A female caregiver

South Korea’s childcare model started developing when the Child Welfare Act (the Act) was first introduced in 1962. Prior to that, no solid policy for childcare existed, as the country was in a period of political and social turmoil after the Korean war (1950-1953). Thanks to the Act, several nursery facilities were built during this period with foreign assistance, although with the narrow objective of relieving the poor and supporting numerous orphans who lost their parents during the war (Kang, 2002). The Child Welfare Act of 1962 initiated a structured system-level approach to the childcare sector. The Act was still grounded in the notion that families are solely responsible for childrearing unless the children have special needs, in which case government support and protection is warranted. The 1962 law shows clearly that the South Korean government envisioned childcare as a family responsibility, rather than a social policy, which is in accordance with other countries yet to introduce a social welfare system.

However, from the 1960s, when South Korea went through industrialization, the male breadwinner model, which reflected the predominant household type, underwent significant changes. Former housewives started to enter the labor market and a new apparatus was needed to take care of children who were left at home. As a result, the Act for the Promotion of Early Childhood Education (the Promotion Act) was revised in 1982 to meet this need (Hwangbo, 2014). The Promotion Act, however, was aimed at educating children (targeting children age 6-7 to prepare them for entering the primary school system) rather than nurturing them, and the number of available facilities were not sufficient to meet childcare demand from all dual-earner families. Until the 1990s, informal domestic helpers or housemaids, so called sikmo, along with other extended family members represented the greatest form of care for children with working mothers. In the 1990s when industrialization and urbanization accelerated, family size became compact and family type became predominately nuclearized, causing a paradigm shift in how South Koreans regarded childrearing responsibilities.  Childcare began to be seen as a social responsibility, rather than solely an individual family’s responsibility.

Following the trend, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was promulgated in 1987, which supported the implementation of daycare facilities in the workplace. Subsequently, the new version of the Child Welfare Act was established in 1989 and the Infant and Child Care Act was enacted in 1991, both highlighting a significant turning point in the history of childcare policy in South Korea. While the Acts were targeted to benefit low income families, dual-earner low income families, and families with children with special needs, they were groundbreaking in that they framed childcare as a social responsibility and emphasized the provision of government guided facilities and daycare centers (Hwangbo, 2014; Na, 2003). The number of public childcare centers has increased as well as the early childhood education market, and private facilities for young children (age 3-5) has boomed since then. With the introduction of the Infant and Childcare Act, the South Korean government began to consider childcare provision as a public matter and a social responsibility. Although these laws were limited to small numbers of eligible families, they changed how society and the government viewed and framed childcare provision. After the revision of the Social Welfare Services Act and the Act related to the Framework of the Social Security in 1992, childcare gained increasing attention and status, as a way to bridge education and welfare. The broad welfare of children, rather than a narrower focus on education, became an important part of the government’s policy agenda.

In the beginning of the 21st century, South Korea started to face low fertility rates, with births per woman falling to the record low of 1.08 in 2005. Declining fertility rates strongly influenced South Korean policymakers’ views on childcare, leading to the inclusion of ‘support for family’s childcare’ in the government’s childcare policy (Hwangbo, 2014). The government also developed the Basic Act on Low Fertility and Aging in 2005, expanding eligibility for public childcare provision to any dual-earner couple with preschool children. Since then the public childcare provision has been extended to include families with single-earners as well. To expand beneficiaries of the Act, a new policy on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) was developed, which provided financial support for all infants and children from every income category, not only for parents who use public childcare centers but also for families using private childcare facilities. The provision emphasized universal public financial support of the government to provide childcare (Kim and Lee 2016: 11; Peng 2011). The Childcare Support Act was established in 2012, and the age range of the beneficiaries expanded further to children 36 months old.

This blog post was authored by Seung-Eun Cha, Hyuna Moon and Eunhye Kang.


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