In country with world’s lowest fertility rate, doubts creep in about wisdom of ‘no-kids zones’

For a country with the world’s lowest fertility rate – one that has spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to encourage women to have more babies – the idea of barring children from places like cafes and restaurants might seem a little counterproductive.

But in South Korea, “no-kids zones” have become remarkably popular in recent years. Hundreds have sprung up across the country, aimed largely at ensuring disturbance-free environments for the grown-ups.

There are nearly 80 such zones on the holiday island of Jeju alone, according to a local think tank, and more than four hundred in the rest of the country, according to activist groups.

Doubts, though, are beginning to creep in about the wisdom of restricting children from so many places, fueled by concerns over the country’s growing demographic problems.

In addition to the world’s lowest birthrate, South Korea has one of the world’s fastest aging populations. That has left it with a problem familiar to graying nations across the world, namely: how to fund the pension and health care needs of a growing pool of retirees on the tax income generated by a slowly vanishing pool of workers.

And South Korea’s problem is more acute than most.

Last year, its fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.78 – not even half the 2.1 needed for a stable population and far below even that of Japan (1.3), currently the world’s grayest nation. (And even further below the United States, which at 1.6 faces aging problems of its own).

With young South Koreans already facing pressure on multiple fronts – from sky-high real estate costs and long working weeks to rising economic anxiety – critics of the zones say the last thing the country needs is yet one more thing to make them think twice about starting a family.

The government, they point out, should know this better than anyone. After all, it’s spent more than $200 billion over the past 16 years trying to encourage more people to have children. Critics suggest that, rather than throwing more money at the problem, it needs to work on changing society’s attitudes towards the young.

‘Society must be reborn’

With polls suggesting a majority of South Koreans support no-kids zones, shifting those mindsets won’t be easy. But there are signs opinions may be shifting.

In recent weeks, a pushback against the zones has gained momentum thanks to Yong Hye-in, a mother and a lawmaker for the Basic Income Party who, in a show of defiance to mark Children’s Day, took her 2-year-old son to a meeting of the National Assembly – where babies are not usually allowed.

“Everyday life with children is not easy,” she told the assembled lawmakers in an impassioned speech, during which she was pictured both cuddling her son and letting him wander around the podium. “Our society must be reborn into one where children are included.”

That speech gained media coverage across the world, but it is not the only sign attitudes may slowly be changing.

Jeju island – a tourist hotspot off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula – recently debated the country’s first-ever bill aimed at making such zones illegal (though if passed it would apply only to the island).

The move by its provincial council comes amid growing concerns that the age limits imposed by many guesthouses and campsites on the tourism-dependent island may be damaging its reputation for hospitality.

As Bonnie Tilland, a university lecturer who specializes in South Korean culture, puts it: “Families with children who travel to Jeju on holiday are disgruntled if they drive to a scenic café only to be told that their children are not allowed.”

Other critics say the problem goes deeper than lost business opportunities. Some see no-kids zones as an unjustifiable act of age discrimination that runs contrary to the Korean constitution.

In 2017, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea judged that no-kids zones violated the right to equality and called for businesses to end the practice in what was the first official statement on the matter by a state institution. It cited clause 11 of the constitution, which bans discrimination on the basis of gender, religion or social status, and pointed to a UN convention stipulating that “No child should be treated unfairly on any basis.”

The ruling came in response to a petition by a father of three who was turned away from an Italian restaurant on Jeju. But it is not legally binding and critics say the ongoing popularity of no-kids zones highlights how hard it will be to change people’s mindsets.

A fateful broth and a popular idea

South Korea’s embrace of no-kids zones is widely thought to date back to an incident in 2012, in which a restaurant diner carrying hot broth accidentally scalded a child.

The incident caused a stir online, after the child’s mother made a series of posts on social media attacking the diner.

Initially, there was much public sympathy for the mother as the case appeared to have parallels to other incidents in which establishments had been forced to pay compensation following accidents involving children.

But the public’s mood began to change after security camera footage emerged showing the child running around moments beforehand, Tilland said. Many began to blame the mother for not reining in her child’s behavior.

“Then discussion unfolded over the next few years on social media about the rights and responsibilities of parents and guardians of young children in public spaces and private businesses,” said Tilland, who used to teach at Yonsei University in Seoul but is now with Leiden University in the Netherlands.

By 2014, she says, no-kids zones had become a familiar sight, “most commonly in cafes but also in some restaurants and other businesses.”

Over the years, the zones have grown in popularity, with a survey in 2021 by Hankook Research finding that more than 7 in 10 adults were in favor, and fewer than 2 in 10 against (the rest were undecided).

And it is not only childless adults who back them. In South Korea, so widely acknowledged is the right to some peace and quiet that even many parents see the zones as reasonable and justified.

“When I’m out with my child, I see a lot of situations that may make me frown,” said Lee Yi-rang, a mother of a two-year-old boy.

“It’s not difficult to find parents who don’t control their children, causing damage to facilities and other people. That makes me understand why there are no-kids zones,” she said.

Mother-of-two Lee Ji-eun from Seoul agrees. She thinks it’s a decision best left “to the business owners” – and if a parent “doesn’t like that, then they can seek a kids-allowed zone.”

Not all parents are so understanding. Kim Se-hee, also from Seoul, said she feels “attacked when I see a blatant no-kids sign like that posted at a shop.”

“There’s so much hatred against mothers already in Korea with terms like ‘mom-choong’ (‘mother bug,’ a derogatory term for mothers who care only about their children to the disregard of others) and I think no-kids zones validate that kind of negative sentiment toward moms,” she said.

No kids, no rappers, no professors

Meanwhile, it would be wrong to suggest that it is only the youngest in society who are subject to such “zoning” requirements.

On Jeju, it’s not unusual to see signs at camping grounds or guest houses stipulating both lower and upper age limits for would-be guests. There are “no-teenager zones” and “no-senior zones”, for example, and even plenty of zones targeting those somewhere in between.

So numerous have the “no-middle-aged zones” become that they have collectively been dubbed “no-ajae zones,” in reference to a slang term for “uncle.”

One restaurant in Seoul rose to notoriety after “politely declining” people over 49 (on the basis men of that age might harass female staff), while in 2021, a camping ground in Jeju sparked heated debate with a notice saying it did not accept reservations from people aged 40 or above. Citing a desire to keep noise and alcohol use to a minimum, it stated a preference for women in their 20s and 30s.

Other zones are even more niche.

Among those to have caused a stir on social media are a cafe in Seoul that in 2018 declared itself a “no-rapper zone,” a “no-YouTuber zone” and even a “no-professor zone”.

But most such zones follow a similar logic – that of preventing disturbance to other customers. For instance, no-YouTuber zones became popular in response to a trend known as “mukbang” (based on words for “eating” and “broadcast”) in which some livestreamers would show up at restaurants without prior consent to film themselves eating.

Tilland says the appeal of such zones is complex, but derives in part from the strong pro-business sentiment in the country. A common mindset is that it is only natural that business owners should have a say on who they accept as clientele, she says.

As for no-kids zones specifically, she has another theory.

“Koreans in their 20s and 30s, in particular, tend to have a strong concept of personal space, and are increasingly less tolerant of both noisy children in their midst and noisy older people,” Tilland said.

But such mindsets need to be re-examined if the country is to get a grip on its population problems, Tilland says, arguing they “reflect a worrying intolerance for anyone existing in public places who is different from oneself.”

“Deep-rooted attitudes that every category of people belongs in ‘their place’ – and for mothers this is home with children, not out participating in public life – are one of the reasons young women are reluctant to have children,” she said.

No kids to kids first?

Lawmaker Yong came to a similar realization after giving birth in 2021.

She had suffered postpartum depression and stayed at home for the first nearly 100 days of her child’s life. When she finally felt well enough to take her child for a walk the experience was alienating.

She says many new mothers feel this way, citing a case being investigated by the labor ministry in which a working mother, a computer programmer at a leading tech firm, killed herself and left a suicide note asking, “Is a working mom a sinner?”

“I am doing politics to create a society where working working moms don’t have to (feel like) a sinner,” Yong said.

Her ultimate aim is to make childcare the “responsibility of society as a whole, not of individual caregivers and parents,” which she believes is the only way to overcome the population crisis.

One way she hopes to bring about this change is by pushing for an equality bill that would outlaw discrimination based on age.

But legislation isn’t the only way, she says. She thinks the government and local authorities can achieve much simply by guiding businesses away from no-kids zones and learning from other countries where families with young children are fast-tracked through queues at public places like museums and zoos.

There may be other ways to compromise too.

Barista Ahn Hee-yul says he has faced situations in a cafe he once worked for where parents appeared unable to keep their children from causing a nuisance, yet he appreciates the need to strike a balance between the needs of parents and non-parents.

“I suggest no-kids times, instead of no-kids zones,” he said, suggesting that venues for instance allow children until 5 p.m., after which it’s adults only.

“In the end, they’re just kids. It’s the best middle ground I could think of.”

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