North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for new childcare policies in a recent policy speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly, but this has met with a chilly public response. In fact, a source says that more and more people are choosing not to marry.

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK on Thursday, the source, who is based in North Korea, said the country’s low birth rate has worsened since Kim took power. “People no longer even wish to have one child to raise really well,” he said. “Now they are choosing not to have any children at all.”

According to a report on the world population in 2021 published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in April, the total fertility rate per woman in North Korea was 1.9, far below the global average of 2.4.

North Korean authorities, too, sense just how serious the low birth rate is and are working to create and implement childcare policies.

Speaking before the Fifth Meeting of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly on Sept. 29, Kim called for prompt efforts to implement the party’s new childcare policies and the tripling of dairy production nationwide. In particular, he called for the development of dairy processing technology and “thorough guarantees for the quality of dairy products.”

With young married people avoiding pregnancy and childbirth due to burdens in the face of economic difficulties, the policy appears aimed at inducing couples to have children by ostensibly resolving the burdens of childcare.

In fact, North Korean authorities recently ordered government organizations and enterprises to provide dairy products and processed dairy products at state-set prices to children under the age of five once a week.

However, locals reportedly believe the party’s new childcare policies fail to address the root cause of the country’s low birth rate.

A medic administers a vaccination to a child in North Korea
A doctor administers a vaccination to a child in North Korea. / Image: Yonhap News Agency

The source said North Korea’s low birth rate has “nothing to do with dairy products,” and that ordinary people “have no interest” in how much effort the government makes to distribute these products. 

“Many people think it would be better not to have children than to have children and make them suffer,” he said. “The party isn’t getting a proper sense of why people aren’t having children.”

This means the low birth rate is less due to the cost of childcare and more due difficulties making ends meet amid economic insecurity.

Because of this, the source said the authorities’ inducements are having no impact on the birth rate.

Moreover, North Korea’s measures address only the cost of childcare. They reportedly provide insufficient support for pregnancy and childbirth.

The source said under Kim Il Sung, the government had policies that gave favorable treatment to new mothers. Those benefits disappeared, however, when the state healthcare system began failing under the “Arduous March” during the Kim Jong Il era. 

“In some big city hospitals like Pyongyang Maternity Hospital, they provide you seaweed soup when you have a child,” he said. “Besides that, there are no other state benefits.

“To the contrary, you have to treat the medical staff when you give birth,” he added. “Some locals bribe the doctors with money to handle their childbirths well.”

In particular, a growing number of people are avoiding marriage altogether due to economic insecurity.

“There’s a popular expression that a woman begins a life of forced labor the moment she gets married,” said the source. “That’s how dim a view women take of marriage.

“They are avoiding marriage due to economic difficulties,” he continued, adding, “The childbirth and marriage problems have worsened due to COVID-19 pandemic.”

Meanwhile, North Korea is banning doctors from providing birth control or performing abortions to prevent the birthrate from falling. However, locals are still using birth control and getting abortions in secret.

“Most adult women use vaginal rings,” said the source, referring to the birth control device. “In particular, most parents make their daughters use them after they graduate from senior middle school [the equivalent of South Korean high school].

“Legally, abortions are banned, but most doctors secretly perform them for money,” he continued. “If prosecutors uncover an abortion during an investigation, [the doctor] gets punished with forced labor.

“Ob/gyn doctors make money secretly providing vaginal rings or performing abortions,” he further explained, adding, “And there is always at least some work for them to do.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.