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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

A new estimate of famine deaths

by | December 11th, 2012 | 06:05 am
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The release of the 2008 North Korean census has generated a “second wave” of famine death estimates.  In previous posts I reviewed work by Dan Goodkind, Loraine West, and Peter Johnson at the U.S. Census Bureau, the South Korean government, and Thomas Spoorenberg and Daniel Schwekendiek. All three studies tended to generate slightly lower estimates of famine deaths than those produced contemporaneously or in the famine’s immediate aftermath.  A key question in these studies that run directly off of North Korean official data is how to assess the veracity of the census numbers given North Korea’s history of inaccuracy, if not outright falsification, of these statistics.

Lee Suk of the KDI, who first estimated the famine toll in his dissertation a decade ago, has turned his more skeptical eye to the data. Like Spoorenberg and Schwekendiek and the other studies, Lee confronts the problem that if one only has observations for 1993 and 2008 one has to make assumptions as to how one parcels out excess deaths over this period. He chooses to treat the entire period as a “slow motion” famine occuring over the whole 15 year sample period, so that his estimates of excess deaths are not directly comparable to the earlier work (including his own) that examined to a more limited period in the 1990s.

Lee observed that problems of counting males (first identified by Eberstadt and Banister as the “missing male” problem associated with military service) creates anomalies in the apparent cohort-specific survival rates in the two censuses. Lee’s response is to focus on females, where this distortion is likely to be less severe. He calculates excess deaths 1993-2008 among the female population who were over 30 years old in 1993, and finds that deaths were 196,307 higher than expected, or 3.8 percent. If one extrapolates this percentage to the entire population one generates a baseline estimate of 815,000 excess deaths. Lee produces other variants on this calculation which produce estimates ranging from 506,000 to 1,125,000.

Whatever the specific figure, Lee’s report is a useful reminder that North Korean population statistics should not be taken at face value, and that taking such complications into account can have quantitative implications.