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The Real Reason South Koreans Aren’t Having Babies

Gender, rather than race or age or immigration status, has become the country’s sharpest social fault line.

shadow of an adult hand reaching for a child's
Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic
摄影:Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic

Updated at 6:53 p.m. ET on March 24, 2023

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On the days she’s feeling most generous toward men—say, when she sees a handsome man on the street—Helena Lee can sometimes put her distaste aside and appreciate them as “eye candy.” That’s as far as she goes: “I do not want to know what is inside of his brain.” Most of the time, she wants nothing at all to do with men.

“I try to have faith in guys and not to be like, ‘Kill all men,’” she says. “But I’m sorry, I am a little bit on that side—that is, on the extreme side.”

Her father, she says, was abusive and moved out when she was 6, and she has lived with her mother and grandmother ever since, a mini-matriarchy that suits her fine. She wears her hair in a bob, and on the day we met, she had on a black-denim button-down and a beige trench coat. In college, male classmates told her she’d be cuter if she “fixed her gay style.” The worst part, she said, was that they were surprised when she was offended—they thought they’d paid her a compliment. She is 24, studying for civil-servant exams, and likes reading Andrea Dworkin, Carl Sagan, and the occasional romance novel, which she considers pure fantasy.
她说,她的父亲虐待她,在她6岁时搬了出去,从那以后她一直和母亲和祖母住在一起,这是一个适合她的迷你母权制。她把头发梳成波波头,我们见面的那天,她穿了一件黑色牛仔纽扣衬衫和一件米色风衣。在大学里,男同学告诉她,如果她“改变自己的同性恋风格”,她会更可爱。她说,最糟糕的是,当她被冒犯时,他们感到惊讶——他们认为他们向她表示了赞美。她今年24岁,正在准备公务员考试,喜欢读安德里亚·德沃金(Andrea Dworkin)、卡尔·萨根(Carl Sagan)的书,偶尔还会读一些浪漫小说,她认为这些小说纯粹是幻想。

Lee is part of a boycott movement in South Korea—women who are actively choosing single life. Their movement—possibly tens of thousands strong, though it’s impossible to say for sure—is called “4B,” or “The 4 No’s.” Adherents say no to dating, no to sex with men, no to marriage, and no to childbirth. (“B” refers to the Korean prefix bi-, which means “no”.)

They are the extreme edge of a broader trend away from marriage. By one estimate, more than a third of Korean men and a quarter of Korean women who are now in their mid-to-late 30s will never marry. Even more will never have children. In 1960, Korean women had, on average, six children. In 2022, the average Korean woman could expect to have just 0.78 children in her lifetime. In Seoul, the average is 0.59. If this downward drift continues, it will not be long before one out of every two women in the capital never becomes a parent.
它们是远离婚姻的更广泛趋势的极端边缘。据估计,超过三分之一的韩国男性和四分之一的韩国女性现在30多岁,永远不会结婚。更多的人永远不会有孩子。1960年,韩国妇女平均生育6个孩子。2022 年,韩国女性平均一生中预计只有 0.78 个孩子。在首尔,平均值为0.59。如果这种下降趋势继续下去,用不了多久,首都每两个妇女中就有一个永远不会成为父母。

Many countries’ populations are aging and, in some cases, shrinking. In January, China recorded its first population decline since the 1960s, when the country had been racked by famine. America’s birth rate has been falling since the Great Recession (though 86 percent of American women still have at least one child by the time they’re in their 40s). But South Korea’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world.

Marriage and children are more closely linked in South Korea than nearly anywhere else, with just 2.5 percent of children born outside of marriage in 2020, compared with an OECD average of more than 40 percent. For nearly 20 years, the Korean government has tried to encourage more marriages and more babies. In 2005, the government recognized low fertility as a matter of national importance and put forth its Framework Act on Low Birth Rate in an Aging Society, versions of which have been renewed every five years.

