Even being a member of BTS, South Korea’s most popular cultural export, isn’t enough to be spared from the country’s mandatory military service. Conscription comes for every man, save for a rare few who are exempted, such as athletes who play on the World Cup team or win medals at the Olympics.
The South Korean constitution describes national defense as one of five primary duties of a citizen—along with paying taxes, working, educating your children, and endeavoring to protect the environment. Many South Koreans also view military service as a man’s rite of passage—all able-bodied males age 18 to 35 are legally required to enlist.
But a new report suggests authorities are now considering an alternative way for men to serve their country: if they have three or more babies before they turn 30. The reason: the South Korean government desperately wants to boost the nation’s ailing birth rate to stave off a looming demographic disaster.
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on Wednesday that the ruling conservative People Power party is looking into unconventional means of increasing births after its leader and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered “bold and sure measures” to tackle the problem earlier this month.
The East Asian nation of more than 51 million people does not have enough youth to support its rapidly aging population and shore up continuous economic growth. It’s an issue facing many developed countries across Asia and the world. The OECD recommends a fertility rate—the average number of children a woman who lives at least to the end of her child-bearing age would give birth to—of 2.1 in order for a country to “ensure a broadly stable population.” But in South Korea, the fertility rate has been on the decline since the 1970s and just set a new record for the world’s lowest at 0.78.
A party official told Chosun.com that their plans are not yet “finalized,” but ideas are being “reviewed.”
Cho Kyu-suk, a coordinator at the Seoul-based Center for Military Human Rights in Korea, tells TIME the military exemption proposal is not “totally irrational.” Conscription can play a factor in limiting the conditions for families to have children, he explains. Cho’s organization has handled cases of economic “discontinuance” in households because of military service. A sergeant is paid 676,100 Korean won (or just over $500) monthly, way below the 2.64 million won (about $2,000) an average household spends per month. Yoon, for his part, has pledged to raise monthly conscript wages to 2 million won.
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The proposal to spare young fathers of three or more from service, however, has received a lot of pushback. “Are you encouraging teenagers to give birth?” and “Who would have three children to avoid going to the military?” commenters online responded, according to local media outlet Kukmin Ilbo.
Jeffrey Robertson, an associate professor from Yonsei University in Seoul, calls the idea “laughable,” telling TIME that it fails to see the unwanted costs young people associate with starting a family. Among South Korea’s young adults, marrying and having children are increasingly being put off or avoided due to a confluence of factors, from low-paying job opportunities to rising costs of living to growing desires to remain single.
Read More: Yes, Single People Can Be Happy and Healthy
To address some of the economic concerns, the party is also reportedly considering a consolidation of child-rearing support subsidies to eventually provide a monthly stipend of 1 million won per child until adulthood—a total of 216 million won ($169,000) over the span of 18 years.
It’s unclear though, even if they’re implemented, whether these measures will succeed. Previous pro-natalist policies—to which the government has dedicated more than $200 billion over the past 16 years—have failed thus far to turn around the country’s demographic trajectory.
South Korea’s decline in birth rate hinges more on its national culture, specifically norms relating to traditional gender roles and overwork, says Erin Hye-Won Kim, associate professor of public administration at the University of Seoul. She believes a radical change in approach will be needed. “We cannot ask people to have babies for the national economic growth or the sustainability of the country—we shouldn’t think of fertility as such [a] tool,” Kim tells TIME. “Instead, when the government tries to help people to have a happy life, I think [an] increase in fertility would follow naturally.”
Robertson also warns that a draft exemption policy could be dangerous: “You’re setting up a situation where young mothers are going to potentially be pushed into having children to allow a male to avoid military service.”
South Korea’s reputation on gender equality has been worsening in recent years. The World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap index—which measures disparities in economic opportunities, education, health, and political leadership—ranks the country 99th of 146 analyzed. Yoon’s election last year capitalized on a growing anti-feminist movement, and the president has been criticized for blaming the declining birth rate on feminism. Women have protested against being thought of as “baby-making machines,” and gender has already been characterized as the country’s “sharpest social fault line.” Some fear creating an explicit benefit for men that necessarily comes with an implicit cost for women may just deepen the divide.
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