It’s difficult to imagine the leader of North Korea getting teary-eyed, but that’s precisely what happened this past Sunday during opening statements at the fifth annual National Mothers’ Meeting.
Kim Jong-un appeared to be dabbing away tears as he called on the crowd of thousands of North Korean women to have more children in an attempt to halt the falling birth rates.
In his speech, Kim makes it clear that the role of a mother is important in tackling social tasks for the country. “These tasks include bringing up their children so they will steadfastly carry forward our revolution,” he said.
He goes on to highlight the fact that women have to stop the decline of birth rates.
“Providing good child care and education are all the family affairs that we must solve together with our mothers,” Kim said at the meeting, the first to occur in 11 years.
Why all the fuss?
The total fertility rate, or the average number of children expected to be born to a woman, has been on a steady decrease in recent years in North Korea.
In 2022, the total fertility rate was reported at 1.79, down from 1.88 in 2014, according to South Korea’s government statistics agency. With these current rates, North Korea’s estimated 25.7 million people is projected to shrink to 23.7 million by 2070.
The Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute report from August details how birth control programs attempting to slow an increased postwar population were prominent during the 1970s-80s. On top of that, a famine in the mid-90s led to a major decline in total fertility rates. With these back-to-back events, it’s no wonder rates have been consistently low in recent years.
But universally, one idea rings true for any nation: raising kids is expensive. And for North Korean citizens, it might not be a viable option.
Using satellite imagery, the Borgen Project, an organization working to fight worldwide poverty, estimates that 60% of North Koreans live in poverty.
Contending food shortages and the continued consequences of the famine, citizens can barely afford a life for themselves. So, how can their political leaders expect them to take on the burden of multiple children?
This push for change from Kim instead rests on the country’s manual labor-based economy—a basis caused by heavy sanctions against the nation.
North Korea is hence, left with no choice but to push for increased population numbers to survive as a country.
The Hyundai Research Institute report highlights this concern,
“Given North Korea lacks resources and technological advancements, it could face difficulties to revive and develop its manufacturing industry if sufficient labor forces are not provided.”
The country introduced new benefits for families with three or more children to help resolve some of the glaring issues that come with increased family size. According to North Korean state media reports this year, these benefits include free housing, food, medicine, educational perks and more for families who meet requirements.
With his statement, Kim continues to propel the ideas of family and motherhood as a necessary entity for the country’s success.
The North Korean leader ends his speech with a strong appeal toward the women, calling them to complete their maternal duties for the nation.
“We believe that this Congress will be a groundbreaking opportunity for all mothers to understand their historical missions and revolutionary duties deeply,” Kim concludes.
But can a leader’s pleas trump the financials it takes to support a growing family? The answer to that dichotomous inquiry relies on how much authority Kim’s words truly have over the citizens of North Korea.