Will North Korea save Koreans from demographic disaster?

William Huang
May 29, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

South Korea is famous as the land of K-Pop idols and ultra-low fertility. Some demographers believe that Koreans will become extinct in a few centuries. But are there any exceptions to low birth rates within South Korea? And what about the South's eccentric brethren in North Korea?

Public servant privilege?

In 2022, preliminary statistics have South Korea's fertility at 0.78. As the data is preliminary, breakdowns of fertility by locality are not yet available for 2022, but they are available for 2021. In that year, only two provincial-level localities in South Korea had a total fertility rate (TFR) above 1 - Sejong City and South Jeolla Province (Jeolla-namdo). Sejong had a fertility of 1.28, which by world standards is pathetically low, but it is double the rate of the megacity Seoul (2021 TFR 0.63), which is where the majority of South Koreans either reside in or commute to.

So is the secret of Sejong's success? Well, for one, Sejong is a backup capital for overcrowded Seoul, which also lies dangerously close to the North Korean border. Many of South Korea's ministries are now based in Sejong instead of Seoul. By 2027, a second presidential palace will be set up in Sejong, and the South Korean government is also looking at setting up a second parliament building there.

From a population of around 80,000 in 2010, the population of Korea's second capital jumped to around 350,000 by 2020 and will continue to grow as more government agencies and state-owned institutions move from Seoul to Sejong.

Perhaps unintentionally, South Korea's own bush capital has reaped some demographic fruits. Government jobs are amongst the cushiest one can get in an East Asian country. In China jobs with state-owned enterprises and in the public service are called "iron rice bowls" due to their job stability and prestige. China's exams to join the public service attract 1.5 million people each year, who compete for 37,100 positions.

Likewise, Korea's public servants enjoy benefits that their private sector counterparts can never dream of. Government employees in Korea can get childcare leave of up to three years per child on top of maternity leave. More importantly, their jobs are secure during this period, and they are guaranteed to have their job back after the leave period. This is unthinkable for most Koreans in the private sector.

Moreover, the government takes care of its own - Sejong offers a much higher childcare cash reward per child than Seoul and nearly all of Sejong's children go to government-run kindergartens, compared to a quarter of all children in Seoul. This drastically reduces childcare costs. Up until 2021, public servants relocating to Sejong enjoyed a "special housing supply programme", in which tens of thousands of newly constructed apartments in Sejong were set aside for civil servants relocating from Seoul, who could buy apartments at far lower prices than the market average. This removes another major obstacle to East Asian child rearing - soaring housing prices and cramped living conditions.

Thanks to these factors, Sejong has become a utopia for family life in Korea. Thanks to the "iron rice bowl", Korean public servants could be the most fertile Koreans in the world - outside of rural North Korea.

According to the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea, civil servants in Sejong have on average 1.89 children. This is nearly triple the average of the Korean national fertility rate. Even in Seoul, civil servants have 1.36 children, compared to 0.63 for the general public. It turns out that in Korea, even religion and living in rural areas cannot create high fertility exceptions as in other developed nations - but job stability and privilege as a civil servant can.

The world's last South Koreans could be the descendants of government officials.

However, even this utopia is not immune to fertility decline. Despite topping the list for fertility every year since 2015, the TFR in Sejong has slipped from 1.67 in 2018 to 1.28 in 2021. Moreover, ever since the special housing scheme was scrapped and as speculation has grown regarding the presidential palace and parliament relocating from Seoul to Sejong, housing prices have soared in the special city as well. As more people relocate to the city, the pressures people face in Seoul will emerge there, too.

Therefore, Sejong may continue to enjoy a demographic summer for a brief while, but it will not be immune to the nationwide decline.

A tale of two Koreas

Observers of the demographics of North Korea generally write from the perspective of the South and are dismissive of the North. They imply that North Korea's demographic situation is not much better than the South's. This is a myth.

True, North Korea's fertility of 1.8-1.9 is much lower than its counterparts with comparable income levels. As an exceptionally poor country, its fertility should have been above 2.5. But from an East Asia perspective, this is one of the highest fertility rates in the region.

North Korean fertility is also much more stable than South Korea's, which has dived from around 1.2 a decade ago to 0.78. North Korea has remained in the 1.8-2.0 range for the past decade.

In North Korea are the only regions in northeast Asia with above-replacement fertility. According to UNICEF's 2017 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, rural North Koreans have a TFR of exactly 2.1, right on the replacement fertility level. South Hwanghae Province also has a TFR of 2.1, and North Hwanghae and North Pyongan have TFRs of 2.0. These provinces all have substantial populations above 2 million.

Even Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, had a TFR of 1.8, triple that of Seoul. Moreover, North Korea's population is more evenly distributed. According to the UN, 61% of North Korea's population is urban, compared to 81% in South Korea. Only around 3 million people live in Pyongyang, much fewer than in the Seoul metropolitan area. Seoul itself has around 9.5 million, whilst its larger metropolitan area has around 25 million people - the same as all of North Korea.

This means that unlike South Korea, where most people are concentrated in and around ultra-low fertility Seoul, North Koreans are more spread out and live in higher fertility areas. Ten million North Koreans are rural and have fertility exactly at the replacement rate. Of course, the strict migratory controls of the North Korean regime plays a major part too - only the privileged and reliable can live in Pyongyang as part of the country's "Songbun" caste system. Most people cannot choose where they live and their ability to travel even within North Korea is restricted.

Pro-natalist policies are important for the Kim regime. Preferential treatment, including additional material benefits such as better food, is offered to women with multiple children and birth control is banned. Marriage and childbearing are effectively compulsory in North Korea, so family life may be much healthier in the poverty-stricken North instead of the wealthy South.

This is not a propaganda piece extolling North Korea. Its population would have been a few million larger if not for the disastrous famine caused by its despotic rulers in the 1990s. Its children also continue to suffer far more from malnutrition, lack of access to clean drinking water, and never-ending brainwashing in state schools. Many North Koreans do not want to have children as a result.

If reunification ever occurs, North Korea will suffer a "demographic shock" similar to that of East Germany when it reunited with the West in 1990. In 1989, East Germans had 200,000 births and a TFR of around 1.6. This plummeted to just 80,000 births and a TFR of 0.772 in 1994, comparable to South Korea today.

This could happen in Korea. Millions would move South and welfare and employment systems would collapse overnight. This, combined with the South's own ultra-low fertility, means reunification will probably bring only brief demographic dividends to a united Korea. The North's fertility edge would be wiped out.

A famine or a political or humanitarian disaster could hurt its population profile. In a country ruled by a bomb-loving, ruthless dictator, that is always possible.

Demographically speaking, North Korea continues to perform better than the South. This area is perhaps the only field where the situation in the North is better than the South. But the future for both countries remains bleak, with the South heading for collapse and the North for stagnation.