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Contemporary Korean Families

The tremendous demographic changes, as well as changes in the family makeup itself, make it very hard to grasp the characteristics of the contemporary Korean family. Korea's traditional culture, including its religious heritage, was seriously undermined during Japan's colonial rule of Korea (1910–45) and during the Korean War (1950–53). Further complicating the question, since the 1960s, within a single generation, Korea has been transformed from an agrarian to an industrialized urban society. The adoption of not only Western science and technology, but also Western culture, has played a decisive role in bringing about this transformation. Swept into the country on the tides of westernization, industrialization, and economic development, Protestantism has taken root and expanded its reach (Park and Cho 1995a; Yoon 1964). All of these societal forces have transformed the traditional value system and demographic characteristics of Korean families.

Population and household composition. The industrialization of the 1960s accelerated the regional relocation of the population. The urban population has grown from 28 percent of the total population in 1960 to 74 percent in 1990 and to 81 percent in TABLE 3

Korean households by type and average size
  One generation Two generations Three generations More than four generations Single household Households w/ unrelated persons Average size of household
SOURCE: Korean National Statistical Office, Annual Report on Vital Statistics (1982–1997).
1955 3.2
1966 7.5 64.0 26.9 1.6 5.5
1970 6.8 70.0 22.1 1.1 0.0 0.0 5.2
1975 7.0 71.9 20.1 1.0 4.2 0.0 5.0
1980 9.0 74.2 17.8 0.6 4.8 1.5 4.5
1985 10.5 73.3 15.8 0.5 6.9 1.7 4.1
1990 12.0 74.1 13.6 0.3 9.0 1.5 3.7
1995 14.7 73.7 11.4 0.2 12.7 1.4 3.3

2000 (KNSO 2000). Since 1945, the number of households has constantly increased, but the average number of people per household has decreased from 5.7 in 1960, to 4.5 in 1980, 4.16 in 1985, 3.77 in 1990, and 3.34 in 1995. During the same period, the difference in average family size between urban and rural areas disappeared because of changes in the nuclear family and the increase in the number households consisting of a single person.

Since 1960, the number of nuclear families in rural areas increased more rapidly than it did in urban areas because young rural adults migrated into cities (KNSO 1970, 1980, 1995). In particular, the increase in life expectancy and decrease in filial responsibility led to more elderly people (over sixty-five) living by themselves, an increase of 16.0 percent between 1990 and 1995. The elderly represented 7.1 percent of Korea's population in 2000 (KNSO 2000).

Families with two generations cohabiting comprised 73.7 percent of the total population in 1995 (see Table 2). The number of households that consisted of childless married couples increased (see Table 3). At the same time, the percentage of stem families, three-generation families cohabiting, decreased. Thus, the traditional extended family system is changing to that of the conjugal family composed of a couple and their children.

But this phenomenon does not mean that Korean nuclear family is seen as an ideological construct (Chang 1997). Because the Korean people still cherish the ideal image of the extended family, modified nuclear families are more popular in reality. Economic factors also play a role (Kweon 1998). A strong discrepancy, then, is evident between the ideal images of the extended family, commonly cherished by Korean people, and the actual reality of Korean families.

Fertility. During this same period, the birth rate in Korea dropped. This drop is explained by a massive family-planning program by the government that began in 1962, more women pursuing higher education, and more women working outside the home. In 2000, the college and university enrollment was 60.7 percent of women and 99.1 percent of men of college age (Ministry of Education 2000). Because of all these factors, the total fertility rate (the number of children a woman has if her childbearing rate follows national averages) has decreased to 1.4 in 1999 from 2.7 in 1980 and 6.0 in 1960.

Even as the fertility rate dropped, the sex ratio at birth showed unique features. In patriarchal societies, more male children are born. This demographic trend may be due to the societal preference for sons over daughters, which pressures couples to produce children until they have more sons than daughters. For example, the sex ratio at birth was 109.5 men per 100 women in 1970, reached a record high in 1995 of 113.2, and decreased to 109.6 in 1999. Still higher ratios have been reported from large cities such as Taegu and Pusan (Park and Cho 1995b). Moreover, the number of males born increases with the number of conceptions. From this perspective, Larson, Chung, and Gupta (1998) pointed out, even though the total fertility rate is declining, preference of male offspring and patriarchy are strong predictors of second, third, and fourth conceptions.

Marriage, divorce, and remarriage rates. Today, customs governing marriage have changed dramatically. FIGURE 1 Young women and men mingle freely in parks and on the street, and far fewer parents choose mates for their children (Lee 1997). More and more people are postponing marriage, and the marriage rate is decreasing (see Figure 1). The average age of marriage for women in 1999 was 26.3 years; for men it was 29.1 years, higher than at any previous time. Comparing these figures to those of 1980 shows a very rapid increase; at that time, the ages were 24.1 and 27.3, respectively. These facts reflect the higher educational attainment of women and their increased participation in the job market.

From 1948, when the democratic consitution was adopted, in Korea divorce has been based on fault, or the assessment of blame against one of the spouses. Typically, both partners would be accused of committing adultery, desertion, or physical and mental cruelty; other grounds were cruel and inhuman treatment by in-laws, abandonment for two or more years, or long imprisonment for a felony. Thus, the changing pattern of divorce and remarriage can be seen as a symbol of a changing Confucian tradition.

After 1911, the earliest year for which statistics are available, Korea witnessed a steadily increasing divorce rate except for the years from 1946 to 1966, a period that included the Korean War and post-World War II industrialization. Since the 1970s, the crude divorce rate has increased significantly every ten years, almost doubling from 0.67 per 1,000 population in 1970, to 1.16 in 1980 and again to 2.6 in 1999 (NSO 2000; see figure 2).

Divorce patterns in recent years have changed in several ways. First, the average duration of a marriage was 10.1 years in 1998 because of an increase in the number of couples who remained married for more than fifteen years. Second, divorce increased with 1997 financial crisis; in more cases, both parties agreed to part because of financial problems. Third, couples now divorce less often because of conflict with kin and more often for marital incompatibility. This suggests that conjugal ties have become more crucial in maintaining a marriage, while the traditional kin relationships have declined in importance (Chung and Yoo 1999).

Social changes such as alternatives to traditional marriage, the declining stigma attached to divorce, and the rising standard for happiness in marriage have occurred in Korea. Women's growing independence, the product of feminist ideas and employment outside the home, have significantly contributed to a continued rise in the divorce rate.

As the divorce rate rose, so did the number of remarriages, a figure that has grown continuously since the 1970s (Figure 1). Remarriage, however, has also changed (Figure 3). The proportion of men who married a woman who had never been married, the dominant remarriage type until the 1980s, has dropped from 48.2 percent in 1970 to 34.4 percent in 1998. During the same period, the proportion of remarriages in which both parties were remarrying for the second time increased from 41.2 percent to 52.2 percent. And the proportion also increased of women who had been married before and married, for their second marriage, men who had not been married before; these grew from 10.6 percent to 25.8 percent during the same period (KNSO 1999). Korean society thus seems more accepting of the egalitarian remarriage norm and less prone to traditional attitudes that discriminated against women. The change is not universal; some of the traditional negative images of remarried families still strongly persist in Korean society (Leem 1996; Yoo et al. 1998).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsKorea - Traditional Korean Families, Contemporary Korean Families, Women's Labor Force Participation, Conclusion