[Population Aging to 2030, Day 4, Essay 2 of 2]

Over the past 60 years North and South Korea have been following distinct paths in terms of political, economic, and social structures; putting the two countries back together is challenging in lieu of what could be a daunting reality.  There are so many unknown circumstances that will affect the reunification, including the potential for violence, conflict, and humanitarian suffering that are impossible to comprehend.

For the purposes of this blog, let us assume a soft reunification that is reached through diplomatic means in 2015.  What would the Korean peninsula look like demographically by 2030?  This is a projection simulation and is not meant to be proscriptive, but rather is an illustration of what might be, using three sets of fertility assumptions.

In order to project the 2030 population it is critical to first look at recent data, which are abundant and of excellent quality in South Korea (also referred to here as the Republic of Korea or ROK).  North Korea (also referred to here as the Democratic Republic of Korea or DPRK), in conjunction with the United Nations, conducted a census most recently in 2008, and prior to that in 1993.

While North Korea became a slightly older country in the 15 years between 1993 and 2008, South Korea became a much older country as a result of sustained low fertility levels.  In 1993, 5.4 percent of the population was aged 65 and over in North Korea and 5.5 percent in South Korea; by 2008 the elderly comprised 8.7 percent in North Korea and 10.3 percent in South Korea. The median age of North Korea in 2008 was 30.1 for males and 33.7 years for females as compared to South Korea: 35.3 years (males) and 37.4 years (females).

Unfortunately historical data on fertility in North Korea are very limited because no published data were available prior to the 1993 census.  The Total Fertility Rate (TFR), or the births per woman, is used here as the measure of fertility.  Eberstadt reconstructed data from the North Korean Central Statistics Bureau to estimate and project the Total Fertility Rates from 1960 to 2010.  The historical trends in the TFR from 1970-2008 are shown in Figure 1 for both countries.  The DPRK trend is based on Eberstadt’s data through 1992 and utilizes US Census Bureau estimates and projections based on the 1993 census up through 2007, with the TFR for 2008 is based on the 2008 Census.  Both countries had high fertility years in the early 1970s.  The rapid fertility declines in the 1970s in the DPRK were followed by more gradual declines in the 1980s and 1990s, reaching replacement level fertility in 1996 and remaining fairly steady through to 2008.

Figure 1. Total Fertility Rates of the DPRK and ROK, 1970-2008


The TFR in the Republic of Korea was 4.53 in 1970, more than two children fewer than the DPRK, but by the mid-1970s the two countries had similar fertility levels. Since 1983 the Republic of Korea has experienced below replacement fertility, which was a 54 percent decline in fertility between 1970 and 1983.  In the next 20 years, the Total Fertility Rate dropped from 2.08 children per woman in 1983 to 1.19 in 2003, and has remained steady at 1.2 ever since 2003.

In order to determine population projections of a unified Korea from 2015 through 2030, data are utilized from Korean Statistical Information Service (for the current ROK) and projections for the DPRK prepared by the author.  The projections utilize a high, medium, and low simulation.  For the purpose of this simulation 2015 is used as the reunification year in order to see what reunification would look like 15 years hence. The first assumption is that there would be a fertility shock in (the former) North Korea that would lower fertility from the 2008 value of 2.01 to 1.58 children per woman for the 2015-19 projection period; this assumption is based on the fertility shock experienced by the DPRK during the famine of the 1990s and in East Germany following reunification. Values used for North Korean TFRs for the 2030-35 projection period are 1.70 (high); 1.45 (medium); 1.30 (low).

The total population of a unified Korea can be expected to range from 76 to 84 million people by 2030; North Korea currently has about 24.5 million people and South Korea 50 million.  Because the population who will be aged 65 and over in 2030 are all already born, there is little variation in the expected elderly population (about 21 percent of the total population) for the three scenarios as seen in Figure 2.  The 0-14 age group varies from 12 percent (low), 14 (medium) and 15 (high) and thus the 15-64 age group mirrors those changes with 67 percent (low), 65 percent (medium), and 64 percent (high).

Figure 2. Population projections for a unified Korea: 2030 (in thousands).

This analysis has shown that a reunification will not change the age restructuring that is already underway in South Korea, and to a slighter extent in North Korea.  When the projection series are continued out until 2050 approximately a third of the population will be elderly, with a decline in the number of children aged 0-14 to as low as 9 percent.  Although fertility is normally the primary driver in determining the age distribution of a population, mortality and migration may play a major role in reunified Korea. Mortality will depend in large part on the ability to bring medical facilities and professionals in the North up to the standards of the South, and to confirm an equitable food distribution system.  Migration will be a critical determinant in overall population and distribution within a reunified country.  If there are massive population shifts within the country, there is a potential for high unemployment rates around city centers where migrants would be most likely to congregate.

Reunification will not happen in a vacuum; powerful nation states with interests in the Korean Peninsula will not be standing by idly.  These same actors will have direct and indirect effects on population dynamics.

Elizabeth Hervey Stephen is an Associate Professor of Demography at Georgetown University.