[Herald Interview] ‘Population is not about numbers. Fertility is about women’: UNFPA chief

By Park Ju-young
  • Published : Feb 17, 2019 - 16:15
  • Updated : Feb 17, 2019 - 17:18

The key to resolving South Korea’s low fertility rate is to understand that women have the right to choose pregnancy, rather than just pushing them to have more babies, the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund said Thursday.

“The low fertility is not just about data and numbers. It’s about people. It’s about choices. And it’s about women’s rights to choose how many children, when and how to space them. It’s not about a national target of X amount of people either too high or too low or in the middle,” Dr. Natalia Kanem said during an interview in Seoul.

“The breakthrough is understanding that women need to define their own decisions.”

UNFPA executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem talks about Korea’s low fertility rate and related issues. (UNFPA)

The executive director pointed out that Korea’s low fertility rates are closely linked with declining marriage rates -- often the result of the prevailing unequal gender roles in society.

“Typically, it’s the women who look after the households, children and older parents. As women succeed in their education and career, sometimes there can be a lot of demands on women for managing a family. And the traditional roles conflict with the long hours that women are working in order to succeed in their career.”

Women in Korea have achieved much over the past few decades, Kanem added, including impressive levels of education. Now, she said, it’s time to move on to the next step -- creating a society where women can maintain happy family lives and rewarding careers too.

“We should be asking the question, ‘What is it that a woman or a girl would like to have? What does she say on her needs and reasons for not deciding to become pregnant right now?’ With that deeper understanding, we will be able to work on policies that address the women-centered decision-making locus.”

The executive director also stressed that a high fertility rate does not always translate into a high quality of life for a country’s people.

“In Korea right now, there is a popular opinion that the birth rate is too low. This is true, but we should not pose the question in terms of ‘How do we get more children?’ We are talking about women’s decisions and quality of life and of society.

“It’s too simplistic to think that it’s just the number of how many babies per woman that leads to the type of quality of life which Korea is very much striving towards.”


When asked about labor shortages caused by low fertility rates, Kanem said members of the older generation has great potential to work productively and contribute to society in ways never imagined before.

“We’re living through new challenges that societies have never faced before. We have the most young people ever in the world, 1.8 billion, and at the same time, we have most old people ever in history,” the executive director said, saying that a new UNFPA office in Seoul would carry out research in cooperation with the Health Ministry on aging with dignity and healthy aging.

Kanem was in Korea to attend last Wednesday’s opening ceremony for a UNFPA liaison office in Seoul. The office, located at Yonsei University, was established to enhance UNFPA’s engagement with Korea on matters related to aging populations, sexual and reproductive health, and other issues.

(From Left) Kim Sae-ryo (Chief ad interim, UNFPA Seoul Office and Regional Partnerships Advisor), Dr. Yong-Hak Kim (President, Yonsei University), Dr. Natalia Kanem (UNFPA Executive Director), Kang Jung-Sik (Deputy Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Lee Kang-Ho (Director-General, Bureau of Population and Child policy, Ministry of Health and Welfare), Arthur Erken (Director, Communications and Strategic Partnerships, UNFPA) (UNFPA)

During the opening ceremony, Kanem highlighted the long-standing relationship between UNFPA and Korea, recalling how UNFPA had helped the Korean government between 1974 and 1991 in the area of population policy and planning, including rights-based family planning, population surveys and the use of data for sustainable development.

“As a developing country in the 1970s, the Republic of Korea made crucial investments in health, family planning, education and women’s empowerment, spurring a significant demographic dividend,” Kanem said. “Now, it is sharing its wealth of experience, resources and best practices to support developing countries in the Asia-Pacific (region) and globally.”

Future research from the Seoul office will also be shared with other countries, Kanem said.

“As this office is a global advisory, the countries (with low fertility rates) will be looking to see what comes out of the research result and studies from our office here in Seoul. We don’t have the answers yet, and that’s the excitement of working in our field.”

By Park Ju-young (