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July 22, 1999

Death Rates Rise for North Korean Migrants

The mortality rate has risen and household size has diminished among North Korean migrant families from which at least one member has fled to China according to a recent study by relief experts at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Center for Refugee and Disaster Studies. Their study of the effects of North Korean food shortages on a sampling of migrant families appeared in the July 24, 1999 issue of The Lancet.

The study's goal was to gather information about household births, deaths, family size, migration patterns, and food sources in North Korea from migrants living at fifteen sites in China. The researchers looked at these trends for the time period from the middle of 1994 to the time when the migrant left for China and interviewed 440 North Koreans. Most of the migrants came from the province of North Hamkyong.

Among families which included a person who fled to China recently, the crude death rate rose from 28.9 per 1000 in 1995 to 56.0 per 1000 in 1997. The crude birth rate was 11 per 1000 and the average size of a household declined from 4.0 to 3.4. The migrants interviewed reported a total of 1782 people in households in July of 1994. By the end of 1997, that number had dropped to 1482 or from four members per household to approximately 3.4. Mean crude death rates in the migrant households were 42.8 per 1000 in 1995-97, nearly eight times more than the 5.5 per 1000 derived from the1993 census for North Korea. Children under the age of four had a death rate of 88.9 per 1000 and for migrants older than 65, the death rate was 131.8 per 1000.

Lead author Courtland Robinson, an Associate at the Center for Refugee and Disaster Studies, said, "The most significant findings were the rising mortality and declining household size among those households that included a migrant in China. We also asked respondents in China to tell us about the households of siblings that did not include a migrant and we found similar patterns of rising mortality and declining household size."

The study also found that, in 1994, more than 60% of the migrant households reported that government rations were their primary source of food. By 1998, however, only 6% said the government was their primary food source, while 40% of families were foraging for alternative foods (roots, berries, tree bark, seaweed, etc.) as their principal source of food.

The study was funded through grants from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Mercy Corps International.

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