SEOUL – South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, but parents say the government is not making it easier for them to have children when hundreds of public facilities across the country are designated as “child-free zones.”

Earlier this month, a lawmaker brought her children to the National Assembly and called on the government to ban the policy, which allows restaurants, museums, cafes and other establishments to ban children from entering.

In her speech, Yong Hye-in, a representative of the Basic Income Party, said it was becoming more difficult to start a family in cities that ban children from certain areas. Getting rid of child-free zones and creating a more child-accepting society would help the country overcome its low birth rate, she said.

“Life with a child is not easy,” Yong said as she held her son at the National Assembly. “But still, we have to recreate a society where we can coexist with our children.”

Last year, South Korea had one birth rate of 0.78according to government figures. Many young couples in the country choose not to have children because rising costs of childcare and accommodation, job shortages and growing concerns about the future. For years, the government has offered incentives such as monthly subsidies worth hundreds of dollars to families with children but has failed to address the demographic crisis.

There are hundreds of child-free zones throughout South Korea. The National Library of Korea, for example, prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from entering without special permission. (Recently, some places have also tried to ban seniors, starts a debate online.)

This is the second time Yong has appeared at the National Assembly with his child. In the summer of 2021, she arrived with her son when he was only a few weeks old. The National Assembly prohibits anyone other than assembly members and authorized personnel from entering, and is itself considered a child-free zone.

Yong introduced the “National Assembly Chamber Child Companion Law” in 2021, requiring infants under 24 months to be allowed to enter the main floor of the legislature. The bill has not yet passed.

The debate around where children should and should not be allowed has been going on for yearsand not only in South Korea. Angry travelers have often asked why airlines don’t introduce seats designed for families with small children.

Several countries, including Australia and the United States, allow children to enter government buildings. Infants were first allowed onto the Senate floor in Washington after Sen Tammy Duckworthwhose presence was needed to confirm a new NASA administrator, gave birth to a daughter less than two weeks before the 2018 vote.

Stella Creasy, a member of the British Parliament, was charged in 2021 with bringing her child to Westminster Hall in London.

Yong was born in 1990 in Bucheon, a city on the outskirts of Seoul, and became a lawmaker in 2020. In addition to getting rid of child-free zones, she also plans to introduce legislation that would allow children and their families to avoid queues at places like museums and theme parks.

There are almost 3.5 million children under 10 in South Korea, and over 11,000 public facilities designed for children’s play, according to government statistics.

Public opinion on child-free zones suggests that most South Koreans support them. A 2022 survey by Hankook Research, a polling firm based in Seoul, found that 73 percent of respondents were in favor of child-free zones while only 18 percent were against them. (A further 9 percent of respondents were unsure).

Supporters of the policy say children can be a distraction to customers. “I usually go to coffee shops to study, I don’t want to be interrupted by crying children,” Lee Chan-hee, an engineering student in Seoul who frequents a coffee shop that bans children, said in an interview this week.

Other reasons for supporting the zones include the prevention of accidents and property damage as well as injuries to young children. Protecting the rights of small business owners was also a consideration.

But the tide can change.

The push to get rid of child-free zones gained momentum last week when the Health and Welfare Safety Committee on Jeju Island — a popular tourist destination off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula — considered an ordinance that would abolish child-free zones across the island.

Lawmakers on the island will hold a session later this month to decide whether or not to approve the bill. If passed, it will be the first law of its kind in South Korea.