The rapidly aging society is causing the number of deaths to outstrip the number of births. The number of deaths in Korea remained at around 200,000 per year from 1970 until last year but is expected to surpass 300,000 this year and reach 420,000 in 2030 and 570,000 in 2059.
In contrast, the number of births each year fell from 1 million in 1970 to around 300,000 last year and is expected to fall even further to 240,000 in 2040 and 170,000 in 2059, according to Statistics Korea.
Some 2.86 million deaths occurred in Korea last year to reach the highest level since statistics began in 1970, while the number is forecast to surpass 300,000 this year. The number of deaths reached 81,800 during the first three months of this year, up 12.1 percent compared to the same period of 2017.
Lee Ji-yeon at Statistics Korea said, "The number of people in their 70s and 80s is rising steeply, so it seems obvious to see the number of deaths surpass 300,000 next year."
As a result, population decline due to natural causes is expected to start in 2023, five years earlier than the government had expected.
Experts said Korea's total population has risen from 30.88 million in 1970 to 51.23 million last year, up 65.9 percent over about a half a century, but it is uncommon to see the number of deaths each year remaining at the 200,000 level since 1970.
Cho Young-tae and Seoul National University said, "This is because the average lifespan increased at an unprecedented rate thanks to improving health conditions, advances in medical technology and expanded health insurance benefits. The extended life spans resulted in a sharp drop in the number of deaths, causing the number of deaths to remain largely flat."
But things are about to change. Statistics Korea said the number of deaths over the next 30 years will be 1.9 times greater than the figure seen from 1988 to 2017.
The shift is expected to cause huge social and economic ripple effects. First, there will be a surge in funeral expenses and a shortage of grave sites in and around the capital.
According to the Korea Consumer Agency, the average funeral costs stood at W13.8 million per person in 2015, with the total cumulative costs reaching W3 trillion a year (US$=W1,075). It is expected to reach W4 trillion in the late 2020s and between W5 trillion and W7 trillion in the 2040s.
There is a drastic shortage of crematoriums in the Seoul metropolitan area. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, there are 59 crematoriums throughout the nation, but there is already a shortage in Seoul, Busan and Gyeonggi areas. A Health Ministry official said, "It is hard to build new crematoriums since nobody wants them in their neighborhoods."
Also expected is a shortage of medical institutions, geriatric care facilities and nursing staff to tend to patients with dementia and those with terminal illnesses. Out of the total number of deaths, 76 percent take place in hospitals, and sick elderly people spend an average of 20 months in nursing facilities before death.