The government has tried expanding maternity leave, offering couples bigger and bigger bonuses for having babies, and subsidizing housing in Seoul for newlyweds. The mayor there has proposed easing visa restrictions to import more cheap foreign nannies, while some rural governments fund bachelors seeking foreign brides. In 2016, the government published a “birth map” online showing how many women of reproductive age lived in different regions—a clumsy attempt to encourage towns and cities to produce more babies. It prompted a feminist protest with women holding banners that read my womb is not a national public good and baby vending machine. The map was taken down.

In all this time, the country has spent more than $150 billion hoping to coax more babies into the world. None of its efforts are working. Many Korean metro systems have hot-pink seats designated for pregnant women, but when I visited Seoul in November, six months pregnant myself and easily tired, I was rarely able to snag a seat; they were filled with dozing elderly people.

There are a lot of reasons people decide not to have a baby. Young Koreans cite as obstacles the high cost of housing in greater Seoul (home to roughly half the country’s 52 million citizens), the expense of raising a child in a hypercompetitive academic culture, and grueling workplace norms that are inhospitable to family life, especially for women, who are still expected to do the bulk of housework and child care. But these explanations miss a more basic dynamic: the deterioration in relations between women and men—what the Korean media call a “gender war.”

“I think the most fundamental issue at hand is that a lot of girls realize that they don’t really have to do this anymore,” Lee told me. “They can just opt out.”

Korean women seen from the back in sunlight; Korean men seen close up with sun on their face.
By one estimate, more than a third of Korean men and a quarter of Korean women now in their mid-to-late 30s will never marry. (Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)
据估计,超过三分之一的韩国男性和四分之一的韩国女性在30多岁中后期永远不会结婚。(摄影:Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)

The plummeting fertility rate has its roots in the rapid transformation of Korean society. After the Korean War, many people migrated from villages to work in urban factories for miserable wages, as part of a state-led economic transformation that became known as the “Miracle on the Han River.” High-school and college enrollment shot up. A prodemocracy movement eventually led to the toppling of military rule in 1987, and to new freedoms. After the 1997 financial crisis, companies restructured, and Korea’s corporate culture—known for demanding long hours in exchange for job security—took on the precarity familiar to Americans.

But gender roles were slower to evolve. Chang Kyung-sup, a sociologist at Seoul National University, coined the term compressed modernity to describe South Korea’s combination of lightning-fast economic transformation and the slow, uneven evolution of social institutions such as the family. More and more women entered higher education, finally surpassing their male counterparts in 2015. But educated women were still often expected to drop out of the workforce upon marriage or motherhood. The family remained the basic unit of society, and both the old order and the new assigned familial responsibilities nearly exclusively to women. Women’s ambitions have expanded, but the idea of what it means to be a wife and mother in Korea has not. As a result, resentments on both sides of the gender divide have flourished.
但性别角色的演变速度较慢。首尔国立大学(Seoul National University)社会学家张京燮(Chang Kyung-sup)创造了“压缩现代性”(spressed modernity)一词,用来描述韩国闪电般的经济转型与家庭等社会制度缓慢、不平衡的演变相结合。越来越多的女性进入高等教育,最终在2015年超过了男性同行。但是,受过教育的妇女仍然经常被期望在结婚或生育后退出劳动力市场。家庭仍然是社会的基本单位,旧秩序和新秩序几乎都把家庭责任分配给了妇女。女性的雄心壮志扩大了,但在韩国,成为妻子和母亲意味着什么的想法却没有。结果,性别鸿沟两边的怨恨都猖獗了。

On a sunny day in November, I met Cho Young-min, 49, at a café in Gangnam. After more than two decades in marketing, she runs a business creating urban gardens. She sees the gender war partly as a result of that disconnect in expectations, and the fact that, for the first time, men and women are now genuinely competing for jobs.

The unemployment rate in Korea is relatively low, less than 4 percent, but it’s significantly higher for people in their 20s. Mandatory male military service—South Korea is still technically at war with North Korea—gives women what many men perceive as an advantage in the labor market, a head start of 18 months to two years. Women counter this with data on the pay gap, the largest in the OECD at 31 percent.

a poster saying Women's manifesto; a couple with a young dhild.
For nearly 20 years, the Korean government has tried to encourage more marriages and more babies. (Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)
近20年来,韩国政府一直试图鼓励更多的婚姻和更多的孩子。(摄影:Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)

“To women’s minds, before, they had a very small portion of the pie, like this”—Cho held her thumb and index finger close together. “Now they are expanding the portion, bit by bit. It’s still very small compared to the men’s portion. But to men, they are losing.”

