Population: 25,643,466 (July 2020 estimated), compared to around 51 million in South Korea. North Korea is the 54th most populous country in the world. The population of North Korea is about half the population of South Korea. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Age structure:
0-14 years: 20.47 percent of the population (male 2,677,578/female 2,571,118)
15-24 years: 14.68 percent (male 1,894,091/female 1,869,799)
25-54 years: 44 percent (male 5,659,446/female 5,624,034)
55-64 years: 11.2 percent (male 1,369,199/female 1,503,086)
65 years and over: 9.65 percent (male 859,151/female 1,615,964) (2020 estimated) =

Dependency ratios:
total dependency ratio: 41. 2
youth dependency ratio: 28
elderly dependency ratio: 13. 2
potential support ratio: 7. 6 (2020 estimated)
Dependency ratios are a measure of the age structure of a population. They relate the number of individuals that are likely to be economically "dependent" on the support of others. Dependency ratios contrast the ratio of youths (ages 0-14) and the elderly (ages 65+) to the number of those in the working-age group (ages 15-64). Changes in the dependency ratio provide an indication of potential social support requirements resulting from changes in population age structures. =

Median age: total: 34. 6 years
male: 33. 2 years
female: 36. 2 years (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 89
This entry is the age that divides a population into two numerically equal groups; that is, half the people are younger than this age and half are older. It is a single index that summarizes the age distribution of a population. Currently, the median age ranges from a low of about 15 in Niger and Uganda to 40 or more in several European countries and Japan. =

Population distribution: population concentrated in the plains and lowlands; least populated regions are the mountainous provinces adjacent to the Chinese border; largest concentrations are in the western provinces, particularly the municipal district of Pyongyang, and around Hungnam and Wonsan in the east. =

Population density: 214 people square kilometer (compared to 2 per square kilometer in Mongolia, 35 per square kilometer in the United States, and 511 in South Korea) [Source: World Population Review]

North Korea’s population was estimated in July 2006 at 23,113,019. United Nations (UN) estimates for 2007 indicate that North Korea’s population density stands at 188 persons per square kilometer; 40 percent of the population lives in rural and 60 percent in urban areas. According to U.S. estimates of North Korea’s age structure, 23.8 percent of inhabitants are zero to 14 years of age, 68 percent are 15 to 64 years of age, and 8.2 percent are 65 and older. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007]

Population Growth and Fertility Rate in North Korea

Population growth rate: Population growth rate: 0. 51 percent (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 154, one the lowest in the world. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

Birth rate: 14. 5 births/1,000 population (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 128 =

Death rate: 9. 4 deaths/1,000 population (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 48 =

The annual population growth rate was 0.8 percent in 2006. Estimates made in 2006 indicate a birthrate of nearly 15.5 births per 1,000 population and a death rate of just over 7.1 deaths per 1,000. In 2006 life expectancy was estimated at 74.5 years for women and 68.9 for men, or nearly 71.6 years total. Other projections are much lower for both women and men. Life expectancy is not expected to improve as the first decade of the twenty-first century proceeds. The infant mortality rate was estimated at nearly 22.3 per 1,000 live births in 2006. The total fertility rate for 2006 has been estimated at 2.1 children per woman. [Source: Library of Congress, July 2007 **]

Net migration rate: 0 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 87 =

There is no legal migration from North Korea, and after the Korean War (1950–53) only 5,000 North Koreans successfully reached South Korea until the turn of the century. However, in 2003 and 2004 unprecedented numbers of North Koreans—estimates range between 140,000 and 300,000—fled to China with hopes of reaching South Korea. Only a relative few did reach South Korea but, according to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, as of February 2007, more than 10,000 North Koreans were living in the South. This number contrasts with only nine living there in 1990, 41 in 1995, and 312 in 2000. **

Total fertility rate: 1. 92 children born/woman (2020 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 127. This entry gives a figure for the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age.The total fertility rate (TFR) is a more direct measure of the level of fertility than the crude birth rate, since it refers to births per woman. This indicator shows the potential for population change in the country. A rate of two children per woman is considered the replacement rate for a population, resulting in relative stability in terms of total numbers. =

