SEOUL - 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 newspaper executive, gets a different reaction today. "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 rigidly patriarchal societies, a centuries-old preference for baby boys is fast receding. And that has led to what seems to be a decrease in the number of abortions performed after ultrasounds that reveal the sex 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 sex 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, which so devalued daughters that mothers would often apologize for giving birth to a girl.
The government also played a small role starting in the 1970s. After growing alarmed by the rise in sex-preference abortions, leaders mounted campaigns to change people's attitudes, including one that featured the popular slogan "One daughter raised well is worth 10 sons!"
In 1987, the government banned doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus before birth. But analysts say enforcement was lax because officials feared too many doctors would be caught.
Demographers say the rapid change in South Koreans' feelings about female babies gives them hope that sex 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.
The Population Fund warned in an October report that the rampant tinkering with nature's probabilities in Asia could eventually lead to increased sexual violence and trafficking of women as a generation of boys find marriage prospects severely limited.
In South Korea, the gap in the ratio of boys to girls born began to widen in the 1970s, but officials say it became especially pronounced in the mid-1980s as ultrasound technology became more widespread and increasing wages allowed more families to pay for the tests. The imbalance was widest from 1990 to 1995, when it remained above 112 to 100.
The imbalance began to close steadily only in 2002. Last year's ratio of 107.4 boys for every 100 girls was closer to the ratio of 105 to 100 that demographers consider normal and, according to The World Factbook, published by the Central Intelligence Agency, just above the global average of 107 boys born for every 100 girls.
The preference for boys is centuries old and was rooted in part in an agrarian society that relied on sons to do the hard work on family farms. But in Asia's Confucian societies, men were also accorded special status because they were considered the carriers of the family's all-important bloodline.
That elevated status came with certain perquisites - men received their families' inheritance - but also responsibilities. Once the eldest son married, he and his wife went to live with his family; he was expected to support his parents financially while his wife was expected to care for them in their old age.