Last March, Yoon Suk-yeol was elected president on a wave of male resentment. He pledged to abolish the country’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which he said treated men like “potential sex criminals.” And he blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rate, suggesting that it “prevents healthy relationships between men and women,” adding that this was “not a problem that can be solved by giving out government subsidies.”

According to exit polls, nearly 59 percent of men ages 18 to 29 voted for Yoon, while 58 percent of women in that age group voted for the liberal candidate. One commentator declared it the “incel election.” Several people noted to me that in a country as ethnically homogenous as South Korea, the election emphasized the extent to which gender, rather than race or immigration status, has become the key social fault line.

Cho Jung-min had always planned to be married by 23. Her mother had married young, and given birth to her at 22. Cho loved having a young mom; the two of them watch the same TV shows and admire the same singers. “I wanted to do the same thing for my child,” Cho told me. But when she was 17 or 18, she’d mentioned her marriage plan to a friend. “Then why are you struggling so hard to study and go to university?” her friend asked. Good question. “That was one of the turning points,” she told me. Cho is 32 now and single.
赵政民一直计划在23岁之前结婚。她的母亲很早就结婚了,22岁时生下了她。Cho 喜欢有一个年轻的妈妈;他们俩看同样的电视节目,欣赏同样的歌手。“我想为我的孩子做同样的事情,”赵告诉我。但当她17或18岁时,她向朋友提起了她的婚姻计划。“那你为什么这么努力地学习和上大学?”她的朋友问道。问得好。“那是转折点之一,”她告诉我。Cho 现在 32 岁,单身。

We met at an Indian restaurant near her office. Cho has wavy black hair and swanned in wearing a stylish wool coat and sparkly scarf. She had studied and worked in France for years, but moved home during the pandemic. She is now a corporate strategist at a luxury e-retailer, where many of her workdays stretch until 10 or 11 p.m. (This is not uncommon: Last week a government proposal to raise the cap on the legal workweek from 52 hours to 69 hours was abandoned after young people and women’s groups protested.)
我们是在她办公室附近的一家印度餐厅见面的。Cho 有一头波浪形的黑发,穿着时尚的羊毛大衣和闪闪发光的围巾。她曾在法国学习和工作多年,但在大流行期间搬回了家。她现在是一家奢侈品电子零售商的企业策略师,她的许多工作日一直持续到晚上10点或11点(这种情况并不少见:上周,在年轻人和妇女团体抗议后,政府提议将法定工作周的上限从52小时提高到69小时。

These hours provide Cho with little opportunity for dating, which, anyway, has not been a resounding success. She’s gone on four or five blind dates in the past two years. (Blind dates set up by friends or colleagues, as well as large matchmaking companies, are common ways of meeting people in South Korea, where online dating is not as widespread as it is in the U.S.) She found the men closed-minded, with “a traditional way of thinking.” Men, she said, “always want to debate with me: ‘Why are you thinking that way?’ They all need to teach me.” She doesn’t tell them she’s a feminist. Her mom has warned her not to, because she thinks it could be dangerous.

When I asked why she thought young Koreans were retreating from dating, Cho immediately brought up physical safety. “These days, there is a lot of violence during dating, so we start to feel very afraid,” she said.

In 2016, a 34-year-old man murdered a woman in a public restroom near the Gangnam metro station in Seoul. Although he said he was motivated by women routinely ignoring him, police blamed mental illness. This was a germinal event for many Korean young women, who were furious and terrified; it could have happened to anyone.

