (Table 3). The national average of the sex ratio decreased to 110.2 in 2000. As indicated in Figures 2 and 3, this downward trend is mainly due to the substantial decline in sex ratio for those whose mother is over 25 as well as sex ratios at parity 2 and higher. Along with rapid changes in traditional socio-cultural norms and values, the Korean government’s efforts in the past decades to establish and implement polices geared to improving the status of women and thus reducing gender inequality have been effective. Young couples are now less likely than the older generation to accept the ideology of patriarchy and traditional gender roles and, as a result, their attitudinal and behavioural expressions of son preference are becoming weaker than ever. However, it still remains questionable whether the sex ratio at birth will be in the normal range in the near future. In Figure 2, sex ratios at parity 3 and higher were found to be unusually high in 2000. As shown in Figure 3, a clear increase in sex ratio can also be noticed in all regions as the mother’s age gets beyond 30.

Figure 2: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Parity, 1994 and 2000

Figure 2: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Parity, 1994 and 2000

Source: KNSO (1995: 82-87, 2003).

Figure 3: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Age of the Mother, 1994 and 2000

Figure 3: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Age of the Mother, 1994 and 2000

Source: KNSO (2003)

18In the literature, a high sex ratio at birth in Asia has been attributed to three factors: under-registration of female births, sex-selective abortion, and excess female infant mortality (Park and Cho 1994, Roy 1994, Das Gupta 1999, Bélanger 2003). Unlike the situation in China, female infanticide and the under-registration of female births are not factors in Korea. It is also unlikely that the rise in sex ratio at birth is due to an excessive female infant mortality prior to registration (Park and Cho 1994). Unlike the situation in India, the higher mortality of girls resulting from differential care and treatment in early infancy is not observed in Korea. On the contrary, recent government statistics disclose a higher mortality for male infants; the infant mortality rate was estimated as 6.1 for boys, and 5.9 for girls (KNSO 2001).

19In an effort to find a significant relationship between high sex ratio at birth and excess female infant mortality, various analyses were undertaken using vital registration data by region for the period of 1985-2000. However, the results do not support any causal relationship or significant association between the indicators of sex ratio at birth and sex ratio for infant or children deaths (Figure 4). Thus, it is postulated in this study that the sudden increase in sex ratio at birth is mainly due to prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion.

Figure 4: Relationship between Sex Ratio at Birth and Sex Ratio for Children Deceased before the Age of Five, 1985-2000

Figure 4: Relationship between Sex Ratio at Birth and Sex Ratio for Children Deceased before the Age of Five, 1985-2000

Source: NBS (1987); KNSO (1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2002, 2003).

Son-Selective Reproductive Behaviour

A Conceptual Framework

20Based on these observations, we now discuss the theoretical implications. To provide possible explanations responsible for the sudden increase in the sex ratio at birth, a conceptual scheme was developed. In this study, son-selective reproductive behaviour refers to prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion. It is hypothesized that son-selective reproductive behaviour is a function of four factors: son preference, current fertility, desired family size, and medical technology (Kim 1997).

21There is little doubt that motivations for prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion stem from strong son preference along with gender discrimination against women. The risk and insecurity that patriarchy imposes on women represents a powerful systematic incentive for sons. The desire for sons is not simply due to productivity or their role in reducing the economic uncertainty facing households. Women who, for whatever reason, have no son on whom to depend face a very uncertain and potentially disastrous future (Jones 1994). Thus, they are very likely to formulate strong motivations for son-selective reproductive behaviour.

22In this study, it is assumed that the socio-cultural structure of the community develops certain norms and values that permit and prescribe individual decision-making concerning reproductive behaviour. It is further assumed that strong son preference is associated with these norms and institutionalized values, which are influenced by the community setting. The regions of Taegu, Kyongbuk, and Kyongnam are well known for their conservative cultural traditions. Salient distortions in sex ratios in these regions can be attributed to their stronger son preference and gender discrimination against women.

