Changes in nutritional status among displaced North Korean children living in South Korea Annals of Human Biology

Annals of Human Biology

Child stunting is due to chronic undernutrition; particularly poor maternal and early childhood nutrition resulting in malnourishment during important developmental stages. Children exposed to these conditions early in life are stunted compared to peers who experience adequate nutrition during important developmental stages. It is well known that North Korea has experienced a series of food crises over the past 3 decades and data from the DPRK CBS (Central Bureau of Statistics) show that in 2010 around 32% of North Korean children were stunted.  In contrast to this, South Korea is a food affluent environment which has undergone rapid globalisation.

Having access to data from populations of North Korea and South Korea provides scientists with a unique opportunity to research dietary transition and its effects on nutritional status.  The two populations have the same genetic backgrounds and there is no immigration in North Korea, while in South Korea immigration is very low; in 2012 only 3% of the population consisted of foreign residents.  Therefore any differences in growth and anthropometry are likely due to differences in environmental conditions.

In this AHB study by Lee et al., children from North Korea who relocated to South Korea were selected and their age ranges chosen to include children who were born in North Korea during the severe food shortages experienced during the 1990s.  Displacement data for the children from North Korea were obtained along with their anthropometric measures upon entry to South Korea.  The average length of residency in South Korea for the North Korean children was around 2 years.  These North Korean children were compared with a random sample of children from South Korea who were matched for sex and age. 

Lee et al. are able to show that on entry to South Korea children from the North were about 7cm smaller than age matched peers but after 2 years in South Korea, the height and weight of North Korean children was significantly raised, although they are still shorter than their South Korean peers who have not experienced any degree of food insecurity by about 3cm.  Therefore whilst the nutritional status of the North Korean children is clearly improved after a period of time residing in South Korea, physically they still bear the effects of the childhood undernutrition and it is possible the effects of this will remain into adulthood.