A 2021 study by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family found that 16 percent of South Korean women had experienced some kind of intimate-partner violence—a category that included emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as a range of controlling behaviors. A smaller survey in 2016 by the Korea Women’s Hotline, a nonprofit group, found that 62 percent of the participants had recently experienced such behaviors while dating. In one 2015 study of 2,000 men, nearly 80 percent reported having behaved in an abusive or controlling way toward a dating partner.
性别平等和家庭部 2021 年的一项研究发现,16% 的韩国女性经历过某种亲密伴侣暴力——这一类别包括情感、身体和性虐待,以及一系列控制行为。2016年,非营利性组织“韩国女性热线”(Korea Women's Hotline)进行的一项规模较小的调查发现,62%的参与者最近在约会时经历过这种行为。在2015年一项针对2000名男性的研究中,近80%的人报告说对约会对象有虐待或控制行为。

Not long ago, Cho was on a bus waiting to get off at her stop when an SUV pulled over. A man got out and started throwing bowling balls into the street. A woman climbed out after him, crying and screaming, and he began hitting her. Cho called the police. “I thought it was only on the news,” she said. “I realized that it can also happen to me.”

Many women I interviewed said that their childhood had been marked by domestic violence and that they feared being hurt by men they might date, or filmed in an intimate moment.

Meera Choi, a Yale doctoral student, is researching gender inequality and changes in family formation in South Korea—what she calls a “crisis of heterosexuality.” When I expressed my surprise at how prevalent fears like Cho’s seemed to be, she estimated that 20 of the 40 women she had recently interviewed about these issues had experienced either familial or dating violence.
耶鲁大学博士生Meera Choi正在研究韩国的性别不平等和家庭结构的变化,她称之为“异性恋危机”。当我对像赵这样的恐惧似乎如此普遍表示惊讶时,她估计,在她最近就这些问题采访的40名女性中,有20名经历过家庭暴力或约会暴力。

Seoul cityscape in black and white
South Korea’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world. (Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)
韩国的生育率是世界上最低的。(摄影:Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)
young kids in colorful coats; a woman on a train sitting next to empty pink seat.
Women’s ambitions have expanded, but the idea of what it means to be a wife and mother in Korea has not. (Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)
女性的雄心壮志扩大了,但在韩国,成为妻子和母亲意味着什么的想法却没有。 (摄影:Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)

Many of the women I spoke with said that patriarchy and sexism haunted their earliest memories. Some had grown up waiting until all the men in their families had finished eating before sitting down to their cold leftovers. They’d watched their parents dote on their brothers. They’d been hit by fathers and sexually harassed at school. They’d grown up and gone to job interviews and promptly been asked about their marital status.

But many said they had only come to articulate these experiences after encountering feminism—frequently online. They described a moment of awakening, perhaps even radicalization. They read about femicides, stalking, and digital sex crimes, known as molka, reported cases of which have been on the rise since 2011.

The world over, men are loud on the internet. The Korean website Ilbe.com, known for its overt anti-feminism, receives about 20 million visits each month, in a country of just under 52 million people. (Its users are anti- lots of other things too: anti-LGBTQ, anti-liberal, anti-immigrant). The Ilbe community has elements of the alt-right and the manosphere; some have likened it to 4chan or incel forums. Users refer to Korean women as kimchinyeo, or “kimchi women,” stereotyping them as vain, materialistic, and manipulative. Men share sexist memes and complaints about reverse discrimination that one Korean writer has described as “paranoid misogyny.”
在世界范围内,男人在互联网上大声喧哗。以公开反女权主义而闻名的韩国网站 Ilbe.com,在这个人口不到5200万的国家,每月的访问量约为2000万次。(它的用户也反对许多其他东西:反LGBTQ,反自由主义,反移民)。Ilbe 社区具有另类右翼和大气层的元素;有人将其比作 4chan 或 incel 论坛。用户将韩国女性称为泡菜,或“辛奇女性”,将她们刻板印象为虚荣、物质主义和操纵性。男性分享性别歧视的模因和对反向歧视的抱怨,一位韩国作家将其描述为“偏执的厌女症”。