23Given the very strong son preference, it is reasonable to conclude that motivations for son-selective reproductive behaviour are influenced by current fertility and desired family size. Current fertility refers to the sex composition as well as the number of children a woman already has. The desired family size is the number of surviving children a woman wants to have. It is hypothesized that the motivations for son-selective reproductive behaviour would be stronger for women with higher parity. Couples who want at least one son, if they have only daughters and the number of children they already have is close to or above the desired family size, are more likely to formulate motivations for prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion. Such a motivation would be weak for those who already have a son or sons.

24It is also postulated that the extent of son-selective reproductive behaviour among women at a certain parity depends on desired family size. The smaller the desired family size, the higher the probability of women being without a son. Consequently, a larger proportion of women will opt for prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion. Therefore, as desired family size becomes smaller, other things being equal, the effects of son-selective reproductive behaviour on the sex ratio at birth for a given population is likely to be greater (Chang 1994).

25Although son preference is a necessary condition for prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion, it is not a sufficient condition. Expression of son preference depends on, and can be strengthened by medical technologies. Without medical technologies that enable identification of the sex of a foetus and sex-selective abortion, there are not many paths through which son preference affects the level of the sex ratio at birth.

26There are three medical technologies currently available to identify the sex of a foetus: chorionic villi sampling, amniocentesis, or an ultrasonar test. Chorionic villi sampling can be performed during the 8th-12th week of pregnancy. But this method is very expensive, and only a small number of couples can afford it. Amniocentesis cannot be applied in the early stage of pregnancy, and is not always safe. The ultrasonar test is the least expensive and simplest method, and is thus performed most often in Korea (Park and Cho 1994).

27Medical technologies for prenatal sex screening became widely available and accessible around the mid-1980s in Korea. As is widely known, sex identification is a by-product of technologies performed for health and genetic reasons. Korean law prohibits testing to identify the sex of a foetus. Harsh penalties and regulations have been imposed for violations.

28The practice of prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion depends on the cost of these medical technologies in comparison with the strength of the motivations to have a son. Given the strength of the motivations in Korea, the market and psychological costs associated with these medical technologies do not appear to be a heavy burden. Access to these technologies has not been limited to those in urban areas and among the middle class. Korea has experienced relative uniformity of son-selective reproductive behaviour using these technologies irrespective of residence, geographical region, or socio-economic status. This explains the nation-wide increase in the sex ratio at birth after the mid-1980s.

Two Simulations

29Considering the unacceptably high sex ratios in Tables 4 and 5, it can be concluded that regional differentials in sex ratio are related to artificial gender controls, i.e., prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion. In an effort to find significant variables related to high sex ratios at birth in the regions of Taegu, Kyongbuk, and Kyongnam, various analyses were undertaken in this study. It was found, however, that these geographical regions do not have any peculiar characteristics in the level of fertility, family and household structure, practice of family planning, or medical facilities. The only common factors drawn from the analysis were that these three regions have a long history of conservative cultural traditions, and that these regions have historically been the places of origin of top-ranking political elites.

30Results from a sample survey conducted in Korea in 1991 revealed that a fairly large proportion of women did not have an objection to son-selective reproductive behaviour: 31.9 per cent of women, with experience of induced abortion, were in favour of prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion; the counterpart figure was 24.8 per cent for those without experience of induced abortion. It is also surprising that women in rural areas had more favourable attitudes than those in urban areas (Kong et al. 1992: 179).

31The abortion rate has been extremely high in Korea. According to a government report, the number of induced abortions conducted in 1990 was estimated to be 422,000 (MHSA 1994). This implies that 39.6 per cent of total pregnancies of married women were terminated by induced abortions, and that there were 66 abortions for every 100 live births. This estimate does not begin to account for the number of induced abortions among unmarried women, or for under-enumeration due to self-reporting.

