North Korea is reportedly facing a decrease in the school-age population, due to its falling birthrate. In April, the U.S.-based media outlet Radio Free Asia quoted a source as saying that a local elementary school in North Korea used to divide newly enrolled students into four or five separate classes ten years ago, but each year the number of new students decreases and there are only three classes this year.
According to the World Factbook released by the Central Intelligence Agency, North Korea’s total fertility rate stands at one-point-89, ranking 126th in the world. The total fertility rate refers to the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime. North Korea’s rate is higher than that of South Korea, which remains at a rock-bottom level. Still, the North, just like its southern neighbor, is grappling with the declining birthrate that poses a serious social problem.
Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s low birthrate solutions from Kim Young-hee, director of the Public Relation Department at the Korea Hana Foundation.
In 2021, North Korea’s official Korean Central Television reported that a Pyongyang citizen named Park Un-jong gave birth to her tenth child. The woman was given the title of “maternal heroine.”
All I did was raise my children. It was just the right thing to do as a woman, citizen and family member of a soldier in this country.
In North Korea, those who have more children are entitled to more benefits. The purpose, of course, is to promote childbirth. Multi-child families are provided with school supplies on major anniversaries, while parents of triplets are given food and medicine for free and are allocated homes on a preferential basis. The husband of the maternal heroine also stressed that he has no problem raising his kids, thanks to the benefits for multi-child families.
The entire world is complaining bitterly about COVID-19. But I have never been worried about how to feed and raise my children.
North Korean women have been reluctant to have children since the late 1980s, resulting in a gradual decrease in the country’s birthrate. Worse yet, North Korea went through the harsh period of the Arduous March in the 1990s, with the state rationing system breaking down. Locals commonly say that it’s necessary to reduce the number of mouths to feed. That means they choose not to have children, even after they get married. That’s probably why North Korea introduced the title of “maternal heroine.”
Until the 1960s, North Korea implemented childbirth encouragement policies as the nation’s population had fallen due to the Korean War. At the time, North Korea’s total fertility rate was five-point-11.
My parents had six children—three sons and three daughters. I was born in the 1960s and my youngest sibling was born in 1972. Back then, North Korea was better off than South Korea. The state encouraged the people to have many children because it needed workers and soldiers. I guess that’s why my mother had as many as six children.
Starting in the 1970s, North Korea recommended people to get married late and implemented a birth control policy in order to make better use of its female workforce. The country advised the people to have fewer children, taught them how to avoid pregnancy and allowed abortions. In the 1980s, the North even introduced a slogan like “One is good; two are many; three mean having no conscience; four are stupid.”
North Korea has reportedly seen a gradual decline in births. Analysts say that the country’s economic difficulties in the 1990s, known as the Arduous March, also prompted the population to decrease.
The collapse of the rationing system caused the population to fall. Previously, the state provided food and other things to citizens, regardless of the number of family members. As the rationing system stopped working, however, people had to earn money themselves. Those who were unable to earn enough money inevitably chose not to have children. Also, North Koreans could no longer benefit from free medical care and education. Raising children would place a much heavier burden on mothers, who gave up the thought of having children. For those reasons, North Korea’s birthrate sharply fell.
I gave birth to a baby in the 1990s, a difficult period when many North Koreans avoided childbirth. It is understandable because it was hard for them to feed many children by earning money at the market. Some even refused to get married.
North Korea hosted the National Meeting of Mothers in 1998 and encouraged women to have more children. However, the decrease in the population only widened. In the early 2000s, the falling population began to emerge as a serious social problem.
In a letter sent to the congress of the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea in 2021, leader Kim Jong-un urged support for women and said that having and raising many sons and daughters is a matter of grave national concern that has to do with the future of the country. The leader stressed the need to actively help and respect women who have many children and to strengthen relevant measures at the state level.
