North Korea seems to be following a similar trajectory as South Korea’s demographic decline, which 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, and is seen peaking within two decades. Pyongyang needs workers and soldiers, but North Koreans aren’t having enough children to meet this demand any more. 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.
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.
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.
And 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.
Demographers see the North’s population starting to decline from 2044. And 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. 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.
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.
[Excerpts of an article by Anthony Fensom, writing in The National Interest]