By Kim Jong-chan
Deputy Managing Editor
When riding the subway train, we see more seniors than ever before. Many are seen standing as well as sitting in a section set aside for the disabled, seniors and pregnant women.
Korean society is aging rapidly. According to the United Nations, the number of Korean people aged 65 or older will account for 30.2 percent of the total population in 2040. The figure compares with 11 percent last year. In 2026, Korea is expected to become a super-aged society in which seniors constitute at least one fifth of its total population.
In contrast, the number of people aged between 15 and 24 is becoming smaller. We see less pregnant women on the bus, subway or in the street than before.
The U.N. forecast that Koreans belonging to the 15-24 age bracket will decrease from 13.6 percent of the total population last year to 8.8 percent in 2040. It means that a worker should take care of three seniors in 2035 and two in 2025. The comparable figure stood at 0.8 last year.
The working population or those aged between 15 and 64 is also on the decline. Every 100 working people will be required to look after 22 in 2020 and 52 seniors in 2040, up from 15 last year.
The Seoul Development Institute, a think tank of the Seoul metropolitan government, presented a similar alarming prediction. Seoul will become a super-aged society in 2028 with an elderly population of 2 million, double the 1 million in 2012.
The country will need a bigger budget for senior welfare such as pension, long-term care insurance and social service costs, which inevitably accompanies tax increases. As a result, taxpayers will run out of money and Korea Inc. might face a financial crisis again as was seen in the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis.
Politicians have recently come out with welfare proposals which cost huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, triggering heated debate over possible bankruptcy.
The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) called for free school meals, free medical services and free childcare plus halving college tuition. There are few reasons for opposing the proposal itself. But the offer was short on details, particularly how to fund the free welfare programs.
Reform-minded politicians as well as conservatives were quick to accuse the DP of resorting to populism. Yoo Shi-min, a liberal presidential hopeful who was minister of health and welfare during the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration, criticized the DP for presenting the populist pledge for campaigns.
In a move to counter the DP’s proposal, a group of 123 lawmakers submitted to the National Assembly a revision calling for providing every citizen with what they call “tailored” welfare during his or her entire life.
Former GNP Chairwoman Park Geun-hye, a presidential aspirant who initiated the bill, says the measure is designed to give every citizen what he or she needs during their whole life.
The GNP bill also lacks elaboration on how to finance the massive plan, including spending for the fast growing gray population. According to the National Health Insurance Corp., the total amount of money it paid to hospitals, clinics and other health-related institutions rose 12.7 percent in 2010 from a year ago, but money used to cover people aged 65 or older surged as much as 32.2 percent, an indication that more senior citizens received medical checkups.
Parties may make more pork-barrel pledges, ahead of two showdowns next year ― the National Assembly elections in April and the presidential race in December.