The wildly differing trajectories of North and South Korea since they were divided at the end of World War II are well known.
Slightly murkier are the very human statistics illustrating the differences between the two. The paranoically secretive nature of North Korea means that a wealth of data is difficult to come by, but the most reliable data available is striking.
The stark contrasts in adult height and life expectancy cannot be attributed to genetics. Koreans are a homogenous people, having largely cut off contact with the outside world following brutal invasions by the Japanese and Manchus in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Feast vs. Famine
Stunted growth—and other health issues cited in the infographic—begin with poor diet, particularly in the first two years of life. From 1994 to 1998, North Korea endured a devastating famine which led to a literally uncountable number of deaths—estimates range from 240,000 to 3.5 million.
Now, around 70% of the population are what the World Food Programme terms “food insecure,” with contributing factors including a 2015 drought, lack of farming machinery, and inhospitable terrain.
In March this year, the World Food Programme reported that food aid had declined drastically, due largely to the fact that the UN only secured 28% of the funding it required to supply food to North Koreans.
And North Korean state rations were reduced last year—although the country spends about almost a quarter of GDP on its military, compared to the average worldwide spend of 2%.
In contrast, South Korea has transformed from one of the poorest countries in the world in the aftermath of World War II, to a prosperous economy that is now the 11th largest in the world. Numerous studies have found that increases in adult height—and improved health—are linked to economic growth.
Costs of Reunification
With the North Korean crisis showing no signs of abating, commentary has turned toward possible outcomes. What, for example, would a unified “Korea” look like? As our infographic shows, the contrast between the two populations is considerable.
In the event of a North Korean collapse, the South Korea state would absorb 18 million food insecure North Koreans and inherit the health problems from the population north of the 38th parallel.
Leonid Petrov, an Australian National University researcher, recently pegged the total cost of reunification at around $3 trillion. The costs of initial and future healthcare for malnourished North Koreans would necessarily be an important consideration.