North Korea
Comment 1

Answer 2. Can you tell South and North Koreans apart?

South and North Korean soldiers depicted by Hankyung Daily.


Yes. First by their height (and physical build), then by their accent. Usually.

Many younger defectors become fluent in the South Korean accent (I’ve witnessed them quickly change back into North Korean with their friends, but I do this too when I meet my friends from Busan). But the height difference – harder to change.

One thing I noticed when meeting North Korea defectors was that the women were always wearing high heels. I didn’t initially give this much thought. “Well, they’re young women who grew up in or are currently living in South Korea, so of course they have to care about their looks”, was my logic. Heels are everyday wear in Seoul. The women were also very fashionable and wore impeccable makeup, so that ended there.

Then came a day when I was gathered to talk with four different defectors on the same day. And it hit me – they are wearing heels because they don’t want to be a head (or more) shorter than everyone else! Especially because there were North Americans and Europeans in that group as well.


And then I saw it. I thought the women were simply skinny, but they weren’t South Korean skinny – they build was just that small. The men – also much shorter than the average South Korean.


North Korean soldiers in heels

In 2010, South Koreans were the second tallest people in Asia, with youth (aged 19 to 24) standing at 174cm on average (The tallest being the Turks, at 176cm). Chinese and Japanese youth stood at 170cm and 172cm, respectively (Source: OECD data via Hankyung Daily, September 10th, 2010). On the other hand, the average North Korean youth came in at approx. 164cm, about the height of Indonesian and Filipino youth.A 2002 UN survey puts the height and weight difference between the two Koreas at 8 to 10cm and 10kg (Source: ibid).

The generational gap is highly visible (the survey focuses on men) based on data from 2002 (via Hankyung Daily, September 17th, 2010).

  • Males in their 40s: 167.9cm v. 165cm (difference: 2.9㎝)
  • Males between 25 and 29: 171.3cm v. 165.8cm(difference: 5.5㎝)
  • Males between 20 and 21: 170.8cm v. 164.9cm (difference: 5.9㎝)
  • Males at age 7: 122cm v. 109.3 (difference: 12.7cm) – this last data is from a 2009 research by D. Schwekendiek who is currently Associate Professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul
  • Average weight for men: 68.6kg v. 59.1kg (2003 govt. data v. 2002 research)
  • Average weight for women: 56.2 kg v. 51kg (2003 govt. data v. 2002 research)

The biggest issue is that the average height in North Korea is actual decreasing due to persistent malnutrition which peaked and leveled after 1995 (Great Famine and chronic flooding). The numbers have decreased, even compared to data from Colonial Japan, where on average northern Koreans measured 166cm and southern Koreans 162.5cm (via Joongang Daily’s 2006 article)


Totally not Photoshopped image of US, North and South Korean soldiers on the right.



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Internationally lost since 2000, Emily was born in Seoul, raised in India, and has been living and studying in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands since 2014. A translator and interpreter by profession, she enjoys talking and debating just about anything.

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