Anyone have a hankie? Kim Jong Un weeps over North Korea’s birth dearth

Roughly 1500 years ago the Three Kingdoms of Korea extended well north of the Yalu River, encompassing a considerable chunk of today’s Manchuria. The Korean peninsula is now divided between democratic South Korea (Republic of Korea or ROK) and Communist North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK).

In 1882 American clergyman William Elliot Griffis published a book, Korea: The Hermit Nation. Today North Korea is known as the Hermit Kingdom due to the regime’s self-imposed isolation.  

The divided Korean peninsula is a Cold War relic from the 1950s. One of these days that will change. Why? Destiny. Koreans are one people. When and how? Anybody’s guess. History teaches that things can turn on a dime.

DPRK demographics

Koreans, like so many others, are not reproducing themselves. South Korea, with an already declining population, has the world’s lowest total fertility rate, slightly above 0.77, about one-third of replacement level.

News from North Korea is unremittingly negative, mostly about repression, missile tests, and the personality cult of leader Kim Jong Un. The mysterious 2017 death of college student Otto Warmbier, incapacitated while in DPRK captivity, still rankles Americans. 

Finding credible statistics about North Korea is challenging. Data that could contradict the worker’s paradise narrative is not readily available. However, shortly before Christmas, this headline appeared in Fox News:

Kim Jong Un weeps as he calls on North Korean women to have more children to stem birth rate decline. The dictator appeared to wipe away tears as he called on women to have more children.

A head of state crying? That’s clickbait on steroids. Was the guy really moved to tears? Was it an act? Allergies? We may never know for sure.  

The occasion for this emotional display? The fifth National Meeting of Mothers in early December. This was a two-day confab held in Pyongyang, the first since 2012.

Per NPR:

Leader Kim Jong Un's presence on both days of the two-day gathering and his two speeches there implied the North Korean government had important messages to deliver. That mothers should contribute to "stopping the declining birth rate" was among them. 

In a personality cult, anything the Dear Leader says is “important messages.” Very interesting though that 1) Kim attended in person; 2) for both days; and 3) spoke twice. That should dispel any doubt that the Hermit Kingdom is hard up for children.

Message to mothers

Some soundbites from Kim’s two speeches:

Preventing a decline in birth rates and good childcare are all of our housekeeping duties we need to handle while working with mothers.

The credit for the brilliant today of our country goes to our mothers … the genuine models of always devoting themselves unhesitatingly to the road of patriotism as well as the roots for bringing up a large number of heroes in all parts of the country.

All mothers should fulfill their responsibility and duty assumed before society and families… They have [a] heavy mission to bring up their children to be pillars of socialist and communist construction and masters of future society.

Mothers themselves should become communist mothers who have noble and beautiful moral qualities. Unless a mother becomes a communist, it is impossible for her to bring up her sons and daughters as communists and transform the members of her family into revolutionaries.

So to be a good Communist, have more children. What a novel exegesis of family values! This is the first time Kim has publicly acknowledged a fertility problem.





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DPRK birth dearth

The World Bank rates DPRK as one of the poorest countries on the planet, comparable to those of sub-Saharan Africa. This stands out in otherwise prosperous East Asia. Yet DPRK supposedly has a birth rate comparable to countries considered upper-middle income such as Mexico.

Back in the 1970s DPRK fertility was about 4.0. Then the government decided there were too many people for prosperity to take hold, so promoted contraception and abortion. However, in the early 1990s the country was waylaid by the perfect storm and nearly collapsed. What happened?

First, the government realized that there were not enough young people and that their success in driving down fertility had backfired. The regime went into reverse: people were propagandized to procreate and abortion was restricted. 

But then came a body blow. As leader of the Communist bloc the Soviets heavily subsidized satellite DPRK. That gravy train came to a screeching halt when the USSR was dissolved on December 26, 1991. Famine resulted. At least a million North Koreans perished. The government forbid talk of famine; those tough times were to be known as the Arduous March.

According to Ewha Women’s University (ROK) research fellow and DPRK defector Hyun In-ae, "In the 80s, every family would have two children. But since the Arduous March, that changed to just one."

The United Nations Population Fund estimates North Korea’s fertility rate at 1.78. However, the Bank of Korea’s Economic Research Institute, considered a more reliable source on DPRK, cited a downward trend: “North Korea’s total fertility rate was 1.91 in the 1990s, then dropped to 1.59 in the 2000s, and was at 1.38 in the 2010s.”

According to Seoul’s Hyundai Institute, DPRK’s estimated population is 25.7 million and will begin declining no later than 2034. Kookmin University (ROK) researcher Peter Ward states the obvious:  "The loss of productive labor power will have substantial implications for the functioning of the North Korea economy.”

Population pushback

The North Korean government is desperate to stem the birth dearth that is overwhelming an already feeble economy. Families with three or more children are entitled to priority medical treatment, government subsidies and the right to request parental leave while their children are still in school. But the government lacks resources to provide meaningful relief from dire straits imposed by arguably the world’s most repressive regime.

DPRK spends much on high-tech weapons development and is a willing pawn in today’s multipolar Great Game, enabling the regime to punch above its weight as an international irritant. The ruling ideology is known as juche, a Communist-inspired Weltanschauung blending rabid nationalism with a personality cult.

If there was ever a government that needed to change priorities, it is the DPRK. However, pro-family rhetoric aside, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards, and the prognosis for families there is not a happy one. 

Louis T. March has a background in government, business, and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author, and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Image credits: screenshot from "The Economic Times" 


Showing 6 reactions

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  • mrscracker
    commented 2024-02-01 03:39:38 +1100
    This is certainly something that I’m no expert on & our DNA can pass down some really surprising things over several generations but from what I’ve read on epigenetics it seems to more affect female developing children in the womb & that in turn affects their descendants.
  • Patrick Obrien
    commented 2024-01-24 03:57:53 +1100
    And South Korea’s birthrate is about half of that 1.38.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-23 11:37:18 +1100
    Oops, forgot capitalisation => new line
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-23 11:35:27 +1100
    Three things that surprised my in my 78 years.

    And one that didn’t.


    I expected fertility to fall but the speed of the collapse astonished me. If you had told me in 1964 that 60 years later only one continent would have fertility above replacement I would have asked if I could try whatever it was you were smoking.


    The stresses your grandmother endured before your parents were conceived really can affect your health.

    This is the herd of elephants in the room defecating on the carpets no one wants to talk about. The implications are mind-boggling. If grandma and grandpa had traumatic childhoods you may suffer diminished mental and physical fitness.


    It turns out that a stressful childhood really can ruin your life and the lives of your children and, even, grandchildren “unto the third generation”. To put it another way, Republican cruelty towards the poor is destroying America’s future human capital.


    In case you hadn’t noticed, shipping costs are soaring because many shipping lines have re-routed their ships to avoid the Red Sea. Going around the Cape, instead of through Suez, means +- 40% longer transit times between Asia and Europe. That’s about a 30% reduction in shipping capacities. Some factories in Europe, notably Tesla, have been forced to curtail production because parts did not arrive on time.

    Now I did NOT foresee that Houthi tribesmen armed with Iranian missiles were going to disrupt shipping.

    But I did know that long supply lines are always a risk factor. Murphy’s law is alive and well..

    BTW the Panama Canal is also suffering reduced capacity because of global warming. But that’s another story.
  • Elva Kindler
    commented 2024-01-22 21:34:25 +1100
    Great article! Thanks!
  • Trotsky Lives!
    commented 2024-01-22 15:34:03 +1100
    At last, a chance to cite one of my favourite Auden poems, “Epitaph on a Tyrant”. Absolutely perfect for a man who killed one of his officials with an anti-aircraft gun for falling asleep in one of his lectures. No wonder the women in the video are clapping so enthusiastically:

    Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
    And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
    He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
    And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
    When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
    And when he cried the little children died in the streets.