32Unfortunately, we do not have hard information available on son-selective reproductive behaviour. Due to problems of small sample size or low reliability, data on induced abortions or sex-selective abortions do not allow in-depth analyses such as regional differentials.

33Now, in the face of an increasing sex ratio at birth, a question can be raised: How many pregnant women actually go through prenatal sex screenings and sex-selective abortions? Is there any indirect method to answer this question? For this purpose, two simulations were conducted in this study. They were designed to examine how prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion affects sex ratios at birth. They were also designed to figure out whether the average number of children decreases because of son-selective reproductive behaviour. For the first simulation, the following eight hypotheses were established:

  1. The number of women at pregnancy order 1 is 10,000.

  2. The sex ratio at birth without prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion is hypothesized as 108.0, which is the mean value of sex ratios for the population under 5 years of age from 1960-1985.

  3. Ten per cent of pregnant women go through prenatal sex screenings. They deliver live births if foetuses are identified as sons. In the case of female foetuses, they induce abortions, and move on to the next pregnancy order.

  4. Fifty per cent of women who had sons from their first pregnancies terminate their reproductive behaviour afterward.

  5. The rest of the 50 per cent of women who had sons from their first pregnancies do not go through prenatal sex screenings at pregnancy order 2, and terminate their reproductive behaviour after the birth of the second child, regardless of sex.

  6. A woman who had a daughter from her first pregnancy keeps moving on to the next pregnancy order unless she has a son. She terminates reproductive behaviour once she has a son.

  7. The maximum number of pregnancies is limited to 4.

  8. A woman who goes through prenatal sex screenings and abortions for three consecutive pregnancies delivers her first child without prenatal sex screening at pregnancy order 4.

34Summarized in Table 6 are the procedures and results from the first simulation. The total number of children from 10,000 women in Table 6 is 19,950, consisting of 10,814 sons and 9,136 daughters. Therefore, the sex ratio at birth from the first simulation is 118.4.

35In this study, the second simulation was conducted assuming that there is no prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion, while maintaining other hypotheses. As Table 7 shows, the total number of children yielded from the second simulation is 22,672: 11,772 sons and 10,900 daughters. The average number of children becomes 2.27, which is 0.27 higher than that of the first simulation. Without having prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion, the sex ratio at birth from the second simulation is 108.0, as hypothesized.

Table 6: Effects of Prenatal Sex Screening and Sex-Selective Abortion on the Sex Ratio at Birth: Results from the First Simulation

Table 6: Effects of Prenatal Sex Screening and Sex-Selective Abortion on the Sex Ratio at Birth: Results from the First Simulation

Results – Total Number of Children: 19,950 (Male: 10,814; Female: 9,136)
Average Number of Children: 2.00
Sex Ratio at Birth: 118.4

Table 7: Results from the Second Simulation (without Prenatal Sex Screening and Sex-Selective Abortion)

Pregnancy Order

Number of Women

Number of Children Born

Next Step

1

10,000

M: 5,192 F: 4,807

50% Stop Continue

2

7,403

M: 3,844 F: 3,559

Stop Continue

3

3,559

M: 1,848 F: 1,711

Stop Continue

4

1,711

M: 888 F: 823

Stop Stop

Results – Total Number of Children: 22,672 (Male: 11,772; Female: 10,900) Average Number of Children: 2.27 Sex Ratio at Birth: 108.0

36It can be concluded from these two simulations that prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortions raise the sex ratio at birth, and, at the same time, play a role in lowering the level of fertility. Given the unusually high sex ratio at birth in the past decades in Korea, the results from these simulations lead to conjecture that a very large proportion of pregnant women, especially those with higher parity, must have performed prenatal sex screenings and sex-selective abortions.

