North Korea formed in 1948. With Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945, the nation divided in two, with the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States occupying the south. Efforts at reuniting the nation in 1948 failed, resulting in the formation of two distinct governments: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north and the Republic of Korea in the south. Soon after the advent of the nation, Kim Il-sung seized control of the northern government and his family has remained in control for three generations. This rule has had a significant impact on life expectancy in North Korea.
The nations have since grown farther apart, culturally and politically. Though South Korea has improved vastly, North Korea remains elusive with minimal information publicized by an oppressive government. As international policy with North Korea enters a new era, the country comes further and further into the light. Even knowing 10 facts of life expectancy in North Korea may provide insight into the quality and direction of life in the nation.
10 Facts About Life Expectancy in Korea
- The life expectancy of North Koreans is 71 years. As a result, North Korea has the 157th longest life expectancy of the 224 nations in the CIA Factbook. The average for men is 67.2 years and 75 years for women. Life expectancy had been gradually rising since the country’s formation until the 1990s when it faced a sharp downturn due to a severe famine. The country’s life expectancy began to improve later in the decade and has since slowly continued to rise.
- North Koreans live shorter lives than South Koreans. South Korea has a life expectancy of 82.5 years, standing at 11th longest in the world. Both countries’ expectancies grew at similar rates in the late 1970s to early 80s with the North Korean growth rate slowing before and after due to food shortages. Food shortages continue to be a bane on North Korean health. High infant death rates in North Korea further causes the gap between South and North Korean life expectancy. North Korea suffers an infant mortality rate of 21.4 deaths per thousand births. South Korea’s birth rate averages three deaths per thousand. The South Korean National Statistical Office predicts that North Korea’s infant mortality rate will drop to 7.1 in 40 years.
- Forty percent of the 24 million in Korea live in poverty. The average GDP per capita is $1,700, leaving North Korean citizens standing at 214th wealthiest in the world. These civilians have severely restricted access to food and heating, leaving their health at risk. Many use wood fire to heat their homes or live without flushing toilets.
- North Korea does not guarantee health. Though North Korea claims to offer free health care, many die due to an inability to pay medical expenses, as patients must pay for their own heating, food and medicine. Though there are a greater number of doctors in North Korea than South Korea, they do not receive payment. Due to food insecurity, digestive issues and anemia are rampant across the country. Additionally, sufferers often cannot obtain the necessary treatment since underfunded hospitals have to ration or reuse medicine.
- North Korea suffers regular blackouts. Though coal experts largely support the country’s economy, North Korean power is far from reliable. Hospitals suffer from regular blackouts and loss of heat, limiting working hours to daylight and making for poor recovery conditions.
- North Korea has been fighting a tuberculosis epidemic for decades. Medical professionals diagnose 82,000 new tuberculosis cases per year and 15,000 people die from it. While the country had an anti-TB campaign launched in the 1970s, it lost traction with the 1990s famine. The Eugene Bell Foundation has been providing large-scale multi-drug resistant TB treatment throughout North Korea, curing over 70 percent of those it offers treatment to, compared to the world treatment success rate of 50 percent.
- North Korea suffers from severe food shortages. This fact about life expectancy in North Korea may be the most defining. On average, North Koreans consume only 2,094 kilocalories per day, well below the Food and Agriculture Organization’s recommended 2,500 kilocalories and the world’s average of 2,870 kilocalories. Meat is a luxury for most of the population, who subsist on kimchi—a fermented lettuce dish—corn, rice and porridge. In 2015, Ghulam Isaczai, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea, said that two million children, pregnant women and elderly North Koreans suffered from malnourishment.
- The North Korean government maintains one of the largest militaries in the world. North Korea has the 52nd largest population and fourth-largest national military in the world. The country spends one-fourth of its $40 billion GDP on its military. Men and women must serve in the military after turning seventeen, with a 10-year minimum for men. During this service, soldiers maintain exhaustive conditions, serving 15-hour days with only 750-800 grams of food.
- The North Korean government expresses a desire to improve its quality of life. In 2016, the nation launched a five-year plan to promote growth across all sectors of the nation. North Korea has passed several pieces of human rights legislation, such as the Convention on the Rights of a Child—which eliminates the worst of child labor, among other protections—and has permitted for U.N. supervisors to enter the country. However, the government does not fully oblige to promises made in these treaties.
- North Korea continues to be a focus of international rights policy. The Human Rights Council has been in unanimous agreement that North Korea must cease its human rights offenses. In addition to the Convention on the Rights of a Child, North Korea recently passed four other human rights bills to protect women and the disabled, two groups especially affected by North Korean living conditions. These bills will also focus on protecting general citizen rights. While no one can make a clear quantification of progress, as North Korea has not released a state report, Yoon Yoo-sang of South Korea’s Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights says that they have seen improvements in health care and food supply in the last two decades.
The 10 facts about life expectancy in North Korea are distressing, but not hopeless. North Korean life expectancy falls short for a vast array of causes such as natural causes, famine and insufficient medical program funding. Still, life expectancy rises. People should not ignore the gains by the populace—instead, these accomplishments may provide a glimmer of insight to the people behind the heavy veil of government.
– Katie Hwang