Korea: March 9, 2004

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A decade of famine in North Korea, which has killed about ten percent of the population, has also stunted a generation. Until a few years ago, the North Korean army rejected any young man who was not at least five feet three inches tall. No more. Visitors note that more and more of the young soldiers they see appear to be the size of children (under five feet tall.) More worrisome to South Koreans, and something that is not discussed publicly, is the effect of malnutrition on IQ. It is known that children who suffer malnutrition when they are young, do less well in school and have more discipline problems. Some 500 North Korean children have made it to South Korea since the famine began, and they have had trouble in school. North Korean refugees who go to South Korean universities, drop out 80 percent of the time. Some of this poor academic performance can be attributed to the disruption, to the education system up north, by the famine. But the North Korean kids score lower on all sorts of tests. The South Korean government won't release statistics, but observers estimate that the Northern children born since the famine began a decade ago are three or more inches shorter than their counterparts down south. South Koreans fear that, when reunification comes, the northerners will feel inferior because of their shorter stature and weaker intellectual powers. As a result, the northerners will be less economically productive, which will require southerners to come up with more money to rebuild the north. The South Koreans are well aware of what happened in Germany after their reunification in the early 1990s. It cost West Germany over a trillion dollars, so far. The West Germans didn't know exactly what they were getting into. But the South Koreans do have a good idea of what they face, especially since North Koreans are much worse off than East Germans were. South Koreans won't admit it, but many wish the North Korean nightmare would just go away. But it won't. It just gets worse. And eventually South Korea will have to deal with it, and pay for it.

Not all North Korean children are stunted. Aid workers estimate that sixty percent of the children up north were severely malnourished (and stunted) at the height of the famine in the late 1990s. But since then, massive amounts of foreign food aid has reduced that to 40 percent. A major complaint of the foreign aid workers is that a lot of the food aid goes to the military, or is sold overseas to provide money to buy weapons and luxuries for the communist party elite. 

The military impact of the famine is harder to measure. Smaller, and less bright, soldiers will not be as effective on the battlefield. Most North Korean troops are infantry, trained to walk and run through the steep mountains and hills that form the border between the two Koreas. Perhaps the most significant military impact will be on morale. News of the outside world is reaching the north, where for decades most of the population was literally cut off from the outside world. One can imagine what the North Korean soldier will think, and do, when he finds that the South Koreans are all well fed giants.

 

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