Right-wing politician Jeong Kab-yoon sparked outrage this week after he brought up economics professor Joh Sung-wook’s marital status — at a hearing to confirm her nomination for head of the country’s fair trade commission. The commission protects
against monopolies in the country.
“You’re not married yet, are you? What do you think the biggest problem is in South Korean
society? It’s the birth rate. The birth rate will end up ruining our country,” Jeong, a member of conservative opposition party Liberty Korea Party, told Joh on Monday.
“Your own success is good, but please also contribute to the development of the country.”
At the hearing, Jeong told Joh: “If I have hurt your feelings or hurt people’s (feelings), then I apologize.” Joh said she accepted his apology. CNN has reached out to Jeong and Joh for comment.
The chairperson of the commission is appointed by the president and serves a three-year term. If Joh’s nomination is successful, she will be the first female
chairperson of the commission since it was founded in 1981.
Jeong’s comments come as the country’s fertility rate falls to its lowest
since records began in 1970, putting it among the lowest in the world.
But online, many criticized his remarks. In one tweet
, the Korean Women Workers Association — a non-governmental organization focusing on women’s labor issues — called Jeong’s comments “an act of hiring discrimination” that violated women’s civil rights and labor rights.
There are laws to protect against gender discrimination in South Korea. Nevertheless, gender roles remain deeply entrenched
and penalties for breaking the law can amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Although Jeong’s finger-wagging was controversial, South Korea’s government is indisputably concerned by the low fertility rate.
In 2018, South Korea’s fertility rate slipped to less than one baby per woman — a drop from the previous year’s rate of 1.05.
In the United States, by comparison, the 2018 fertility rate was 1.72. Countries generally need a fertility rate of 2 if they want to maintain a stable population.
One of possible contributor to South Korea’s falling fertility rate is the fact that a growing number of South Koreans are shunning romantic relationships
Some point to economic strain, saying the rising unemployment rate and highly competitive job market means they can’t afford to date. Others point to concerns about sexual violence and toxic masculinity
as reasons why they’re staying single.