Son Preference and Premature Death in KoreaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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South Korea has experienced phenomenal economic growth in recent decades, with educational and health systems that are the envy of much of the world. In other countries, ethnic Koreans also occupy a favored position. Koreans in China for example, have the highest educational attainment and the lowest infant mortality rate of any ethnic group in that country.
Many researchers and policy-makers believe that increases in educational attainment inevitably lead to changes in social behaviors, including increases in the use of family planning and improvements in the status of women. Indeed, for Koreans in South Korea and in China, the voluntary limitation of fertility has accompanied economic development. Yet there is much less evidence of substantial improvements in the status of women. The favored position of Korean men is manifested in excessively high sex ratios at birth (many more baby boys than baby girls) and, paradoxically, in excessively high adult male mortality.
Comparing fertility and mortality behavior of Koreans in Korea and China with the behavior of Chinese in China underlines the importance of the influence of cultural preferences in demographic behavior and calls into question the extent to which socio-economic development or governmental policies automatically lead to demographic change.
In the case of China, scholars attribute the rapid fall of fertility to active, even draconian, government policies. While the birthrate in South Korea has fallen sharply in the last few decades, comparative data suggest that this is not related to any explicit Korean government policy. The fertility of Koreans in China is even lower than that of Han Chinese in China, even though as an ethnic minority Koreans are not limited by the same one-child policies as the majority ethnic Han Chinese.
Son preference is a topic of concern in both Korea and China. The effects of sex preference on fertility are usually detected by examining the sex ratio of newborns — the number of boys born per 100 girls born. If there is no interference, such as sex-selective abortion, the sex ratio at birth in virtually all populations falls within a narrow range of 104 to 107. Before the advent of sex-selective abortion, a sex ratio at birth of greater than 107 was interpreted as evidence of substantial female infanticide, neglect of young female babies, or concealment of female births.
A very masculine sex ratio at birth has been observed in both Korea and China. In 1993, the masculine sex ratio at birth in Korea for all newborns was 115.6, and in China the reported sex ratio for 1990 was 115.4. Analysts consider such skewed sex ratios a result of the willful abortion of female fetuses, and, in China, of the under-reporting of female births.
There are no signs of a decrease in son preference in Korea — the sex ratio at birth has become more masculine in the past ten years rather than showing any signs of equalizing. In addition, more developed regions of Korea do not have a lesser degree of son preference — the sex ratio at birth in urban Seoul is as high as for Korea as a whole.
Many researchers and policy-makers have assumed that the high sex ratio at birth and high use of sex-selective abortion in China is the result of Chinese government policies. However, the use of sex-selective abortion in South Korea, which has no such policies, questions this interpretation. In fact, Koreans in China have lower sex ratios at birth than do Koreans in Korea. With the high cost of living, many Koreans want to have small families — but many want to make sure they have a son, leading to the acceptance of sex-selective abortion.
In May 1996, scholars from the U.S., Eastern Europe and East Asia gathered at U-M for the Sawyer Conference on Adult Male Mortality, sponsored by the Mellon Foundation and the International Institute. Conferees presented data that male Koreans above age 30 experience unusually high mortality rates, compared to mortality of women and compared to mortality of younger males. Shen Yimin, former Director of the Chinese Census, found that Koreans in China also suffer high adult mortality. This pattern of excess adult male mortality appears on the surface similar to that found for men in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
East European scholars at the conference observed that their region's high adult male mortality was related to unhealthy habits of alcohol consumption and smoking, especially among men whose social ties were weak, often due to temporary migration or social disruption. Males of low socio-economic status and those who work far from home seemed especially at risk of premature death. However, among Koreans, high rates of these risky behaviors seem related not to weak social ties, but to the dominant position of men. In Korean culture, the position of a male head of household is so secure that family and friends may be powerless to limit his smoking or heavy alcohol consumption.
Scholars involved in the Mellon Conference are currently extending their investigations into both Korean fertility and adult male mortality. At an upcoming conference in Seoul in November 1996, U.S., Korean, and Chinese researchers will present papers that detail unbalanced sex ratios at birth of Koreans both in Korea and in China. This conference is supported by the Korea Research Foundation, Hanyang University, the Population Association of Korea, and U-M's International Institute.
To investigate the causes of unhealthy behaviors among these different Korean populations, an international group of scholars has been organized at U-M and at the Korea Research Foundation. U-M researchers include Professor Emeritus of Public Health Administration John Romani, Institute for Social Research (ISR) Scientist Liu Jinyun, and Sociology doctoral student Cheong-Seok Kim. I will direct the project, along with Professor Doo-Sub Kim of Hanyang University in Seoul. Professor Kim will spend the 1997 calendar year at U-M's Population Studies Center.
Barbara Anderson is a professor in the Sociology Department and research scientist at the Population Studies Center