In 2015, some women began to fight back. They created a website, Megalia, where they practiced the art of “mirroring”: They adopted the same rhetorical devices, sick humor, and misogynistic tropes, but used them to make fun of men. In response to the objectification of Korean women and complaints about their small breasts, women poked fun at Korean men for, they claimed, having small penises. The Megalia logo was a reference to this: an image of a hand with the thumb and pointer finger close together. They flipped the gender of common refrains about women, posting comments like “Women prefer a virgin man” and “Men should stay in the kitchen.” Jeong Eui-sol, a lecturer in gender studies at Chungnam National University in Daejeon, describes this as “troll feminism.”
2015年,一些女性开始反击。他们创建了一个网站Megalia,在那里他们练习了“镜像”的艺术:他们采用了相同的修辞手法、病态的幽默和厌恶女性的比喻,但用它们来取笑男人。为了回应对韩国女性的物化和对她们小乳房的抱怨,女性取笑韩国男性,她们声称,他们的很小。Megalia的标志就是对这一点的引用:拇指和食指并拢的手的图像。他们颠覆了关于女性的常见克制的性别,发表了诸如“女人更喜欢处女男人”和“男人应该留在厨房里”之类的评论。大田忠南国立大学性别研究讲师郑义洙(Jeong Eui-sol)将此描述为“巨魔女权主义”。

Megalia shut down in 2017, after many users left for a new feminist community, Womad. But feminist ideas were traveling in other ways too. The novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, about the sexism that characterized a Korean woman’s life from childhood through motherhood, sold more than a million copies, and was made into a popular film. Kim Jo-eun, a sociologist studying gender and demography at KDI School of Public Policy and Management, in Sejong, found a sharp rise in the number of Google searches for misogyny and feminism after the Gangnam murder. Searches for feminism rose again in 2018, when Korea’s #MeToo reckoning began.
Megalia 于 2017 年关闭,此前许多用户离开了一个新的女权主义社区 Womad。但女权主义思想也在以其他方式传播。小说《金智英生于1982年》讲述了韩国女性从童年到母亲的性别歧视,销量超过100万册,并被拍成热门电影。在世宗KDI公共政策与管理学院研究性别和人口学的社会学家金祖恩(Kim Jo-eun)发现,在江南谋杀案发生后,谷歌搜索厌女症和女权主义的数量急剧上升。2018年,对女权主义的搜索再次上升,当时韩国开始了 #MeToo 清算。

Distrust and even hatred between women and men, Kim believes, are the key to understanding South Korea’s declining birth rate. It’s not that women are with a partner and “thinking about having one or two more babies,” she told me. “It’s that you just don’t want to be in a relationship with men in Korea.”

Although Megalia’s methods were controversial, it accomplished its aim of making misogyny visible. In Helena Lee’s view, the success of the online feminist movement was that it showed women whom they were dealing with, and why men were not worth appeasing. “You don’t have to do plastic surgery; your appearance is not your worth; you don’t need to have long, flowy hair; you don’t have to do makeup; nurturing or mommying your boyfriend is not good for you,” she said, reciting some of the ideas that she and fellow feminists sought to impart.

What the movement did not do, most agree, is enlighten men or change their views. Instead, for men who already felt victimized and angry, it helped turn feminism into a dirty word.

Men stand around on a work break with a woman walking by.
Men are still expected to be breadwinners, and work an average of five more hours a week than women: 40.6 hours versus 35.2. (Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)
男性仍然有望成为养家糊口的人,平均每周工作时间比女性多5小时:40.6小时对35.2小时。(摄影:Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)

If Korean women chafe at men’s expectations of them, the reverse is true as well.

Men are still expected to be breadwinners, and they work an average of five more hours a week than women—40.6 hours versus 35.2. Many Koreans still expect that the man or his family will buy a newlywed couple’s home, even when both partners have careers. Indeed, one study found that parental income is a strong predictor of whether a man will marry, but has no effect on marriage rates for women.

I met Ha Jung-woo at a café one evening after work. Ha is 31, tall and handsome, with a warm smile and impeccable manners, the kind of guy you wish you could clone for all your single straight girlfriends. He went to the University of Texas at Austin and had a serious relationship there, with a Korean American student. After they broke up and he moved home, he met another woman here. They shared the same values, he said. If they watched a movie together, they would cry at the same things, and if they were reading the news, they’d get angry over the same things. He liked that she laughed a lot.

