South Korea's Population Vacuum

By Philip Bowring 9 July 2012

The Republic of Korea is celebrating the fact that its population has just surpassed the 50 million point, a statistical landmark for a country ever conscious of its position in global league tables. But there is actually little cause for celebration – indeed, rather the opposite because demography is the only significant measure by which South Korea is beaten by North Korea.

The 50 million figure is anyway something of a surprise, at least to those who normally go by the data provided by the UN Population Division, which uses official Korean data but presumably has slightly different definitions. The UN put the 2010 population at 48.2 million and it seems unlikely that it would have risen by 2 million in two years. Indeed the UN Projection issued in 2010 envisaged very slow growth until a peak of 50.3 million in 2030, after which it would decline rapidly. Statistics Korea sees a peak the same year but at 52 million.

But although UN and Korean figures differ in absolute number, the trends are the same – and worrying they are. The South Korean fertility rate had edged up slightly from a low of 1.2 but at 1.3 remains among the lowest in the world, in a region where birthrates are well below the rest of the world. South Korea ranks 217th of 222 countries in the total fertility rate according to the CIA World Factbook – and all five countries below it are Southeast Asian.

As a result, South Korea’s population is aging very rapidly. The median age is now 40 and is forecast to reach 43 by 2020 and 47 by 2030. That is the medium projection by the UN but others’ projections are now even worse. Statistics Korea puts it at 48.5 in 2030 and the UN’s low projection at 48.8. By 2040 it will, unless fertility and or immigration policy changes soon, share with Japan and Germany the unenviable distinction of being the oldest nation on earth.

So maybe the pressure for unification will come not from political factors locally or regionally but from the superior demographics of North Korea – assuming one can believe the figures supplied by its government to the UN statisticians. The total population of the North is still only half that of the South – a current estimate of 24.5 million. But it is forecast to grow to 26.2 million by 2030. More important, the age distribution will be much more favorable. The median age is now only 33 and by 2030 will have climbed only to 36 or 37.

Although North Korea’s total population is only half that of the South, it has 6 million in the 10-24 age cohort compared with 9.5 million in the South. The North’s far lower quality of life is shown by life expectancy 12 years less than in the South but that helps keep its median age and dependency ratios down.

The North’s demographic change has been much more gradual and even now its fertility rate is 1.9, or only slightly under replacement and by far the highest in East Asia apart from Mongolia. It can even boast an almost balanced sex ratio – a stable 1.05 male births per 1.00 female while the South’s male chauvinist gender bias is resulting in 110 males for every 100 females. This shortage of females in the south simply makes the fertility problem worse.

The South will confront an increasing number of Korean men with the question of whether they should seek wives elsewhere. China remains a source but brides are becoming increasingly scarce there too. Will Koreans marry people from southeast or even South Asia? The implications for Korean concepts of race and culture are significant. Access to North Korean women would help the South but not Korea overall.

Yet the demographic divide between South and North may be better trump card for Pyongyang than its nuclear pretensions.