North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with his national treasures
When the demographics of East Asia hit the headlines, it’s often with a focus on the disastrously low fertility rate in South Korea or population collapse in Japan. China, with its rigid implementation of the one-child policy, also pops up as its own demographic crisis moves inexorably forward.
But there are areas that have a relatively higher fertility, at least by East Asian standards. Okinawa prefecture, the southernmost in the Japanese archipelago, and, surprisingly, North Korea are demographic outliers.
Let’s look first at Okinawa, where statistics are more readily available.
Okinawa did not become officially part of Japan until fairly recently. In the 19th Century it was called Ryukyu, a semi-independent kingdom under the protection of China’s vast imperial tributary system. Annexed in 1879 by the emerging Japanese empire, Okinawa has maintained a distinct identity.
The Ryukyu peoples of Okinawa are the most fertile in Japan and indeed in East Asia. Okinawa prefecture has the highest total fertility rate of all 47 Japanese prefectures. Its total fertility rate (TFR) was 1.94 in 2017, close to the replacement rate of 2.1. This is higher than Japan’s national average of 1.44 and double that of South Korea’s 0.98. Amazingly, Okinawa’s fertility rate has changed little since the 1990s and thus it is the only prefecture in Japan to see natural population growth — in a nation where deaths outnumber births by more than 400,000.
Professor Kayo Sawada of Okinawa International University believes that part of Okinawa’s distinctiveness can be attributed to its history, particularly its 27 years of US military rule after World War II. Between 1945 and 1972, Okinawa was under US military jurisdiction. One of the legacies of that period is that the vast majority of US military bases are in Okinawa even though it makes up only 1 percent of Japan’s landmass.
This has caused great resentment amongst the islanders towards the Americans. But it has also made them more fertile. Whilst Japan had a family planning program motivated partially by eugenics and promoted birth control and legalized abortion after World War II, Okinawa was ruled by a conservative America long before Roe v Wade. Abortion was illegal in the islands and no family planning programs were rolled out until very late in the American period.
Statistics corroborate this theory. Japan hit sub-replacement fertility in 1973, but Okinawans still had a TFR of 2.88 in 1975, three years after it was returned to Japan. Only around 1990 did Okinawa’s TFR dip below 2.1. It still has the highest fertility in East Asia.
In the long run this will influence regional politics. As Okinawans are going to remain fertile and maintain their population growth in the foreseeable future, their demands for greater autonomy and their opposition to the American military presence will strengthen. Okinawans will make up a larger proportion of Japan’s population as the rest of the country shrinks by half a million people annually. Tokyo will have to make concessions to the islanders, and will emulate Okinawa as it desperately tries to raise the national birthrate in the northern islands.
The other island of fertility in East Asia is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea. The DPRK has a better demographic profile than its southern cousin. According to 2014 data from the United Nations Population Fund, it has a TFR of 1.89, roughly the same as Okinawa, except the it has a population of 25 million compared to Okinawa’s 1.4 million. And it is a rogue state armed with nuclear missiles.
South Korea’s birth rate collapse has continued despite trillions of Won invested by successive governments over the past decade. North Korea’s younger and more fertile population must delight its ruling elite.
Both Koreas promoted family planning and population control after the Korean War. South Korea, with a population size double that of North Korea’s but living on less land, pursued its policy more vigorously. It encouraged sterilization. North Korea abandoned population control after the 1980s. Especially since the 1990s famine, the government has actively encouraged births because its leaders realized they needed more manpower than South Korea to maintain their enormous military.
In 2015 Radio Free Asia, a US government-funded media outlet, reported that the North had banned contraceptives and prohibited abortion and that medical personnel who did abortions would be punished harshly. “Punishments for those who perform illegal abortions and use contraceptive devices are already in place, but this new policy bans all kinds of abortions and birth control procedures, including even those performed at hospitals,” a source told RFA.
Defectors report that contraband contraceptives are amongst the most prized gifts. The 2015 decree is a sign that the government is alarmed by the drop in the TFR – even though it is proceeding at much slower pace than the South’s, with its rapidly ageing population.
Notwithstanding, North Korea’s TFR is still below replacement level and demographers expect that its population will start to shrink by 2044. But the South’s population will begin to contract in about 2024. North Korea’s population will also shrink at a much lower rate.
Even though its population is currently double the population of North Korea, South Korea has about the same number of births. The imminent contraction will greatly hamper the South’s ability to field a large army. South Korea’s economy will also be burdened by its ageing population and its pension system will be under great strain.
All of this means that, at least for the next few decades, the dynasty in the North will have some political leverage thanks to its stronger population growth. South Korea’s desire for reunification is bound to strengthen as it seeks economic relief by access to the DPRK’s much cheaper and more abundant labour.
Isolation has shielded Okinawa and North Korea from the chill winds of demographic winter, although their fertility is still much lower than the world average. As a whole, East Asia’s demographic future remains bleak, but the experience of these two regions shows that relatively strong population growth gives political and economic leverage. As always, demography is destiny.
William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis and he also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.