North Korea’s Biggest Problem: Demographics?
Isolation might protect the “hermit kingdom” for now, but its demographic destiny cannot be avoided.
Here's What You Need to Remember: The life expectancy of North Korea’s citizens lags the South’s by nearly twelve years, however, reflecting persistent food shortages where as many as 40 percent of the population are undernourished.
South Korea’s demographic decline might be alarming, but its northern neighbor is following a similar trajectory that it is desperately trying to cover up. That is the conclusion of analysts assessing the future of one of the world’s most secretive and authoritarian regimes.
The current population of communist North Korea has been estimated at around twenty-five million, approximately half its southern, democratic rival, according to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Yet despite not conducting a census in a decade, the North’s population is seen peaking within two decades before following a similarly downward trend.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographics expert for the American Enterprise Institute, analyzed the North’s first population census in 1994, when the population was estimated at around twenty-one million despite “a large chunk of military-age women being removed from the count to hide the corresponding proportion of military-age men.”
The North’s latest official census, conducted in 2008, showed a population of more than twenty-four million. Yet again, according to Eberstadt, the figures were doctored to hide the effects of famine, which is believed to have claimed as many as one million lives.
This showed up in a 2002 study, which found that 39 percent of North Koreans were stunted with below-average height due to chronic malnutrition.
A new census planned for 2018 was reportedly canceled after Seoul cut funding for fear of breaching international sanctions on the North, Eberstadt told North Korea News.
The North’s population growth has already slowed from its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s of an estimated 3 percent to its current fertility rate of 1.9, below the “replacement” level rate of around 2.1, according to UN data.
With South Korea’s fertility rate also dropping, hitting a record low of 0.98 in 2018, Eberstadt sees parallels in the North’s decline.
He said mortality and fertility trends in North and South Korea were “surprisingly similar” when he reviewed the original 1994 data, when Pyongyang was relatively open concerning such statistics.
“Would I be shocked if fertility in North Korea was down below the replacement level, maybe not quite as radically as in the South, but heading in the same direction? That wouldn’t make me die of surprise, let’s just say that,” he said.
Anecdotal evidence points to North Korean families hesitating at having more than one child due to the added financial burden of education and child rearing, despite reports of the regime deliberately denying access to contraceptives and prohibiting abortion.
Such measures have reportedly been ramped up in response to the declining birthrate.
“Punishments for those who perform illegal abortions and use contraceptive devices are already in place, but this new policy bans all kinds of abortions and birth control procedures, including even those performed at hospitals,” Radio Free Asia reported in 2015.
Demographers see the North’s population starting to decline from 2044—some twenty years later than the South. Yet unlike Asian neighbors, such as Japan, North Korea is unlikely to attract an influx of foreign workers to help compensate for a shrinking labor force, while it also lacks the financial resources to support child-rearing.
The experience of the around ninety thousand “Zainichi” ethnic Koreans in Japan who returned to the North in the 1960s at the urging of Pyongyang likely would discourage any other would-be emigrants.
Many such returnees suffered hardship and even imprisonment in the North after being promised “Paradise on Earth,” including free food and housing by the regime, with those who escaped describing it as “hell, not paradise.”
Even reunification, a stated goal of both Pyongyang and Seoul, is not seen reversing the demographic decline of either country.
An indicator of the impact comes from Germany, where reunification led to a rapid decline in the birthrate in eastern Germany post-unification, falling to 0.8, according to Troy Stangarone, senior director and fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.
While the number of births in the east eventually recovered, the higher fertility rate of 1.6 in some former East German states still remains well below the replacement level.
Although Korean reunification might proceed in a more orderly manner conducive to a steady fertility rate, “there is little indication that one could expect birth rates in the North to increase significantly once unification or economic integration occurred,” Stangarone argues.
The latest CIA. data ranks the North as 127th globally in its fertility rate, but with a population growth rate of only 0.5 percent and zero migration.
The life expectancy of North Korea’s citizens lags the South’s by nearly twelve years, however, reflecting persistent food shortages where as many as 40 percent of the population are undernourished.
Economic growth has also stagnated in recent decades under the North’s “juche” (self-reliance) policies, with the regime hit hard by the collapse of the Soviet Union and more recently the impact of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
After being evenly matched as recently as 1974, South Korea subsequently raced ahead with an export-driven growth program and its gross domestic product per capita is now some twenty times the North’s.
While the North’s current demographics give it “some political leverage thanks to its stronger population growth” than the South, this advantage could soon dissipate.
The geopolitical implications of a weak economy combined with a diminishing population will not be lost on the ruling Kim dynasty. This is particularly the case when as many as 30 percent of its citizens are estimated to comprise either active or reserve military personnel, with more than 1.2 million active personnel and some six million in reserve.
As much as Pyongyang might try to hide its population data, the analysis all points in the same direction.
Isolation might protect the “hermit kingdom” for now, but its demographic destiny cannot be avoided. The worry for policymakers is what the North might do in the meantime to bolster its faltering regime.
Anthony Fensom is an Australia-based freelance writer and consultant with more than a decade of experience in Asia-Pacific financial/media industries. This first appeared in September 2019.