Family Planning Campaign

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Old-style Communism had no doubt about the birthrate. Its approach to fertility was simple and straightforward: the higher, the better. There could be no such a thing as too many soldiers or too many workers.

Thus, Communist states went to great lengths to stimulate the birth rate. Of course, material incentives of all kinds were used widely: an additional tax levied on childless people, heavily subsidized kindergartens and creches, long maternity leaves.

Large families enjoyed special access to goods and services, a significant privilege in an economy based on distribution, and plagued by scarcity.

The material incentives were augmented by intense propaganda.

In the USSR from 1944, a mother who raised more than seven children was decorated with a special order and provided with many privileges. The caveat was that it was not enough to just give birth seven times: the decoration could only take place when the youngest of the seven children reached the age of one year.

The same approach was adopted by North Korea in the early stages of its history. Any other policy would be strange: the country suffered huge population losses in 1945-1953, partially due to the war and partially due to the large-scale migration to the South.

The population was believed to be 9.3 million in 1946, but by 1953 it had declined to 8.3 million.

In 1966 the fertility rate in North Korea reached the very high level of 6.5 children per woman. This was higher than the fertility rate in the South where it had already begun to decline, not least due to a government- sponsored campaign.

But then something happened. Around 1970, fertility rates nose-dived in the North, supplying one of the most dramatic reductions in the world’s demographic history. They dropped to 4.5 in 1974 and then to 3.5 in 1976. The crude birth rate, measured in the number of live births per 1000, declined from 35 in 1970 to 18 in 1976, thus halving in merely seven years.

All these figures are quite reliable since demographic statistics are probably the only kind of North Korean statistics decently known to the outside world. We know this through a blunder by the North Korean authorities who, in the early 1990s, invited a group of foreign experts on demographics to the country and provided them with full access to the relevant data. This was done to get their advice on the forthcoming population census.

To make sure that the foreigners would not create any harm, the data was slightly doctored, but the North Korean officials obviously did not realize that demographic data is, by its very nature, remarkably consistent, so an expert can easily reconstruct missing sections. When they understood their mistakes, the authorities tried to prevent the data from being published, but it was too late.

This statistics which became available in the 1990s confirmed what was long suspected: in the early 1970s, North Korea waged a highly intensive and highly successful family planning campaign. The information about this campaign has filtered out through defectors, but few if any experts understood how dramatic and decisive it actually was.

In the early 1970s, abortions were legalized and education about contraceptive procedures became obligatory in all kinds of health centers. Despite increasing difficulties with all kinds of goods, the contraceptive devices were widely manufactured and freely distributed.

The three-child family was proclaimed an ideal, and from 1978 the desirable number of children was further cut to two.

Around the same time, the marriage age was increased dramatically. The legal marriage age remained the same, but the public North Korean laws are not necessarily written to be followed.

The actual life of the country is determined by instructions, of which the instructions by the Great Leader himself are by far most important. And the Great Leader said in 1971, and said in no uncertain terms, that the youth should be sacrificed for the sake of revolution, not for raising families. In his wisdom he said that a good time to marry would be when a woman reached 28 and a man reached 30. Needless to say, a wish of the Great Leader became instantly the law of the land.

But it was never stated that all these measures were aimed at curbing birth rates. This was the major peculiarity of the entire campaign: in spite of its huge scale, it remained essentially secret. Perhaps, the North was unique in being the world’s only state which was in position to wage an invisible campaign of this kind.

The existence of very efficient and non-transparent channels of influence created such a unique opportunity: orders could be transmitted through party bureaucracy to every family without attracting anybody’s attention, while incentives could be distributed and punishment could be inflicted without much noise.

It is not clear what made Pyongyang undertake such a dramatic reversal of its earlier policies. From the officially published documents of the 1970s it seems that Kim Il-sung began to worry whether grain production was growing fast enough. Perhaps, it was decided to curb population growth because the government was not sure whether it would be able to feed more mouths in the future.

Perhaps, the impact of the intense South Korean family planning campaign was also felt in the North. Unlike lesser beings, North Koreans leaders have always been careful readers of the South Korean press, and they often imitated their adversaries in everything from dress fashions to ideological trends.

Finally, the changing mood of the developing world may have played a role. The early 1970s was the period when developing countries came to see population growth as a problem rather than an opportunity.

At any rate, the program was remarkably successful. Nothing like it could happen these days, when Pyongyang is gradually loosing its ability to monitor and direct all activities of its subjects. The days of Stalinism with North Korean characteristics are long gone.


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