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Reflections on Korean State Policies toward the family in the sixties

Jessica Nessim, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina

The process of modernization and industrialization initiated in Korea in the sixties transformed the country from being an agrarian - rural society, to constitute itself in a dynamic, urbanized and industrial society.  These changes had deep impact in the organization of the Korean family system and structure: Modernization, and its consequent demographic changes, turned the average size of Korean families from 5,6 people in 1960 to 4,2 in 1985 (Palley, H.A., 1992)  
This significant change is even more dramatic if we take into account that Confucian traditions were deeply rooted in Korea, and this was a factor that influenced the development of a new family model, in the framework of a modern society. In this context, government policies played a major role in the fertility transition and were a decisive factor regarding the early achieving of modern family figures (Kim Eun – Shil 1997, Kim, Doo-Sub  2005)
Changes in the Korean family system and the remarkable decline in the fertility rate were of course not only caused by the Korean government policies. However, especially during the early years of its implementation, government policies had a great influence, particularly the National Family Planning Program launched in 1962 (which is deeply analyzed in the paper). Also, these policies had a big impact in relating the images of the small families as something associated to modernity, and not as an imposition of the state, but as an internalized desire of the  members of society (Kim Eun Shil, 1997).
It should be noted, however, that these policies involved very complex processes, influenced by the changing social and historical conditions and also by the several logics, visions and actors involved. Thus, potential changes in behavior were still constrained by the values that ruled the society (for example, although they were successful in many ways, it could not be said that they have finished, for example, with traditional son preferences and the family estrategization. Despite the changes, the importance of maintaining the family line and son preference is well maintained. This and the fact that young couples seek to have fewer children, generated an imbalance between sexes.
Thus, all these raised again the tensions that arise in the context of a society where traditional orientation retains its influence, while the socio-economic and political changes continue to produce conflict in the dynamics of social structure and family.
The total fertility fell by 40% in Korea in less than 15 years, and the demographic transition, which was completed within a period of twenty years, was taken with a quickness that has no precedents in the world. It is important to take into account that these changes in fertility and reproduction patterns significantly affect gender roles and power relations in society. These issues involve cultural, political, social and even economic aspects. Therefore, they have great significance and are even more important in societies such as the Korean, where the changes happened very fast, and in a context where the roles and logics of intra-family relations influence various aspects of social life.
The changes in family relations took place as a result of negotiations and tensions between traditional values and structures, and the new, more individualistic values introduced by modernity. The Westernization of Korean society that came from the modernization process involved a series of continuities, ruptures and conflicts within a framework where the demands of modernization and the new cultural patterns arose at the same time as a necessity, and as a threat to the traditional aspects of the society.


Download File: SRG-Nessim.pdf

Center for Korean Studies