Prospects

37It is reasonable to suppose that distortions in sex composition affect virtually all social institutions and represent a major force in social change. A serious concern about imbalanced sex ratios has been reported in Korea because they could lead to changes in social stability, economic organization, political dominance, and the overall structure of society. This study does not claim to be exhaustive concerning the demographic and social outcomes of imbalanced sex ratio at birth. It is, rather, illustrative and highlights some of the issues considered to be most significant.

38One of the most commonly feared outcomes of increasing sex ratio at birth appears to be a possible marriage squeeze in the near future. If the present trend of progressive rises in sex ratio at birth is extended, then every successive group of men entering the marriage market will become relatively larger than the number of women. If son preference and thus son-selective reproductive behaviour should continue, fewer men will find eligible women to marry.

39The situation would be worse if the declining trend in fertility and the current age difference between brides and grooms is maintained. As the absolute number of births becomes smaller every year, and men look for younger women to marry, the excess portion of men in the marriage market will grow.

Table 8: Trends in Sex Ratio for the Marriage-Eligible Population, 1970-2020 (Population in 1,000s)

Year

Male Population

Female Population

Sex Ratio

1970

1,207

1,254

96.2

1975

1,290

1,504

85.8

1980

1,584

2,015

78.6

1985

2,093

2,089

100.2

1990

2,252

2,054

109.6

1995

2,173

2,172

100.0

2000

2,259

1,961

115.2

2005

1,981

1,938

102.2

2010

2,043

1,612

126.8

2015

1,630

1,488

109.5

2020

1,793

1,589

112.9

Note: For 1970-1985, males aged 25-29 and females aged 20-24 are considered to be the marriage–eligible population. For 1990-2020, males aged 26-30 and females aged 23-27 are considered to be the marriage–eligible population.
Source: For 1970-1985, KNSO (1994); For1990-2020, KNSO (2003).

40Table 8 shows the trend in sex ratio for the marriage-eligible population. Until the early 1980s, there was a shortage of grooms to meet the marriage demand from eligible women entering the marriage market. For example, the sex ratio for the marriage-eligible population was estimated at 78.6 in 1980. As shown in Table 8, the year 1985 marked a significant turning point by entering the stage of an excess number of males, although the magnitude of the excess was not substantial until 1995. In the year 2000, however, young men might have faced a great deal of difficulty in finding a marriage partner, since young men will outnumber their female counterparts by 15.2 per cent. The situation will be worse in 2010, as it is estimated that males will outnumber their female partners by 26.8 per cent.

41It is inevitable that the marriage squeeze will result in changes in marriage patterns. The age gap between brides and grooms has changed recently. For example, marriages between older brides and younger grooms and between same-aged brides and grooms have greatly increased to 25 per cent of all new marriages in 2001. Furthermore, 5.6 per cent of all new marriages in 2001 were found to be between a man without previous marital experience and a woman who had been married before (Kwon and Kim 2002: 311). If the current level of sex ratio at birth continues, a substantial proportion of men may have to look for imported brides or choose to remain single, as some young men currently do in rural areas.

42Besides the marriage squeeze, we can speculate about other negative consequences caused by distortions in sex composition. Related issues including problems of socialization, sex-related crimes of violence, suicides, drugs, or an increase in homosexuality could occur.

43If we take a look at the positive aspects, however, the shortage of women may undermine traditional beliefs, norms, and values that discriminate against women. Thus the shortage of women could, in turn, improve women's status, and usher in self-correcting adaptations. Whichever view of the above prevails, it is clear that the changes will pose challenges for the society.

Policy Implications

44There is no doubt that antenatal population policies since the early 1960s have contributed to the drastic decline of fertility in Korea. Socio-economic development has also reinforced the desire of many couples for smaller families. However, the rapid transition to low fertility has collided with traditional socio-cultural values. As a result, several demographic distortions have emerged since the mid-1980s, and pose challenges for societal adaptation. An imbalanced sex ratio at birth represents a good example. Related issues also include the impact of declining family size on the labour market, utilization of foreign labour, the ageing of the population, and a welfare system for the elderly population.

