The negative economic effects of South Korea’s looming demographic crisis have sparked much alarm. Beyond labor shortages and general economic stagnation, the country’s low fertility rate is also poised to saddle a shrinking generation of young people with the burden of providing for an ever-growing elderly population, about half of which falls below the poverty line. Yet a less obvious but equally important potential consequence of the demographic crisis is its effects on South Korea’s democratic trajectory.
The adjustments needed to accommodate an aging population will require sacrifices. Encouraging citizens in democracies to make such sacrifices is far easier when they feel a strong sense of civic duty. What connects demography and democracy for South Korea is its national story: how citizens are connected to the state through a national narrative, how the country’s demographic crisis challenges that narrative, and how this challenge in turn is shifting the civic foundations of the country’s democracy.
South Korea’s long-held self-conception as an ethnically homogenous nation has been a powerful source of civic duty toward one’s fellow South Koreans and the state that represents them. Yet as immigration becomes an ever more necessary solution to the country’s demographic crisis, that once-unifying national story is fraying. To prevent the kind of tribalism that is tearing many democracies apart, South Korea’s ethnocentric national story will have to evolve carefully to accommodate greater diversity without alienating native South Koreans in the process.
National Stories and Civic Duty
To address its ailing demographic outlook, whether through expanded immigration or higher taxes to bolster the country’s social safety net, South Korea will need citizens to make various kinds of sacrifices on behalf of the state. A strong and widespread sense of civic duty is and will be essential.
Civic duty—the voluntary sense of obligation to be a good citizen, even when doing so is costly—is a key ingredient for sustaining resilient democracies through times of crisis. When resources run low or uncertainty runs high, authoritarian states can ultimately fall back on coercion to force citizens to comply or sacrifice. As a matter of principle, democracies cannot threaten citizens in such ways. Instead, they must rely on a widely shared sense of civic duty.
Civic duty is typically seen as an inherent aspect of culture or character, but in fact, it is powerfully shaped by national stories. These stories, passed down from generation to generation, chronicle a given nation’s history through the eyes of its people. Distinctive elements of such stories may include jointly faced challenges, shared allies, common foes, and mutual feats of perserverance. These relational stories provide a blueprint for what, if anything, one owes to the fellow members of a particular nation.
Civic duty is shaped by a specific relationship, embedded in national stories, between the national people and the state they call home. This relationship gives rise to profound questions of representation. Does the state represent a given citizen’s conception of the national people or a national “Other”? Does the government aim to protect the national people’s best interests or threaten them? National stories provide answers to such questions based on lived experience and shape whether people feel a sense of obligation to their state.
South Korea’s ethnocentric narrative—based on the belief that all Koreans are part of the same bloodline (danil minjok)—has long served as a positive force for the country’s democracy by undergirding citizens’ sense of civic duty. This national narrative framed South Korean democracy as a natural extension of the national body and therefore a worthy object of political duty. Indeed, South Korean citizens have repeatedly shown up for their democracy in times of crisis. Consider the way many South Koreans sacrificed their personal wealth in the national gold drives in 1998 to help the country weather the Asian Financial Crisis, or more recently how citizens dutifully complied with the state’s public health restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Such crises can sometimes destabilize democracies, but strong civic duty has served as South Korea’s backbone throughout such periods.
Is South Korea’s National Story Unraveling?
Yet South Korea’s demographic crisis is rapidly fragmenting its once-unifying national story in ways that threaten this rare reservoir of civic duty. The country’s dramatically declining fertility rate has all but necessitated the import of foreign labor and marriage migrants. As of 2019, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family estimates that over 1 million people in South Korea—around 2 percent of the country’s overall population—are part of multicultural families. More importantly, babies born into such multicultural families accounted for 5.5 percent of all newborns in 2018, a number that grew from 4.3 percent in 2010. As multiracial children from such unions—what Katharine Moon has called the “New Koreans”—are becoming a larger portion of the country’s population, South Korea’s ethnic composition is changing.
In the face of such change, South Koreans are increasingly divided on matters of national identity. According to the 2020 Korean Identity Survey by the East Asia Institute, support among South Koreans for a multicultural country declined from more than 60 percent in 2010 to just 44 percent in 2020. A sizeable 39 percent of respondents still preferred an ethnically homogeneous South Korea. Tellingly, the percentage of respondents unsure about what kind of country South Korea ought to be increased from 2 percent to 13 percent between 2010 and 2020, with the largest increase among younger respondents (see figure 1).
Meanwhile, the South Korean government has taken an inconsistent approach to reconciling the country’s new demographic reality with its ethnonationalist legacy. While the government has urged native South Koreans to support a pro-multicultural (damunhwa) policy shift to be more welcoming of newcomers, it has simultaneously held on to traces of ethnonationalist superiority in implementing such policies. For instance, many so-called multicultural centers for foreign wives are essentially cultural assimilationist training programs, where newcomers are expected to conform to South Korean customs and culture, rather than being appreciated for the diversity they bring. This contradiction between political rhetoric and practice reflects South Korea’s growing national fragmentation.
The splintering of South Korea’s national story could significantly weaken the civic foundations of its democracy over time. For South Koreans who identify with an ethnocentric national narrative, the government’s expansion of multicultural programs at the perceived expense of tax dollars to benefit lifelong native South Koreans could seed the belief that the state serves what they see as a national “Other.” For South Koreans and newcomers who identify with a more multicultural narrative, the government’s failures to live up to this promise could cast doubt on whether the state really upholds the best interests of their vision of the nation. In both cases, feelings of being alienated from the state could weaken a sense of civic duty among South Koreans to sacrifice on its behalf.
As Kyle Ferrier notes in his piece, the economic effects of South Korea’s demographic crisis, like lower productivity and decreased tax revenue, are the most visible and immediate changes the country is undergoing. Yet a less visible but no less alarming effect is that, for many South Koreans, a unifying national story that used to be a significant source of civic duty is unraveling as the country faces an unprecedented demographic challenge.
For South Korea’s democratic future, the question isn’t simply which national story is better. What matters is how well a given national story—whether centered on ethnicity, multiculturalism, or something else—weaves a mutually committed relationship between citizens and the state. For a long time, an ethnocentric narrative accomplished this very effectively in South Korea and generated widespread civic duty for its young democracy. But with South Korea’s demographic crisis ushering in a new era of immigration and interracial marriage, that national story has run its course.
The silver lining is that, like any kind of story, national stories can be reimagined. The demographic crisis, in this respect, presents an opportunity as much as a challenge. Governments—through political leadership and public policies—can proactively shape the direction of their countries’ national stories. In this transitional phase, it will be essential that the South Korean government preempt us-versus-them politics by dovetailing efforts to include newcomers with constructive experiences for native South Koreans. Community programs that build social capital that can act as a bridge between foreign wives and native locals or offer incentives for native-born employers to hire and retain migrant workers are promising starts toward building a broadly inclusive national story. The recognition that South Korea’s demographic shortfall is as much a crisis of nationalism and democracy as it is an economic quandary is perhaps the most important starting point.