FACT CHECK: Are North Koreans 3 Inches Shorter Than South Koreans?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Jane Harman, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center, said on “Fox News Sunday” that people in North Korea are 3 inches shorter than South Koreans.

Verdict: True

Studies find that North Koreans are 1 to 3 inches shorter than South Koreans, on average.

Fact Check:

President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12, but the Trump administration reportedly doubts the regime’s commitment to denuclearization. Harman said that a denuclearization agreement could lead to instability in the impoverished country.

“Once the people of North Korea understand that over 70 years, tens of thousands have been in gulags and they’ve been deprived of food – which is why they’re three inches shorter than South Koreans – in order to build this nuclear industry which just got given up,” Harman said Sunday. “I just don’t know how that’s going to go down.”

Pundits and politicians frequently mention a 3-inch height difference between North Koreans and South Koreans. Sen. John McCain noted the discrepancy during a 2008 presidential debate.

The reclusive regime does not release many reliable statistics about the health of its population, but average height can serve as an indicator of a society’s well-being. Several studies have found that North Koreans are about 1 to 3 inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts.

Some of the studies measure the height of North Korean refugees. The South Korean Center for Disease Control reported in 2006 that 20- to 39-year-old North Korean refugees were 7 centimeters, about 2.8 inches, shorter than South Koreans on average. Another study from 2004 found that young male North Korean refugees were about 2.3 inches shorter than those in South Korea and that the young women were about 2.6 inches shorter.

Non-refugee data shows a similar height gap. Daniel Jong Schwekendiek, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, analyzed heights of pre-school aged children using United Nations survey data collected in North Korea in 2002. He told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email that North Korean children were 3 to 8 centimeters, about 1.2 to 3.1 inches, shorter than those in South Korea on average. Some children were up to 13 centimeters, 5.1 inches, shorter.

Statistical data from North Korea is largely unavailable after 2009 due to the closing of international offices, but non-academic observations show the same height trend. Sportswriters in 2010 found that the average height of the North Korean World Cup soccer team was about 2 inches shorter than that of the South Korean team.

Genetic similarities in the two Koreas make height a particularly useful metric to measure the effects of different political systems on the populations.

“As the Korean peninsula has been a homogenous nation for centuries, differences in height are not likely to be attributed to genes,” Schwekendiek told TheDCNF. “Interestingly, North Koreans adults were slightly taller than South Koreans before the division of the Korean peninsula, further suggesting that differing political systems in the two Koreas have caused the shift.”

Experts blame malnutrition for North Koreans’ short stature. Chronic hunger stunts growth in children.

A particularly deadly famine struck North Korea in the 1990s, killing 2 million to 3 million people. The North Korean regime allegedly cut its military’s minimum height requirement from 145 centimeters to 142 centimeters (from about 4 feet 9 inches to 4 feet 8 inches) in 2012 as the children who endured the famine became military age, according to a report from Daily NK.

The country still suffers from food insecurity. The U.N. reported that malnourished North Koreans still get about 344 fewer calories per day than they need. The World Food Programme (WFP) says that 10.3 million people in the country are undernourished, and about a quarter of North Korean children in WFP nurseries suffer from stunted growth.

Last year, North Korea suffered its worst drought since 2001, prompting the U.N. to approve $6.3 million in aid to help it deal with food shortages.

Other physical statistics show the effects of malnutrition in the North. “Mid-upper arm circumference, a common anthropometric and nutritional indicator, of contemporary South Korean women was on average 2 to 4 centimeters [0.8 to 1.6 inches] larger than that of North Koreans,” Schwekendiek told TheDCNF. “Similarly, contemporary South Korean women were found to be 4 to 9 kilograms [8.8 to 19.8 pounds] heavier than their North Koreans peers.”

People in South Korea are continuing to get taller. South Korean women were nearly 8 inches taller on average in 2014 than they were in 1914.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter