(December 2010) The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, one of the few remaining Communist countries, has demographic similarities and disparities with wealthier, democratic South Korea. North Korea has conducted two population censuses—one in 1993 and another in 2008. The 2008 Census only became known to the Western media in 2010 and the published results were surprisingly frank regarding the poor demographic and health situation in the country, given its statistical veil of secrecy in the past.

Comparisons with South Korea are inevitable, particularly in light of current tensions. The two countries are technically still at war, having signed an armistice ending the Korean War in 1953 but not a peace treaty. North Korea's 2008 Census counted a population of 24.1 million. South Korea's 2010 estimate, in comparison, is 48.9 million. North Korea's area is 46,720 sq. miles, about the same size as Cuba (with a population of 11.2 million) or the U.S. state of Pennsylvania (12.6 million). South Korea's somewhat smaller area of 38,580 sq. miles is about the same as the Netherlands (16.6 million) or the U.S. state of Indiana (6.4 million) but its population gives it a density of 1,267 persons per sq. mile, one of the world's highest. One of South Korea's security concerns is the location of Seoul, the capital, which contains just over half the country's population. Central Seoul is located just 30 miles from the border with North Korea.

The 2008 Census showed setbacks in health and nutrition since the early 1990s, largely due to a series of famines believed to have caused from 600,000 to 1 million deaths from 1995 to 2000.1 The 2008 Census suggested that life expectancy at birth had declined since the early 1990s to 65.6 years for males and 72.7 years for females, both about 11 years less than in South Korea. The infant mortality rate stood at 19.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births and the maternal mortality ratio was 77.2 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Both indicators have increased since the early 1990s but are also lower than estimated previously by other organizations, such as the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau. And both are far worse than in South Korea. 

Contrasts in Fertility and Birth Rates

One sharp difference between North Korea and South Korea is the total fertility rate (TFR).2 North Korea's TFR is 2.0 children per woman, about what it is believed to have been in the early 1990s and just below "replacement" level. TFRs calculated from the 2008 Census data indicate a TFR of 1.89 in urban areas and 2.19 in rural areas (the definition of "urban" is not given in the census report). The sex ratio at birth as reported in the census was 104.2 male births per 100 female births, indicating no particular preference for sons over daughters. South Korea, on the other hand, has an extremely low TFR at 1.15 children per woman in 2009. From a purely demographic standpoint, North Korea has fewer concerns than its southern neighbor in supporting an aging population. Two-thirds of households in North Korea consist of extended families, suggesting that family support makes a significant contribution to support of the elderly. The low North Korean TFR seems to contradict Kim Jong-il's expressed wish to have a larger population than his adversary to the south through a higher birth rate, in line with the government's long-standing declaration of the country as a Juche (self-reliant) society.

The figure below shows wide swings in North Korea's birth rate over the past 30 years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government encouraged only one or two children per couple, reflected in the pyramid at ages 20 through 34. In more recent years, poor economic conditions seem to be discouraging births. Note also the large deficit of males in the upper-age groups, a likely consequence of the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Population of North Korea by Age and Sex, 2008 

North Korea Population

Source: North Korea Central Bureau of Statistics, 2008 Census.

High Levels of Marriage and Education, Poor Nutrition

Marriage is virtually universal in North Korea. In 2008, 25 percent of females ages 25 to 29 had never been married, but the figure dropped to only 4 percent for women ages 30 to 34. Of ever-married women ages 30 to 34, 48 percent had first been married at age 24 or later. Divorce is extremely rare. Only 1.7 percent of women ages 40 to 44 are listed as "separated" in the census. Virtually the entire population is listed as "literate" in the census, even up to the age group 80 and over. Educational attainment is relatively high, with 77 percent of males ages 30 to 34 and 79 percent of females having finished secondary school. Among that same group, 12 percent of males and 11 percent of females had completed college. In the labor force, 30 percent of males and 38 percent of females are engaged in agriculture.

Housing is free in North Korea but often cramped and lacking amenities. Extended families average 4.4 persons while most households live in two-room units. Comparatively small apartments in Asia are certainly not limited to North Korea, however. Eighty-five percent of North Korean households have piped water but flush toilets are available to only 58 percent with pit latrines used by most others. The main cooking fuels are coal in the urban areas (63 percent) and wood (28 percent). In rural areas, those proportions are roughly reversed. Very few use electricity for heating or cooking. Twenty-one percent of households live in apartment buildings but, of those, only 4 percent have central heating. The vast majority use coal or wood for heating in a briquette or wood hole in the dwelling.

North Korea's policy of "self-reliance" has contributed to its chronic food shortages; its rugged land and relatively harsh climate are not conducive to productive farming. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, along with bureaucratic mismanagement and natural disasters in North Korea, began a series of agricultural crises that lasted for much of the 1990s and continue today. North Korea has typically been reluctant to ask for food aid from international organizations but it did receive support from the World Food Programme in the mid-2000s. A 2002 nutrition study found that 39 percent of North Koreans were stunted (low height for age), an indicator of chronic malnutrition; the situation had barely improved several years later.4

Nonetheless, North Korea's willingness to conduct and publish nutrition surveys with assistance from UNICEF and the World Food Programme since 1998 and to publish its 2008 Census has not only been surprising, but has revealed many of its internal problems. In 2009, a Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey-4 was conducted with the assistance of UNICEF. The results will be enlightening.

Carl Haub is senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Central Bureau of Statistics, 2008 Census of Population of DPRK, National Report and 2008 Census of Population of DPRK, Key Findings (Pyongyang, North Korea: 2009); and Daniel Goodkind and Lorraine West, "The North Korean Famine and its Demographic Impact," Population and Development Review 27, no. 2 (2001): 219-38.
  2. The TFR is the average number of children a woman would have in her lifetime if the birth rate of a particular year remained constant.
  3. Juche is based on a traditional Korean idea that the country comes first and needs no outside relations or assistance. North Korea's economy is often described as autarkic, or able to survive without outside trade.
  4. UNICEF and World Food Programme DPR Korea, Nutrition Assessment 2002  (Pyongyang, North Korea: 2003); and Asia Times, "North Korea's Stunted Policy Stunts Children," March 15, 2005.