In 2021, they got engaged. The date was set, the venue booked. Both sets of parents had agreed that they would, together, help buy the newlyweds an apartment; her family would cover 30 percent of the purchase price, Ha 20 percent, and his father the remaining 50 percent. But then his father’s textile business suffered some setbacks, and he could put up only 30 percent. Ha was happy to take out a loan—he had a secure job. But he says that the news of his dad’s diminished circumstances spooked his fiancée’s family, and she called off the engagement.
2021年,他们订婚了。日期定好了,场地订好了。父母双方都同意,他们将一起帮助新婚夫妇买一套公寓。她的家人将承担购买价格的30%,Ha 20%,他的父亲承担剩余的50%。但后来他父亲的纺织生意遭遇了一些挫折,他只能拿出30%的股份。哈很高兴贷款——他有一份稳定的工作。但他说,他父亲的情况恶化的消息吓坏了他未婚妻的家人,她取消了订婚。

Ha was devastated. He asked her: “Is it your decision or your parents’ decision?” When she said it was her decision, he gave up.

Yoon Jun-seok is in his second year of a combined master’s and Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at the prestigious Korea University. When we met at a café near campus, he wore a San Francisco Giants hoodie, and black slide sandals with the Giants logo on them. He has few female friends, and has never had a girlfriend. He doesn’t feel that dating is “necessary” right now. At 25, his only priority is to finish his doctorate, which will take another five or six years, and then line up a steady job.

At that point, he’ll be about 32. Then, and only then, does he think he might make an effort to date. “If I can get married, then maybe I prefer between 35 and 40,” he said. “Raising kids in Korea costs a lot.”

In a 2020 survey of 1,000 South Koreans in their 30s, more than half of men who did not wish to marry cited financial concerns as their main hesitation; a quarter of women said they were “happy living alone,” while another quarter named “the culture of patriarchy and gender inequality” as their chief objection to marriage. (Another recent survey by two matchmaking companies found that women were reluctant to marry because they anticipate an asymmetrical division of housework, whereas men hesitated because of “feminism.”)

On my first morning in Seoul, I met Jung Kyu-won, a bioethicist who teaches law and medicine at two universities in the city, for coffee. We had been emailing about the gender war, and he had asked his male students if they would speak with me. The young men weren’t comfortable being interviewed, but they shared their thoughts with him, which he summarized for me. (That it was so much easier to find women willing to talk about these issues than men seemed perhaps connected to the problem itself.) They had a long list of complaints, many of which boiled down to a lack of trust in potential female partners, and resentment over the expectation that they would bear nearly all the financial responsibilities in a relationship.

Jung is in his late 50s and has been divorced for many years. He recently read an article about women’s expectations for a husband, he told me, and realized that he himself, despite his professional accomplishments, didn’t meet their salary requirements.

Some young people I met wish things were different. Shin Hyun, 20, is a devout Christian studying comparative literature and culture at Seoul’s Yonsei University. He is close to his parents, who always told their children, “You guys are my greatest reward.” He’s keen to marry and experience parenthood for himself one day. “I don’t think you can feel a love that’s greater than parental love,” he told me.

Walking around Seoul, I began to wonder where the children were hiding. Throughout the city, I saw “no-kids zones”—restaurants and cafés with stickers on their door announcing the establishment’s no-kids policy. But the children must be somewhere, right?

sn old couple
Very few rich countries have successfully reversed a decline in fertility, and none has climbed back above the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman after dropping below it. (Photograph by Dion Bierdrager for The Atlantic)

One evening, I went with a translator to Daechi-dong, an area in Gangnam famous for its concentration of hagwon—cram schools. He pointed up at the office buildings lining the boulevards, noting which schools were on which floors—this one was known for languages, that one for math. At about 9:30 p.m., cars (all with moms at the wheel) pulled up to idle by the curb. By 10, children and teenagers of all ages, laden with heavy-looking backpacks, streamed out into the street.

