So in 1961, the Planned Parenthood Federation of Korea was established as a joint effort between Koreans and the United States. The new group worked closely with the government to launch a National Family Planning Program, the goal of which was to stop Koreans from having so many babies. It was a multipronged push. There was propaganda, with the government warning citizens, “Unplanned parenthood traps you in poverty” and “Sons or daughters, stop at two and raise them well.” Efforts were made to increase women’s enrollment in high school. Contraceptives were handed out freely to anyone who would take them. Men were exempted from mandatory military service if they submitted to vasectomies.

The plan succeeded wildly. In a single generation Korea’s fertility rate dropped by more than half, from 6.0 to 2.8. In 1981, the government set its goal as a fertility rate of 2.0. It offered economic incentives for parents who were sterilized after a second birth and, for a brief period, even encouraged a one-child policy. (The public service announcements proclaimed, “Even two children per family are too many for our crowded country.”) In just two years, Korea achieved its mark.

But this success was fleeting. The fertility rate kept falling—so fast and so far that it quickly became clear that the government had lost control of its program. By 2000, the rate had bottomed out at 1.2, causing the government to scramble to undo its prior work. It offered early retirement for parents with multiple children. It provided financial support for the education of third children and offered special mortgages for families with three children. It created a government agency to deal with shrinking populations and encourage procreation. None of it worked.

And in the midst of all this clamor, the Koreans realized they suddenly had another problem. The monster of sex-selective abortion had been unleashed.