Few South Koreans Are Having Babies. A Mayor’s Answer? More Nannies.

Few South Koreans Are Having Babies. A Mayor’s Answer? More Nannies.

South Korea has had the lowest total fertility rate in the world for years. And this week, the mayor of Seoul offered a solution: more nannies.

In a brief Facebook post, Oh Se-hoon, the mayor, said that alleviating the high cost and low supply of babysitters in the country would encourage more South Koreans to have children.

“This should be good news for parents who have been reluctant to hire babysitters because of financial burdens or the shortage of their supply,” Mr. Oh said on Tuesday in his post.

Immigration law in South Korea allows foreign residents with long-term visas to work as babysitters, according to the Korea Immigration Service. But migrant workers with temporary work visas need special permission to do so.

Mr. Oh did not detail how exactly the visa rules would be changed to increase the number of working babysitters in South Korea, though he pointed to other countries where low-cost domestic workers are common as possible models.

“When Hong Kong and Singapore introduced this system in the 1970s, the share of women in the labor force showed a marked rise,” he said. “It did not reverse the long-term dip in fertility rates, but the downward trend has slowed as compared to South Korea.”

Mr. Oh isn’t the first official who has tried to address South Korea’s demographic crisis by easing the rising costs of babysitters. A state-run babysitting program under the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has trained and managed babysitters at a low rate for parents for more than 10 years.

But the interventions have not been enough, experts say. Lee Jeong-won, a researcher at Korea Institute of Child Care and Education, said that the amount she paid her babysitter as a mother of twins has doubled in the past 12 years. “The cost has gone up a lot,” she said. On average, South Koreans spend about $2,000 a month on a babysitter, she added.

Research by the institute has shown a growing number of South Korean parents hiring foreign babysitters over the years because of their lower cost and greater availability. But Covid restrictions have reduced the number of babysitters coming in from other countries, especially China, making the mayor’s proposal more urgent, Ms. Lee said.

Some experts said the proposal was premature. Lee Sang-lim, a demographer with the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said he had seen nothing in the plan about labor protections for foreign workers, such as wage requirements, training and vetting procedures.

But Ms. Lee, the child care policy expert, said she was cautiously optimistic that the mayor’s plan would help working women. “More and more women want to work and achieve success in their careers,” she said. “But the burden of parenting still rests on them among many couples.”

To alleviate the costs of parenting, President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has promised to increase allowances the government provides to new parents. Under Mr. Yoon, a budget proposal released last month said the country would provide every family with a newborn child a monthly allowance of $694 starting in 2024, tripling it from the current $208.

The mayor said that he had proposed his idea at a national cabinet meeting earlier this week.

The financial burden is only one among several reasons South Koreans are reluctant to have children, experts say. Housing and education costs, scarce jobs and general anxiety about the future are other contributing factors.

“People aren’t just concerned about the costs of having children when they’re infants,” Ms. Lee said. “To want children, they have to believe they can live happily even when they grow up.”

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