Korean Peninsula A to Z

Inside North Korea

N. Korea’s Population



South Korea’s total population has grown due to a prolonged average life span, despite its chronically low birthrate. But according to a report released by Statistics Korea last month, the number of deaths began to outpace that of births in November of last year. The entire population was tallied at 51.62 million as of 2018, and the nation will likely to begin a natural course of demographic decline this year.

What about North Korea’s population? Here’s Professor Chung Eun-chan at the Institute for Unification Education to answer the question.

A report by South Korea’s Statistics Korea shows that North Korea’s population was 25.13 million in 2018, about half of South Korea’s. North Korea conducted a census in 1993 in cooperation with the United Nations Population Fund, and most recently, in 2008. South Korea assisted the North in holding the 2008 census. Based on the data, the South Korean statistics agency, in 2010, made an estimate of North Korea’s population from 1993 to 2055 to assess population growth in the northern neighbor. In 2008, North Korea’s population was estimated at 23.93 million, about 49 percent of South Korea’s. A decade later, in 2018, the proportion remained almost the same.

North Korea’s population is expected to decrease down the road, as it suffers from a low birthrate, just like South Korea. Statistics show that South Korea’s total fertility was 0.92 in 2019, 0.06 lower than the previous year, representing the lowest figure since relevant data began to be compiled in 1970.

The total fertility rate refers to the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime. The number of newborns in South Korea totaled 303,100 last year, down 7.3 percent from the year before. This is a clear sign of a population decline. Professor Chung now explains the fertility situation in North Korea.

North Korea’s fertility rate hit the lowest level of 1.9 in 2018. Many women in South Korea avoid having children, and North Korea is following a similar trajectory. In the North, the trend became conspicuous in the mid-1990s, when the nation suffered from a severe economic contraction. During the time of economic hardship, women felt increasingly burdened by childbirth and childcare. It is little wonder many women were reluctant to have children. The falling birthrate will be a serious problem, as it means a decline in the economically-active population.

As the low birthrate became a problem, North Korea stopped providing birth control devices to people. In November of 1993, it even imposed a ban on abortion. As part of birth promotion policies, the government has promised women to provide them with maternity leave, additional rations and the title of heroine, if they have more children.

During the era of former leader Kim Jong-il in the 1990s, North Korea held the “mothers’ convention” and gave the title of “maternal heroine” to mothers of seven or more children. The purpose, of course, was to encourage childbirth. At the third such convention in 2016, leader Kim Jong-un highlighted the “maternal heroine” title once again.

In another effort to promote childbirth, North Korea extends state rationing by another six months for women who have a third child. Women with many children are exempt from labor mobilization and as well as fees, so they can ease the difficulty of both childcare and financial burden.

Another demographic trend in North Korea is an aging population. In the North, a long life is regarded as something to be celebrated. An old man who turns 100 is given a birthday feast in the name of leader Kim Jong-un and the event is reported on the local media.

While the North Korean population is aging, their average life expectancy is rather short, compared to their South Korean counterparts.

If many North Koreans live long, leader Kim Jong-un can demonstrate a positive image of his country as a civilized socialist state. According to the 2019 worldwide population estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, the average life expectancy of North Koreans is 71, 12 years shorter than that of South Koreans. The life expectancy of North Korean men and women on average is 66.5 and 73.3, respectively, while that of South Korean men and women, 79.7 and 85.7, respectively. There seems to be a gap between the life expectancy pursued by North Korean authorities and the actual figures. 

Currently, North Korea claims it has no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus. But it is known that many people in North Korea die of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, in particular. It is estimated that the country had 500 tuberculosis cases per 100-thousand people in 2017. Given North Korea’s poor medical infrastructure, it is assumed that mortality rates from contagious diseases are much higher than official figures, 

Tuberculosis is one of the most serious healthcare problems in North Korea. It is a common belief that patients can be cured of tuberculosis if they eat well. I think this disease has much to do with living standards. North Korea’s high mortality rates from infectious diseases mean that many local residents suffer from chronic malnutrition and have a weak immune system. North Korea’s hygiene conditions are not very good, so any infectious disease may spread very fast. 

That’s why the country is desperately trying to block the COVID-19 virus. But if the virus somehow penetrates into the North, it could be fatal to many undernourished local citizens with weak immunity.

Both South and North Korea are faced with demographic challenges such as low birthrates and an aging population. We hope the two Koreas will join forces to find a solution in this field, as they have tried to do so in other areas.

(Next week, we’ll learn about liquor in North Korea.)

Latest News