When Park He-ran was a young mother, other women would approach her to ask what her secret was. She had given birth to three boys in a row at a time when South Korean women considered it their paramount duty to bear a son.
Park, a 61-year-old executive, now gets a different reaction. "When I tell people I have three sons and no daughter, they say they are sorry for my misfortune," she said. "Within a generation, I have turned from the luckiest woman possible to a pitiful mother.
"In South Korea, once one of Asia's most patriarchal societies, a preference for baby boys is receding. And that has led to what seems to be a decrease in the number of abortions performed after ultrasounds that reveal the gender of a fetus.
According to a study released by the World Bank in October, South Korea is the first of several Asian countries with large gender imbalances at birth to reverse the trend, moving toward greater parity between the sexes.
Last year, the ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, still above what is considered normal, but down from a peak of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990. The most important factor in changing attitudes toward girls was the radical shift in the country's economy that opened the doors to women in the work force as never before and dismantled long-held traditions.
Demographers say the rapid change in South Koreans' feelings about female babies gives them hope that gender imbalances will begin to shrink in other rapidly developing Asian countries -- notably China and India -- where the same combination of a preference for boys and new technology has led to the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses.