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.
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.
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.”
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"
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