Yet another estimate of famine deaths



A few weeks ago I blogged on recent research by Dan Goodkind et al. at the Census Bureau which on the basis of the 1993 and 2008 DPRK censuses concluded that deaths during the famine period had been lower than conventionally thought, indeed was lower than Goodkind and his colleague Lorraine West had previously estimated.

Cleaning out my inbox I stumbled across a report put out by the South Korean government that similarly compares the 1993 and 2008 censuses and reaches conclusions similar to those of the American researchers.  The report “North Korean Census Analysis, 1993-2008” is available in Korean at

Comparing the 1993 and 2008 censuses the Korean researchers conclude that as the famine unfolded, for men life expectancy fell 7.5 years, from 67.0 years in 1993 to 59.5 years in 1998. Since then life expectancy has gradually increased to 64.1 years for men and 71.0 for women in 2008, but still remains below its early 1990s level, and about 11 years shorter than comparable figures for South Korea. These figures imply that North Korea’s 2008 life expectancy is equivalent to South Korea’s in 1984 level for men and 1982 level for women.

As would be expected, fertility levels rapidly decline during the famine due to postponement of marriage and childbirth. The aggregate birthrate decreased from 2.17 in 1993 to 1.96 in 1998, and like life expectancy, has never fully recovered, reaching 2.02 in 2008.

Like the Census Bureau researchers, the South Korean team extends the famine period past the millennium, estimating that elevated death rates were observed from 1994-2005, while births were foregone from 1995-2004. They estimate excess deaths of 480,000 and births foregone of 130,000 over these periods, of which 340,000 deaths and 100,000 births foregone were during the Arduous March period of 1996-2000. As expected, these deaths were concentrated among the young and old. The report observed that the impact of the famine can be seen in that North Korean children younger than 10 years old who entered South Korea after 2000 (i.e. were born after 1990) were smaller than those who were born before 1990s and arrived in South Korea before 1999.

Looking forward, North Korea remains younger than South Korea, but is aging rapidly.  This is important in terms of the relative inability of the population to adapt in a unification scenario. Median age for North Korea’s 2010 population is 30.1 years for males and 33.7 years for female (6.8 years and 5.3 years younger than South Korea, respectively). North Korea’s “productive population” (i.e. 15-64 years old) is forecast to peak at almost 18 million in 2022 (when it would be 70% of the population) and decline thereafter.

Overall population is projected to peak at 26.5 million around 2037, 19 years after South Korea’s population is forecasted to peak (2018, 49.3 million), with total peninsular population expected to reach its maximum of 75 million in 2027.

So far, so good.  But the fundamental issue, as with the Census Bureau analysis, is how seriously one should take the census figures.  At least one South Korean researcher, deeply skeptical about the veracity of the data, withdrew from the project.  If one accepts these data at face value, then conventional demographic models yield these sorts of answers.  But that is a very big “if”—there are multiple reasons to doubt the reliability of these data—and I, for one, remain unconvinced.

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