A few nights later, I sat down with Lira, a cheerful woman in her late 40s who asked that I use just her first name for privacy reasons. She grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, when students attended hagwon only if they were weak in a given subject. Now the schools are essential for any kid who wants to get into a decent college. Lira’s daughter studied at a high-pressure hagwon, 30 to 40 minutes from their house, to get into a competitive high school. It cost about $2,400 a month, “a lot of our family’s expenses,” Lira said. When I asked if her husband helped with any of the arrangements—researching the best hagwon, the daily drop-off and pickup, the fresh meals and special treats she made to ease her daughter’s stress—it took her a minute to stop laughing before she could say no: “In Korea, child care is more the woman’s responsibility.”

Indeed, many of the mothers I spoke with, despite being married, sounded like what I would soon become: a single mom. At 40, I decided to use eggs that I’d frozen a few years earlier for in vitro fertilization—something that is not only frowned upon in Korea, but basically impossible: The Korean Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology allows only married women to obtain donor sperm.

One day, toward the end of my trip, I visited a clinic run by CHA Fertility Center. I was surprised, given CHA’s growing egg-freezing business, to hear a director of the center tell me that she personally doesn’t support women becoming single parents, because “it’s not good for the child.” But as young people eye the heterosexual nuclear family with more and more skepticism, South Korea may need to accept, and even support, other models.

Very few rich countries have successfully reversed a decline in fertility, and none has climbed back above the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman after dropping below it. Paul Y. Chang, a Harvard sociologist who studies family life in Korea, sees the material and social challenges there as intertwined. “If you provide housing for every single unemployed man, my guess is they’ll be a little bit less misogynistic and less angry at the world,” he said. Similarly, “if we’re able to somehow force companies to pay women equally, and give them promotional pathways that are equivalent to what the men get, then I’m sure that it would take the edge off the feminism.” A more secure society could make people more comfortable planning for a future that includes marriage and children.

But most of the women I spoke with pushed back on these ideas. Some considered Korean society irredeemably misogynistic. Many women said they were happy living with their pets; others had started dating women.

Park Hyun-joon, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, directed the Korean Millennials Project, for which he and colleagues surveyed about 5,000 Korean adults ages 25 to 49. He has found that many Koreans see family as “a luxury good.” But he also acknowledged the divergence in values between women and men, an issue that is less easily solved by policy interventions. “I clearly see why Korean women don’t want to get married to Korean guys,” he said. “Their political and cultural conservatism probably makes them pretty unattractive in the marriage market.”

Or as one young woman I spoke with put it, her friends “kind of hate men, and they are afraid of them.”

I wondered whether the real luxury Park was referring to was trust—the capacity to believe that tomorrow will be better than today, and that your fellow citizens are working to make it so.

I asked many people whether they thought South Korea was losing anything in its spurning of reproduction. Some had trouble grasping the question. A few mentioned something about having to pay higher taxes in the future. One woman, a 4B adherent, said she jokes with her friends that the solution to South Korea’s problems is for the whole country to simply disappear. Thanos, the villain in The Avengers who eliminates half the Earth’s population with a snap of his fingers, didn’t do anything wrong, she told me. Meera Choi, the doctoral student researching gender inequality and fertility, told me she’s heard other Korean feminists make the exact same joke about Thanos. Underneath the joke, I sensed a hopelessness that bordered on nihilism.

After talking with so many thoughtful and kind young people, I mostly felt sad that, a generation from now, there will be fewer like them in their country. One morning outside my hotel, I watched a father in a suit and trench coat wait with his young son on the corner. When a school bus pulled over, he helped the boy on, and stood there waving and smiling at him through the bus’s windows as the little boy trundled down the aisle to his seat. The father waved frantically, lovingly, as if he couldn’t squeeze enough waves into those last few moments in which he held his son’s gaze. He was still smiling long after the bus drove off.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

This article originally misattributed the findings of a 2016 study on dating violence to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. In fact, that study was conducted by the Korea Women’s Hotline. We have added a more recent study by the ministry for further context. This article has also been updated to correct the date of the study of abusive behavior among Korean men, and to clarify the kinds of behaviors that study examined.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist who writes on gender, economics, and reproduction.