The biological standard of living in early South Korea: Physical wellbeing based on body mass indices, 1940s to 1950s


  • Daniel Schwekendiek Sungkyunkwan University
  • Heejin Park



Korea, Asia, human wellbeing, standard of living, economic history, anthropometry


This study fills a gap in the literature on the physical well-being of humans by employing BMI measurements of 89 Koreans measured from the early 1940s to mid-1950s. This period is of special historical concern since it coincides with the end of World War II, during which Japan utilized the Korean peninsula as a supply base for its war efforts, the disruptive American occupation period of Korea (1945-1948), the destructive Korean War (1950-1953), and the chaotic early years after the war. This study draws on records of employees from a large Korean bank. BMI values were lower in the latter period, indicating that living standards must have declined after the Korean War. While the war destroyed Korea’s economy, relief aid prevented a total collapse during war times. However, international massive grain programs such as PL 480 had not yet been implemented in the mid-1950s, leaving people vulnerable directly after the war. Anthropometric comparisons with historical populations in the United States as well as with pre-modern to contemporary Koreans are made in a latter section of this paper.  


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Author Biography

Daniel Schwekendiek, Sungkyunkwan University

- Associate Professor, Academy of East Asian Studies, Sungkyunkwan University

- Research Associate, Unit for Biocultural Variation and Obesity, University of Oxford