What is causing North Korea’s low birth rate?

Kim Jong-un at the 5th National Conference of Mothers | KCTV

With North Korea’s fertility rate under the 2.1 needed to maintain the current population level, Kim Jong-un recently is urging mothers in the country to do something about it.

“As society develops and becomes cultured, the position and role of women grows more important and mothers’ contribution to strengthening the national power and propelling the revolution becomes greater,” Kim told the 5th National Conference of Mothers in Pyongyang in December. That includes having more babies, he said.

The fertility rate has been falling for a number of years. According to United Nations Population Fund estimates for 2023, the average number of children born to a North Korean woman was 1.8. This is still more than double South Korea’s rate of 0.78, which is the lowest in the world. But it nevertheless presents a long-term issue.

Kim, who was seen wiping tears during the conference, outlined three tasks for mothers.

They should educate their children to be soldiers for the nation and be prepared to play the main role in the future, he said. Second, they should take an active part in “socialist construction.” And third, mothers should clearly understand that having many children is a patriotic duty. 

While the first two challenges may be possible, the third seems impossible.

That is because North Koreans are not having fewer children because they want to focus on just one or two and raise them well, as in other countries. It’s because they can’t feed them. 

Before discussing this issue, however, we should ask if the data reported to the UN by the authorities in Pyongyang are reliable. It is reasonable to be skeptical because North Korean authorities regularly manipulate the figures. 

According to UN-based estimates, the population on March 6 stood at 26,218,915. 

A former local government official, who worked directly with the UN and international aid projects in the country, told me that census forms are a mix of real and fabricated data. He reckons a more accurate figure would be 18 million. 

There is, of course, no way to verify this. But he did confirm that the central government pressures provincial authorities to falsify numbers. This is done in an indirect manner with Pyongyang sending the data and methodology of one provincial government as a sample for the others to follow. If a province supplies accurate statistics, the central government asks for a revision in accordance with the sample provided.

There are other ways. For example, the official said he knew of one occasion when UN staff conducted a field survey to check the nutritional status of children. They tested at a designated school and extrapolated the results to create figures for the province and whole country. However, of the students tested, only one-third were actually enrolled in the school. The others came from elsewhere. Even then they were short, so officials herded two or three classes into one classroom, leaving other rooms empty. When the UN inspectors tried to go to other classrooms, they were told it was not possible as they would be interrupting lessons.

The same method is used when UN delegations arrive to check on malnourished elderly people, infants and children. Then, when food and supplies arrive, they are confiscated by the authorities. 

The first recipient of UN food, medicine and nutritional aid is the military. Second in line are the party and government (Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Defence, prosecutors, parties and administrative officials). 

What’s left is distributed to kindergartens and orphanages. Even there, the adults in charge embezzle what they can. Actual cash is only given to people in need when the UN inspectors are there as witnesses. 

Such tricks to manipulate statistics are aimed at obtaining aid from the United Nations and the international community, including food, medicine and reconstruction assistance, which the authorities then divert to military budgets. 

Another motive is to conceal the shortage of military manpower. The regime continues to claim it has over one million soldiers. It knows that foreign experts can derive rough estimates using the annual birth rate and the number of years of compulsory military service. Hence the numbers inflation.

The population decline dates back to the 1990s. Until that time, young women were put to work on communal farms and construction sites. Then, upon marriage, they were expected to stay at home. People married young. Unmarried women were referred to as “gold” at age 23. But then at 27 they became “copper” and, when they reached 30, “scrap metal.” 

After giving birth, a woman would receive a ration card from her husband’s factory for each family member and use them to collect food from state-run distribution centers.

Then in the 1990s, with the collapse in grain production, the rationing system broke down and people experienced severe food shortages. Even at their factories, there was no food. Families splintered, couples deserted their children. In the jangmadang markets and on the streets there were not only young homeless kotjebi children, but also adult vagrants. People shunned marriage because they were not confident they could even feed themselves, let alone babies.

Poor health care has also contributed to the decline in births. In rural areas, midwives make house visits. In city centers, people have access to hospitals, but otherwise mostly give birth at home. In North Hamgyong Province, for example, the maternity wards in hospitals in the suburbs and in small districts are almost empty. Doctors do not receive food rations, and rely on patients for their livelihood. A patient who can pay for a hospital bed – with cash, or in beans, or cigarettes or even drugs – just gets a bed with a metal sheet. She has to pay for medication, disinfectant, wipes, gauze, blankets, and meals herself. Husbands and family members are expected to bring firewood and coal to keep the room warm. The chances even then are that the doctors will take it for themselves. 

Women in the neighborhood do their bit to help, knowing they will be helped when it’s their turn. In this way, people rally round. But, as this drab unchanging picture suggests, the country as a whole is in decline.

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