In 2021, North Korea’s propaganda radio service “Echo of Unification” said that North Korean women are entitled to 240 days of maternity leave—60 days before and 180 days after childbirth. The radio station added that female workers during the period receive prenatal and postnatal subsidies equal to 100 percent of their basic living expenses, regardless of their length of service at work. It also said that women in the North can raise their children without any inconvenience, thanks to this great policy. It claimed that North Korean women enjoy special benefits provided by the state and society and therefore do not envy anyone. If the report is correct, North Korea’s maternity leave has reached a significant level.
Pregnant workers receive maternity leave and subsidies. But the subsidies of three thousand won are meaningless because one kilogram of rice is priced at roughly five thousand won at the market. That is, they can’t even buy one kilogram of rice with the subsidies. Therefore, the subsidies are not very efficient.
The Women’s Rights Protection Law in North Korea stipulates that a woman who gives birth to and raises triplets and other children of multiple births, as well as their children, shall have an attending physician and receive special benefits such as the provision of decent homes, medication, food and household goods free of charge.
North Korea has a special attachment to triplets, in particular. It has even recorded the number of triplets born in the country. Early this year, for instance, the Korean Central Television delivered the news that the nation’s 536th triplets were born.
Last year, the state-run TV reported about how the nation’s 415th triplets, who were born in 2012, were doing as they turned ten.
The triplets stayed at the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital for 100 days after they were born there and grew up at the Pyongyang Baby Home for four years. Their mother never failed to express gratitude, giving all the credit to the top leader.
My triplets met dear leader Kim Jong-un at the Pyongyang Baby Home on two different occasions. How blessed and happy they are!
North Korea views triplet births as a good sign. The country says if a woman living in a local region is pregnant with more than one baby, a helicopter is used to transport her to the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, where she is treated with great care.
I came to Pyongyang by plane to give birth to quadruplets. I can never forget the kind doctors and nurses, who took great care of me as if they were my own sisters.
North Korean media highlights the news about triplets, in an apparent move to promote the authorities’ childcare and welfare policies. Early this year, the country’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that families with many children or children of multiple births are at the top of the list of housing assignments.
In principle, North Korea provides homes to married couples. But not every citizen is given a home because the state, in reality, cannot build enough of them. According to North Korea’s Housing Act, homes must preferentially be provided to revolutionary fighters, families of revolutionary and patriotic martyrs, families of those who died in war, war veterans, discharged military officers, teachers, scientists, technical experts and people who did distinguished service. And those who gave birth to three or more children or triplets have also been added to the list, indicating how serious the nation’s low birthrate problem is.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, North Koreans who have two or more children are entitled to membership of the Workers’ Party and enjoy many privileges. It is said that parents of children under five were given 75-hundred North Korean won per child in July 2020. North Korean defectors say that the authorities have to take drastic measures like this because of a possible decline in the number of troops. Here’s a North Korean defector.
North Korea conscripted not only 17-to 18-year old people but those who are as old as 35 or 45 and have a family. When I entered the military, draftees were supposed to meet the requirement of being at least 148 centimeters tall. People who were shorter than that could not join the military at all. But it was lowered to 143 centimeters, as the number of soldiers was on the decline. If a 143-centimeter-tall person carries an automatic rifle, it drags on the ground. North Korea enforced conscription even to people who are that short.
The falling population stemming from the low birthrate affects not only the military but the supply of workers as well. Analysts say that a labor shortage in North Korea will have a serious impact on national growth, as the country has a comparative edge in labor-intensive industries.
North Korea’s industries are mostly labor-intensive. The North has built modernized factories, where goods are produced by machines. But the number of such production facilities is extremely small. The country still needs a large workforce. A labor shortage as a result of the falling birthrate will take a toll on the country’s industries and the economy overall.
Although North Korea encourages people to have more children, I think the policy will prove ineffective. The low birthrate trend will continue, as it is still hard for many North Koreans to make ends meet. They may prefer to have a small number of children and raise them well, rather than have many kids.
North Korea is carrying out various policy measures to address the falling birthrate. In order to reverse the trend, however, it seems urgent to solve the problem in a more comprehensive way.