This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Demographics of North Korea

North Korea has been regularly in the news lately as the country quite literally parades its weapons, raising the fear of a nuclear strike on South Korea, Japan, or even on the northwestern U.S. 

Saturday was the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and the man the younger Mr. Kim tries to emulate, in looks and action. Kim Il-sung’s birthday, called the Day of the Sun, is the North’s most important holiday and a key moment for scoring propaganda points.
Fortunately, the missile that was launched to celebrate the occasion fizzled on takeoff, so crisis was averted for the moment, but the publicity reminded me of the differing trajectories of the two Koreas, which according to were created in August of 1945 when "two young aides at the State Department divided the Korean peninsula in half along the 38th parallel. The Russians occupied the area north of the line and the United States occupied the area to its south." For most of the 20th century up to that point, Korea had been part of the Japanese empire, which was disassembled after the end of WWII.

North Korea has almost exactly half as many people (25 million) as South Korea (50 million), is less urban than South Korea (although it is still majority urban), has higher mortality levels, and higher birth rates (albeit a fertility level just at replacement). South Korea, like China and Japan, is on the verge of depopulation, whereas North Korea is essentially just in replacement mode. I last commented on North Korea a little more than six years ago when Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as the leader of the country.
The very rapid fertility decline in South Korea created a youth bulge in the 1980s that represented a significant threat to political stability in that country, described in a now classic article by Gary Fuller and Forrest Pitts ("Youth cohorts and political unrest in South Korea,"Political Geography Quarterly, Vol. 9. No. I, January 1990, 9-22). The country survived that threat and used the youth bulge as a demographic dividend that helped create their economic miracle. The North could have done the same, but Kim Jong-il obviously was not interested in such an outcome. Will his son lead the country to a different future? The demographics are actually in favor of that, with an already low level of fertility and a level of mortality that is actually not as bad as you might think given the overall level of repression that is widely reported to exist. I don't know of anyone who expects improvement, however.
It is fair to say that so far there is no sign of improvement...

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