North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said it is a duty of women to halt a fall in the country’s birth rate in order to strengthen national power, state media said on Monday, as his government steps up the call for the people to have more children.
While getting a detailed idea of North Korea’s population trends is extremely difficult because of the limited statistics it discloses, South Korea’s government assesses that the North’s fertility rate has declined steadily for the past 10 years.
That is a concerning development for a country that depends on mobilised labour to help keep its broken, heavily sanctioned economy afloat.
Mr Kim’s latest appeal for women to have more children was made on Sunday during the country’s National Mothers’ Meeting, the first of its kind in 11 years.
“Stopping the decline in birth rates and providing good childcare and education are all our family affairs that we should solve together with our mothers,” he said in his opening speech.
According to South Korea’s government statistics agency, North Korea’s total fertility rate, or the average number of babies expected to be born to a woman over her lifetime, was 1.79 in 2022, down from 1.88 in 2014.
However, the decline is still slower than its wealthier rival South Korea, whose fertility rate last year was 0.78, down from 1.20 in 2014.
South Korea’s fertility rate, the lowest in the developed world, is believed to be due to a potent cocktail of reasons discouraging people from having babies, including a decaying job market, a brutally competitive school environment for children, traditionally weak childcare assistance, and a male-centred corporate culture where many women find it impossible to combine careers and family.
While North Korea is one of the poorest nations in the world, the change in its demographic structure is similar to that of rich countries, some observers say.
“Many families in North Korea also don’t intend to have more than one child these days as they know they need lots of money to raise their kids, send them to school and help them get jobs,” said Ahn Kyung-su, head of DPRKHealth.org, a website focusing on health issues in North Korea.
Ahn, who has interviewed many North Korean defectors, said the smuggling in over the past 20 years of a vast amount of South Korean TV dramas and films showing an elevated social status for women is also likely to have influenced women in North Korea not to have many children.
North Korea implemented birth control programmes in the 1970-80s to slow a post-war growth in population.
The country’s fertility rate recorded a major decline following a famine in the mid-1990s that was estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people, the Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute said in a report in August.
“Given North Korea lacks resources and technological advancements, it could face difficulties to revive and develop its manufacturing industry if sufficient labour forces are not provided,” the institute report said.
According to North Korean state media reports this year, the country has introduced a set of benefits for families with three or more children, including preferential free housing arrangements, state subsidies, free food, medicine and household goods and educational perks for children.
South Korea’s statistics agency estimates the North’s population at 25.7 million. The Hyundai institute report said that North Korea is expected to experience a shrink in population from 2034 and forecast its population will decrease to 23.7 million by 2070.
Ahn, of DPRKHealth.org, said Mr Kim’s repeated public appearances with his young daughter, Ju Ae, are probably part of efforts to encourage families, though other experts said her appearances are more likely an attempt to show she is her father’s heir.