A new study has shown that North Koreans are on average three inches shorter than South Koreans. The study attributes the observation to stunted growth from years of famine and poor diet.
Several claims have been made that there is a marked difference in height between North and South Koreans. In an article in Slate titled, "A Nation of Racist Dwarfs," the late Christopher Hitchens had put the difference in height between North and South Koreans at about six inches. Daily Mail reports Senator McCain referred to a claim that the gap was three inches during a 2008 presidential debate.
A new study by Professor Daniel Schwekendiek of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul has presented statistical evidence to show there is difference in height between North and South Koreans. The professor derived his data from measurements of North Korean refugees as they crossed the border into South Korea. According to the study, North Korean men are on average between 1.2 to 3.1 inches shorter than South Korean men. The study claims that a significant difference is also seen among children. The study said: "The height gap is approximately 1.6in among pre-school boys and 1.2in among pre-school girls, and again the South Koreans would be taller. If you look at older Koreans, we now see a situation where the average South Korean woman is approaching the height of the average North Korean man. This is to my knowledge a unique situation, where women become taller than men."
Daily Mail reports Schwekendiek said the difference in height the statistical data reveals could not be due to genetic factors because the two populations are genetically the same. Schwekendiek said: "We're dealing with the Korean people, and Korea is interesting because it basically hasn't experienced any immigration for many centuries."
BBC reports Schwekendiek rejects arguments that refugees forced to cross into South Korea are the most disadvantaged and therefore most likely to be stunted. According to Schwekendiek, the refugees "come from all social strata and from all regions."
Schwekendiek said he has also studied data collected by the North Korean government and by international organizations working in North Korea. He claims that the data supports his findings.
The study blames the stunting observed among North Koreans on famines caused by poor harvest, inefficiency of the state-run agricultural system using outdated technology since former leader Kim Sung-Il died in 1994. BBC comments: "There has been no industrialization so there are nearly medieval agricultural conditions, very low in fertilizer and very low productivity because people are so weak. It's a vicious circle and no trade with the outside world to bring food in."
Reports say up to 1.5 million people have died in the famine that began in the early 1990s. Experts say that the diet of the average North Korean is very poor being low in animal products and quality grain. The diet, experts say, is lacking in fruits.
BBC adds: "So their calorie intake must be very low and it's no surprise they have stunted growth. You don't see a fat North Korean except their leader."
Nutritionists say poor diet in early life leads to lifelong stunting. Martin Bloem, head of nutrition at the World Food Programme, said: "Food and what happens in the first two years of life is actually critical for people's height later."
The World Food Programme that has been providing food aid to the country since 1995, says: "One in every three children remains chronically malnourished or 'stunted.'"