pp. 188-190 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

5.4. The Problem of Sex Ratio in Korea

Sang-yong Song.

Hallym University, KOREA

Korea was one of few developing countries that were successful in birth control. Since the beginning of the 1960s, Korea has shown rapid decline in fertility. The total fertility rate which was around 6.0 per woman in 1960 dropped to 1.6 by the late 1980s. The use of effective contraception has increased tremendously due to the changing socio-economic factors affecting child-bearing and the continuous promotion of the official family planning programme.

It has long been evident that induced abortion has also played a significant role in reducing fertility. Although the absolute number of abortions has been declining recently, it is still at a very high level compared with most Western countries, and when taken as a proportion of total pregnancies, the rate continues to increase. In Korea, increasing abortion brings forth a serious problem in connection with sex ratio.

The preference for son seems to have been universal both in the West and East, since the man-dominant culture was formed in the ancient time. Traditionally Korean parents have shown strong preference for son. Since a child's sex was not controllable, the problem parents faced with was to decide what kind of contraceptive method to use and, when pregnant, whether to carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion.

The modern technology which gives parents the ability to prenatally determine the sex of a pregnancy has added a new dimension to the problem of fertility choice. For parents who prefer having children of a particular sex, this ability can lead to sex-selective abortions. Frequent sex-selective abortions result in distortions of natural sex ratio at birth.

According to the Annual Report on the Vital Statistics, the sex ratio at birth in Korea increased dramatically during the last two decades. In 1980 there were 104 male births for every 100 female births. The sex ratio was 110 in 1985, but became 117 in 1990 and still was 116 in 1995. The rise in the sex ratio at birth is no doubt due to sex-selective abortions and can be verified by comparisons of the sex ratio by parity. Thus in the 1990s, among children born of third or higher birth orders, the sex ratio exceeds two.

Selective abortions occur mostly at high birth orders. Mothers tend to leave the sex of the first child, and to a lesser extent the second child to chance. Those who are 'unlucky' in their first two births and have a strong son preference increasingly practice sex-selective abortion. It is certain that unless sex-selective abortions are effectively controlled at first and second parities, there will be serious problems in the future.

It has been reported that son preference was a barrier to reducing fertility, if parents continued to have children until they reached their desired number and sex composition. However, couples have relatively less control over the sex of their children than they do over the number. As a consequence, there has been an upsurge in sex-selective induced abortions in Korea to accommodate son preference which has led to distortions in the sex ratio at birth.

The sex ratio at birth in Korea has been positively associated with birth order in recent years. In the early 1980s, the mean sex ratio at birth was within as acceptable range, but increased abruptly from the mid-1980s. The overall sex ratio at birth reveals remarkably differing patterns according to birth order. For first births, the sex ratio at birth remained within the range of 105 to 109 throughout the period 1980 to 1994. By contrast the sex ratio of second births jumped from 106 to 117 in 1990. While the proportion of third and higher order births in Korea is not large, the sex ratios at these orders are shown to be markedly distorted. For example, since 1990 there has been about two male births for every female birth at these orders. These figures clearly indicate the phenomenon of son preference among some Korean couples.

It is very likely that many Korean women who are about to bear a second or higher order birth have prenatal sex detection and then resort to sex-selective induced abortion, if they are not going to deliver a male child. In other words, the increasing sex ratio with birth order can be explained as follows. If family size must be limited in society where there is a strong boy preference, potential female births must be suppressed by sex-selective abortion, so that the desired number of boys may be attained within the small family size norm. In Korea where family size desires are low, prenatal sex identification tends to take place after the first birth. Sex detection techniques became widely available when ultrasonic equipment was first mass produced locally.

Table 1: Reasons given by women for boy preference, Korea, 1964 - 1991 (%)

Reason for boy preference 1964 1965 1966 1985 1991

Seoul Town Rural National National

Support in old age 48.3 61.3 62.2 26.1 6.8

Family lineage 27.9 19.3 28.2 37.3 42.2

Ancestor worship 1.5 5.0 9.1

Economic assistance 6.6

Family harmony 15.6 16.8

Prestige 20.3 34.2

Others 23.8 17.9 4.6 - -

Source: KIHASA, Fertility and Family Health Surveys, Various Years.

Table 2: Actual and projected population (000s) at peak marriageable ages, Korea, 1970-2010

Year Male 25-29 Female 20-24 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 2,181 2,083 104.7

1995 2,184 2,155 101.3

2000 2,263 1,896 119.4

2005 2,009 1,823 110.2

2010 1,946 1,513 128.6

Source: NSO, Future Population Projection, 1991.

In previous days, the preference for son was related with various reasons such as support of parents in old age, provision of farm labour, carrying on the family line and practice of ancestor worship. Though these reasons still remain important, there are some visible changes. Several surveys show that the most pronounced reason for son preference is family lineage which is essential in Korean society by long Confucian tradition. Prestige is also important. Support in old age, however, appears no longer to be a major factor.

The rising sex ratio at birth could cause many social problems. The first is a marriage squeeze in the future. It is a situation where males will not be able to find sufficient females in the customary age range to marry. According to the official population projection data, there are unlikely to be problems in the marriage market before 2000, since the sex ratio of persons of peak marriage age are relatively well balanced. However, after the year 2000, males aged 25-29 could face difficulties in finding marriage partners in the age range of 20-24, since the shortage of females increases sharply.

The imbalance of sex ratio could exert an unfavourable influence on fertility or contraception. Sticking to son will weaken the control over the number of children, thus deteriorating the so far effective family planning. The preference for son is the cultural background of impeding the social activities of women. Human Development Report of UNDP shows that the social role of women in Korea is very low in the light of its social development. There is little hope for improving the situation without removing the prejudice. It also produces the belief in the superiority of men which in turn makes all kinds of abnormal social customs. As a result, the quality of life of women is destined to be gravely hurt.

We all know that it is necessary to change our value system to solve the problem of sex ratio. But deep-rooted value cannot be overthrown in a day. The best way is to approach the issue through education. Long range efforts by civil movement as well as school education are expected. Furthermore the value system which distorts natural sex ratio has been institutionalized over a long period of time. The campaign for change the social system is needed so that wrong value system might not have a foothold.

The Korean government has already taken action to forbid prenatal sex identification by revising the medical laws in 1987 and 1994 which led to strengthening of the disciplinary code. Physicians who provide such medical services for identifying prenatal sex can by punished with imprisonment or a substantial fine, or have their medical licenses canceled. However, these legislative measures do not appear sufficient to eliminate sex-selective abortions. It is necessary to strengthen the government intervention on this matter and to implement the laws strictly.

At more fundamental level, social and institutional policies should be directed to weaken the high value attached to sons, and to prevent sex-selective abortions. The equality of the sexes has been guaranteed in Korean Constitution since 1948, but the revision of patriarchal family law remains to be achieved. All kinds of legislations and campaigns against sexual inequality should be encouraged.


1. Nam-Hoon Cho & Moon-Sik Hong, "Effects of Induced Abortion and Son Preference on Korea's Imbalanced Sex Ratio at Birth," Sex Preference for Children and Gender Discrimination in Asia, Seoul: Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, 1996, pp. 90-112.

2. Kyuhan Bae, "Socio-cultural Factors of the Unbalanced Sex Ratio at Birth and the Strategy of Balancing," Studies on Social Sciences, Kukmin University, Vol. 9, 1997.

3. Human Development Report, UNDP, 1995.

4. Annual Report on the Vital Statistics, National Statistical Office, 1995.

5. Statistical Yearbook on Women, Korea Development Institute for Women, 1997.

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