Are the North Koreans short?
I came home today too late for the start of the presidential debate. All because I had to go to the library to pick up a copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea which I need for my first lecture on Thursday (you’ll see why if you listen.. as I THINK there will be a podcast).
Anyway, when I walked in McCain and Obama were busy discussing whether, and under what preconditions, they would talk to heads of state of countries they didn’t like/rogue states/terrorists. North Korea seemed to be at issue. McCain was saying:
“By the way, North Korea, most repressive and brutal regime probably on Earth. The average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean, a huge gulag.”
I’m not quite sure what McCain means by a ‘gulag’ (‘gulf’ would have seemed a better word). But is it true that the North Koreans are three inches shorter than their peers in the South?
Well, now as of 2008, it is.
But only since the vast famine of the 1990s, which killed millions of North Koreans and stunted the growth of almost all those still under twenty or so. If you take the over-40 year old population, there is no difference between North and South Korea.
Sure, the dysfunction of the government and its uneasy relationship with the providers of aid was one reason for the severity of the famine – and the West’s lack of interest in intervention was, no doubt, another. But the idea that McCain is peddling -- that bad government leads to a short population -- is a strange and misleading version of (political) Darwinism.
Not to mention the fact that the Hispanic population of the United States measures in even shorter than the North Koreans.
Besides , you have to be very careful with historical arguments about height. We always like to think that our ancestors were shorter than we are. But we tend to forget that those apparently tiny suits of armour have lost their leather ‘expanders’. And, as I’ve said before on this blog, the evidence is that the ancient Pompeians were just as tall, if not taller than the modern Neapolitans.