Sex ratio: at birth: 1. 06 male(s)/female
0-14 years: 1. 04 male(s)/female
15-24 years: 1. 01 male(s)/female
25-54 years: 1. 01 male(s)/female
55-64 years: 0. 91 male(s)/female
65 years and over: 0. 53 male(s)/female
total population: 0. 95 male(s)/female (2020 estimated) =

Contraception in North Korea

▪Contraceptive prevalence rate (percent of women aged 20-49): 78. 2 percent (2014). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Elizabeth Shim of UPI wrote: Contraceptive use among women in North Korea of childbearing age is higher than the global average, although birth control is illegal in the country. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the contraceptive rate is 70 percent for the relatively isolated country, or 36th in the world. The rate, which applies to North Korean women between the ages of 15 and 49, is higher than the average for the Asia-Pacific region, which is 69 percent, and higher than the global average, which is 64 percent. [Source: Elizabeth Shim, UPI, November 16, 2016]

“Methods of contraceptives used in North Korea include surgical sterilization, condoms, birth control pills and intrauterine contraceptive devices. The report states the majority of North Korean women who use contraceptives opt for intrauterine devices, including the "Loop," which can be placed to closely fit around the contours of the uterine cavity. Contraceptives are banned in North Korea but are available in the unofficial markets that have grown in the country. A female North Korean defector told VOA contraceptives and birth control treatments are expensive, but more women are becoming "westernized and liberalized," a trend that is bumping up demand.

Presenting a different view, Luke O'Neil wrote for Playboy: “Sex education and information about sexual health and functions are nonexistent. Contraceptives of any kind are rare, though South Koreans occasionally send balloons filled with condoms over the border. (It’s unclear if this initiative has led to any significant change.) The pill can be found on the black market for a price, and as in other poor countries, abortions might be performed by surgeons off the books or by citizens who’ve learned how to do them. [Source: Luke O'Neil, Playboy.com, April 9, 2018]

Demography of North Korea Up to the Early 1990s

Estimating the size, growth rate, sex ratio, and age structure of North Korea's population has been extremely difficult. Until release of official data in 1989, the 1963 edition of the North Korea Central Yearbook was the last official publication to disclose population figures until 1989. After 1963 demographers used varying methods to estimate the population. They either totaled the number of delegates elected to the Supreme People's Assembly (each delegate representing 50,000 people before 1962 and 30,000 people afterward) or relied on official statements that a certain number of persons, or percentage of the population, was engaged in a particular activity. Thus, on the basis of remarks made by President Kim Il Sung in 1977 concerning school attendance, the population that year was calculated at 17.2 million persons. During the 1980s, health statistics, including life expectancy and causes of mortality, were gradually made available to the outside world.*[Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In 1989 the Central Statistics Bureau released demographic data to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) in order to secure the UNFPA's assistance in holding North Korea's first nationwide census since the establishment of the DPRK in 1948. Although the figures given to the United Nations (UN) might have been purposely distorted, it appears that in line with other attempts to open itself to the outside world, the North Korean regime has also opened somewhat in the demographic realm. Although the country lacks trained demographers, accurate data on household registration, migration, and births and deaths are available to North Korean authorities. According to the United States scholar Nicholas Eberstadt and demographer Judith Banister, vital statistics and personal information on residents are kept by agencies on the ri, or ni (village, the local administrative unit) level in rural areas and the dong (district or block) level in urban areas.*

Growth Rate of North Korea in the 1980s

In their 1992 monograph, The Population of North Korea, Eberstadt and Banister use the data given to the UNFPA and also make their own assessments. They place the total population at 21.4 million persons in mid-1990, consisting of 10.6 million males and 10.8 million females. This figure is close to an estimate of 21.9 million persons for mid-1988 cited in the 1990 edition of the Demographic Yearbook published by the UN. Korean Review, a book by Pan Hwan Ju published by the Pyongyang Foreign Languages Press in 1987, gives a figure of 19.1 million persons for 1986. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

