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The Peninsula

Reunification is Not a Solution for Korea’s Demographic Challenges

Published July 10, 2012

By Elizabeth Hervey Stephen

In a recent piece in the Asia Sentinel, which was re-posted in The Irrawaddy, Philip Bowring correctly noted that South Korea is facing a population crisis with sustained low fertility in the range of 1.2 children per woman.  As one solution to the birth dearth, he proposes looking toward reunification with North Korea, which has fertility near replacement level (2.1 children per woman).  He states, “So maybe the pressure for unification will come not from political factors locally or regionally but from the superior demographics of North Korea…”  Those are five words you would not expect to see in the same sentence: superior demographics of North Korea.  Let’s step back from the hyperbole and look at the data.  As Bowring rightly noted in his article, North Korea did take a census in 2008 with the assistance of the UNFPA.  While the data are not perfect, they do provide something of a demographic snapshot into the Hermit Nation for us to provide some gazing into a crystal ball.

In my recent paper for the Korea Economic Institute on South Korea’s demographic challenges, I analyzed the various demographic problems facing South Korea and the potential solutions to these issues, including unification. There are so many unknowns that will surely determine the circumstances of the reunification, including the potential for violence, conflict, and humanitarian suffering. But for the moment, let’s assume that the reunification is peaceful without a large loss of life on either side. There is no question that if fertility remained unchanged in the two geographic areas immediately following reunification, then the overall fertility rate would be higher in a unified Korea than it is now in South Korea. What would happen in five, ten or twenty years after a Korean reunification is anyone’s guess, but the experience of Germany’s reunification was that former East Germany’s fertility dropped from 200,000 births in 1989 to 80,000 births in 1994. One can imagine that reunification of the two Koreas would cause staggering social and economic adjustments that would likely result in a downward shift in fertility in North Korea, and possibly in South Korea as well. It is unlikely that reunification would have any hope of increasing fertility on the Korean peninsula in the long-term.

Dr. Elizabeth Hervey Stephen is an Associate Professor of Demography in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Photo from Leah in Korea’s photo stream on flicker Creative Commons.

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