Faced with a tumbling birthrate and women souring on the idea of marriage and family, the South Korean government is reaching out to a small group of people believed to have the power to avert a demographic catastrophe: prime-time drama writers.
Last month, the Planned Population Federation of Korea held a two-day seminar for writers of TV soaps and dramas and urged them to create more situations that show happy mothers with their children. The aim is to counter an anti-baby mood that is leading South Korea down the path to being, well, a smaller country.
"For many years we have been pondering what influences people the most, and we concluded it was TV dramas and other news and documentary programs," said Shin Sun-chol of the family planning group. "We are just asking the writers to be more considerate because some programs now depict career women as being very egoistical, thinking only of themselves."
The idea of leaning on TV writers for social engineering followed the release of a government study of 50 South Korean dramas that shows a television landscape in which single life is portrayed as cool, children as a burden, and love as something that does not always have to lead to marriage and a family.
And that's important in a country where the audience of potential mothers -- women in their 20s and 30s -- is known to be heavily influenced by TV dramas. Not only do the shows generate big audiences, but their subject matter is spun off to heavily trafficked Internet chat rooms where plot lines are discussed with great intensity.
"Koreans are very emotional, and they don't watch TV dramas as drama -- they think it is something close to their own lives," said Go Bong-hwan, a female TV writer. "They tend to see the TV character's problem as their problem, to the point that some Korean husbands worry that their wife might have an extramarital affair just because her favorite character in a drama is having an affair."
That degree of immersion may sound extreme, but there is nothing exaggerated about the extent of the demographic challenge facing this country of nearly 49 million.
Statistics released last month show that the birthrate of South Korean women ages 15 to 49 fell to a record low of 1.08 in 2005. The government now predicts that the country's population will start decreasing by 2018, two years earlier than previously expected.
And with South Koreans' life expectancy increasing, projections suggest that by 2050, those older than 65 will account for 37% of the population, which would give the country the social and economic burdens of being the world's most aged society.
Government policies have had little success in persuading women to have more babies. Reasons for the lack of enthusiasm include worries about the cost of education and job uncertainty. Moreover, South Korea trails most Western countries in providing child-care options for mothers who want to work.
There are also strong signals that South Korean women are far less likely than men to see marriage as desirable. An October poll for the Health and Welfare Ministry found that 71% of unmarried men considered marriage "necessary," whereas the same percentage of unmarried women preferred a good job to marriage.
Earlier government surveys showed a dramatic drop since the late 1990s in the number of women with a positive attitude toward having children. More than a third of married women now say having children is not a priority, up from 9% in 1998.
So the government has set out to improve the public image of marriage and family. Prime-time dramas have a track record of altering attitudes, Shin said, noting that when the government was trying to reduce South Korea's high birthrate in the 1960s, the Planned Population Federation petitioned TV writers to show households with fewer children.
The government still must persuade today's writers to get on board. Go, who is married with children, said she feels an urge to write about husbands who help out more around the home.
"But that's about it," she said. "It's very easy to write about happy families, but what excites us is to write about characters who need more love. It's more challenging to write about families with problems."
The 10 male and 22 female writers who heard the government's appeal were a mixed group: about half of them married with families and half of them single, with the women expressing how difficult it is to have a family and a television career. And they had some practical objections to the government's appeal to put more children on prime time.
"Some of the writers said it was too much work because they'd have to give each kid a line," Shin said. "But they said they'd try."