The figures disclosed by the government reveal an unusually low proportion of males to females: in 1980 and 1987, the maleto -female ratios were 86.2 to 100, and 84.2 to 100, respectively. Low male-to-female ratios are usually the result of a war, but these figures were lower than the sex ratio of 88.3 males per 100 females recorded for 1953, the last year of the Korean War. The male-to-female ratio would be expected to rise to a normal level with the passage of years, as happened between 1953 and 1970, when the figure was 95.1 males per 100 females. After 1970, however, the ratio declined. Eberstadt and Banister suggest that before 1970 male and female population figures included the whole population, yielding ratios in the ninetieth percentile, but that after that time the male military population was excluded from population figures. Based on the figures provided by the Central Statistics Bureau, Eberstadt and Banister estimate that the actual size of the "hidden" male North Korean military had reached 1.2 million by 1986 and that the actual male-to-female ratio was 97.1 males to 100 females in 1990. If their estimates are correct, 6.1 percent of North Korea's total population was in the military, numerically the world's fifth largest military force, in the late 1980s.*

The annual population growth rate in 1960 was 2.7 percent, rising to a high of 3.6 percent in 1970, but falling to 1.9 percent in 1975. This fall reflected a dramatic decline in the fertility rate: the average number of children born to women decreased from 6.5 in 1966 to 2.5 in 1988. Assuming the data are reliable, reasons for falling growth rates and fertility rates probably include late marriage, urbanization, limited housing space, and the expectation that women would participate equally in terms of work hours in the labor force. The experience of other socialist countries suggests that widespread labor force participation by women often goes hand-in-hand with more traditional role expectations; in other words, they are still responsible for housework and childrearing. The high percentage of males aged seventeen to twenty-six may also have contributed to the low fertility rate. According to Eberstadt and Banister's data, the annual population growth rate in 1991 was 1.9 percent.*

The North Korean government seems to perceive its population as too small in relation to that of South Korea. In its public pronouncements, Pyongyang has called for accelerated population growth and encouraged large families. According to one KoreanAmerican scholar who visited North Korea in the early 1980s, the country has no birth control policies; parents are encouraged to have as many as six children. The state provides t'agaso (nurseries) in order to lessen the burden of childrearing for parents and offers a seventy-seven-day paid leave after childbirth. Eberstadt and Banister suggest, however, that authorities at the local level make contraceptive information readily available to parents and that intrauterine devices are the most commonly adopted birth control method. An interview with a former North Korean resident in the early 1990s revealed that such devices are distributed free at clinics.

Population Structure in the 1980s

Demographers determine the age structure of a given population by dividing it into five-year age-groups and arranging them chronologically in a pyramidlike structure that "bulges" or recedes in relation to the number of persons in a given age cohort. Many poor, developing countries have a broad base and steadily tapering higher levels, which reflects a large number of births and young children but much smaller age cohorts in later years as a result of relatively short life expectancies. North Korea does not entirely fit this pattern; data reveal a "bulge" in the lower ranges of adulthood. In 1991 life expectancy at birth was approximately sixty-six years for males, almost seventy-three for females. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

It is likely that annual population growth rates will increase in the future, as will as difficulties in employing the many young men and women entering the labor force in a socialist economy already suffering from stagnant growth. Eberstadt and Banister estimate that the population will increase to 25.5 million by the end of the century and to 28.5 million in 2010. They project that the population will stabilize (that is, cease to grow) at 34 million persons in 2045 and will then experience a gradual decline. By comparison, South Korea's population is expected to stabilize at 52.6 million people in 2023.