45Since the mid-1980s, remarkably high sex ratios at birth have been noticed in the regions of Taegu, Kyongbuk and Kyongnam. Despite a downward trend in the past decade, it still remains to be seen whether the sex ratios will be in the normal range in the near future. An imbalanced sex ratio at birth can be interpreted as people's attitudinal and behavioural expressions of their preference for sons. Sex ratios at birth have risen, as people could not adjust their reproductive behaviour to meet the new condition of low fertility. It is clear, therefore, that the interface between traditional sociocultural values and new conditions of low fertility should be taken into account while designing future population and development strategies.

46Prenatal sex screening and sex-selective abortion have recently become controversial social and ethical issues in Korea. Korean law has prohibited identifying the sex of a foetus. Harsh penalties and regulations have been imposed for violations since 1992. However, prenatal sex screenings and sex-selective abortions have been performed widely, irrespective of urban and rural residence, geographical regions, or socioeconomic status. What comes through quite clearly is that stronger and more effective policy measures to prevent people from misusing medical technologies and to control sex-selective abortion have to be implemented, through medical guidelines, norms, codes, and efficient ways of enforcing them.

47It should be noted that sex-selective abortion can be dangerous, or even fatal to women. More attention should be paid to the mortality or morbidity of women and infants due to these medical practices and late abortions. Under the strong fertility control policies of the past three decades, induced abortion has been somewhat regarded as a means of family planning (Kong et al. 1992: 287). The current family planning programme needs to be reoriented to discourage abortion for health as well as ethical reasons, and to provide services of improved quality.

48Finally, long-term population policies should be geared to advancing gender equality and equity, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination against women. As long as medical technologies fit the normative structures of Korean society, they will be adopted despite legal barriers, costs and inconveniences. To eradicate son-selective reproductive behaviour in the long run, more effort should be made to induce changes in gender role norms, values, and attitudes. Improving the status of women through effective programmes of education, employment, and mass communication in all spheres of life is essential for the long-term success of population policies.

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Notes de fin

1 An earlier version of this paper was published in the Asia Journal 2.1 (June 1995). This paper has been substantially revised and updated was presented at the CePeD-IFP-INED-UNFPA Seminar on “Gender Issues at Early Stages of Life in South and East Asia”, held from 24-27 November 2003, Pondicherry, India.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 2: Sex Ratio for the Population under Five Years Old by Residence, Region and Age, 1995
Légende Source : KNSO (1997)
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 220k
Titre Figure 1: Trends in Sex Ratio at Birth by Parity, 1981-2001
Légende Source: KNSO (1996, 2003).
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Titre Table 4: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Parity, 1994
Légende Source: KNSO (1995: 82-87).
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 204k
Titre Table 5: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Age of the Mother, 1994
Légende Note: -- Sex ratio is not calculated if the number of either sons or daughters is smaller than 50. Source: KNSO (2003).
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 248k
Titre Figure 2: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Parity, 1994 and 2000
Légende Source: KNSO (1995: 82-87, 2003).
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 3: Sex Ratio at Birth by Region and Age of the Mother, 1994 and 2000
Légende Source: KNSO (2003)
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Figure 4: Relationship between Sex Ratio at Birth and Sex Ratio for Children Deceased before the Age of Five, 1985-2000
Légende Source: NBS (1987); KNSO (1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2002, 2003).
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre Table 6: Effects of Prenatal Sex Screening and Sex-Selective Abortion on the Sex Ratio at Birth: Results from the First Simulation
Légende Results – Total Number of Children: 19,950 (Male: 10,814; Female: 9,136)Average Number of Children: 2.00Sex Ratio at Birth: 118.4
URL http://books.openedition.org/ifp/docannexe/image/4546/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 100k

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Hanyang University
Seoul, 133-791 KOREA
Email: duskim@hanyang.ac.kr

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