The delicate frame of Kim Yong-suk, a native of Pyongyang, stands at 4 feet 9 inches tall. She is North Korea’s greatest figure skater; her unfulfilled potential provides a rare individual account of life in the world’s most isolated nation-state. Despite triumphing six times in the North Korean Championships, her principle international accolades include a 4th place finish in the 2003 Asian Winter Games and a 27th position in the 2006 Winter Olympics, where she finished almost 25 points behind US skating champion, Sasha Cohen.
Blessed with natural talent but lacking choreography and physical strength, Kim was unable to compete with her rivals. This was presumably amplified by the gloomy aftermath of sporting failure. While successful athletes may receive cars, property and much sought-after membership of the Korean Workers’ Party, Reuters reported in 2012 that unsuccessful Olympians are propelled into gruelling manual labour. This accusation was, as ever, vehemently denied. Beyond the sporting world, malnutrition and ill health have debilitated the new generation of young adults in North Korea who, like Kim, will be unable to realise their full potential.
Following the division of Korea after World War Two, the North and South have experienced diametrically opposing trajectories. While South Korea is currently one of the world’s richest countries, boasting a faster economic ascent than China, faulty Communism, sluggish economic performance and relentless natural disasters have ensnared North Korea in its shadow. Indeed, the South maintains a per capita GDP that is roughly twelve times that of the North. Since the people of both countries are genetically indistinguishable, analysing them proves tragically fascinating.
One physical attribute perfectly demonstrates the conflicting trajectories: height. The 2003 statistics from the World Food Program and UNICEF revealed that 42 per cent of North Korean children are stunted. Studies by anthropologists on North Korean refugees show that pre-school children raised in North Korea are up to 13 centimetres shorter and 7 kilograms lighter than their South Korean counterparts. Finally, young North Korean adults tend to be 5.9 centimetres shorter if they are men and 6.6 centimetres shorter if women. For adult women the weight disparity is 9 kilograms.
It is the extremity of the height gap between the two Koreas that is novel. Indeed the difference between East and West Germans is thought to have been around 1 centimetre. Before partition North Korean adults were actually slightly taller; since 1945 the trend has been totally reversed.
Natural disasters are mostly to blame, yet Kim Jong-il’s unique brand of diplomacy discouraged pivotal international food aid. The recent history of North Korea is plagued with floods, storms, drought and tidal waves. Floods in the ’90s affected in excess of 8 million people and destroyed over 2 million tons of grain. A 1997 drought ruined around 1.6 million tons of corn and rice. The decade also saw persistent famine wipe out more than 2 million North Koreans. To further exacerbate the crisis, each 100,000 people shared a meagre 30 physicians, 11 nurses and 6 maternity assistants. These natural and man-made dynamics, accompanied by an over-reliance on herbal remedies, inflicted rampant respiratory problems, diarrhoea and skin diseases on North Korea’s youth.
Therefore enduring medicinal and food scarcity, natural disasters and an equally sickly economy have deteriorated the health of North Korean children. Their acute height discrepancies with genetically indistinguishable South Koreans, provide gloomy confirmation.
The potential for recovery is palpable considering the existence of a public food distribution system, tough sanctions against free-riding, universal healthcare and high literacy rates. Yet responses have been sluggish. Although only the loftiest North Korean soldiers fortify the demilitarized zone, the army was inevitably forced to lower its height requirement to less than 5 feet.
Like those of Kim Yong-suk, one of figure skating’s most self-effacing hopefuls, the capabilities of millions of North Korean children continue to be obstructed by ill health. Yet like Kim’s sporting setbacks, this bleak situation could be transformed with a boost in the country’s most important resource: food.