Settlement Patterns and Urbanization in the 1980s

North Korea's population is concentrated in the plains and lowlands. The least populated regions are the mountainous Chagang and Yanggang provinces adjacent to the Chinese border; the largest concentrations of population are in North Pyongan and South Pyongan provinces, in the municipal district of Pyongyang, and in South Hamgyong Province, which includes the Hamhung-Hungnam urban area . Eberstadt and Banister calculate the average population density at 167 persons per square kilometer, ranging from 1,178 persons per square kilometer in Pyongyang Municipality to 44 persons per square kilometer in Yanggang Province. By contrast, South Korea had an average population density of 425 persons per square kilometer in 1989. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

Like South Korea, North Korea has experienced significant urban migration since the end of the Korean War. Official statistics reveal that 59.6 percent of the total population was classified as urban in 1987. This figures compares with only 17.7 percent in 1953. It is not entirely clear, however, what standards are used to define urban populations. Eberstadt and Banister suggest that although South Korean statisticians do not classify settlements of under 50,000 as urban, their North Korean counterparts include settlements as small as 20,000 in this category. And, in North Korea, people who engage in agricultural pursuits inside municipalities sometimes are not counted as urban.*

Urbanization in North Korea seems to have proceeded most rapidly between 1953 and 1960, when the urban population grew between 12 and 20 percent annually. Subsequently, the increase slowed to about 6 percent annually in the 1960s and between 1 and 3 percent from 1970 to 1987.*

In 1987 North Korea's largest cities were Pyongyang, with approximately 2.3 million inhabitants; Hamhung, 701,000; Chongjin, 520,000; Nampo, 370,000; Sunchin, 356,000; and Siniju, 289,000. In 1987 the total national population living in Pyongyang was 11.5 percent. The government also restricts and monitors migration to cities and ensures a relatively balanced distribution of population in provincial centers in relation to Pyongyang.

Koreans Living Overseas in the 1980s

Large-scale emigration from Korea began around 1904 and continued until the end of World War II. During the Japanese colonial occupation (1910-45), many Koreans emigrated to Manchuria (China's three northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning), other parts of China, the Soviet Union, Hawaii, and the continental United States. People from Korea's northern provinces went mainly to Manchuria, China, and Siberia; many from the southern provinces went to Japan. Most émigrés left for economic reasons because employment opportunities were scarce; many Korean farmers had lost their land after the Japanese colonial government introduced a system of private land tenure, imposed higher land taxes, and promoted the growth of an absentee landlord class charging exorbitant rents. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993 *]

In the 1980s, more than 4 million ethnic Koreans lived outside the peninsula. The largest group, about 1.7 million people, lived in China; most had assumed Chinese citizenship. Approximately 1 million Koreans, almost exclusively from South Korea, lived in North America. About 389,000 ethnic Koreans resided in the former Soviet Union. One observer noted that Koreans have been so successful in running collective farms in Soviet Central Asia that being Korean is often associated by other citizens there with being rich, and as a result there is growing antagonism against Koreans. Smaller groups of Koreans are found in Central America and South America (85,000), the Middle East (62,000), Europe (40,000), Asia (27,000), and Africa (25,000).*

Many of Japan's approximately 680,000 Koreans have belowaverage standards of living. This situation is partly because of discrimination by the Japanese. Many resident Koreans, loyal to North Korea, remain separate from, and often hostile to, the Japanese social mainstream. The pro-North Korean Choch'ongryn (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, known as Ch sen s ren or Ch s ren in Japanese) (see Glossary) initially was more successful than the pro-South Korean Mindan (Association for Korean Residents in Japan) in attracting adherents among residents in Japan.*

Between 1959 and 1982, Choch'ongryn encouraged the repatriation of Korean residents in Japan to North Korea. More than 93,000 Koreans left Japan, the majority (80,000 persons) in 1960 and 1961. Thereafter, the number of repatriates declined, apparently because of reports of hardships suffered by their compatriots. Approximately 6,637 Japanese wives accompanied their husbands to North Korea, of whom about 1,828 retained Japanese citizenship in the early 1990s. Pyongyang had originally promised that the wives could return home every two or three years to visit their relatives. In fact, however, they are not allowed to do so, and few have had contact with their families in Japan. In normalization talks between North Korean and Japanese officials in the early 1990s, the latter urged unsuccessfully that the wives be allowed to make home visits.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: Daily NK, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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