Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Will North Korea ever emerge from the darkness?

A couple of years ago, when discussing energy consumption patterns, I showed the class the widely discussed image in which North Korea looks completely dark, to the north of South Korea.  It was one of those images that was worth more than a few thousand words.

More recently, I had students read this essay.  When it came to discussing it in class, a couple of students jumped in right away with the 1984 comparisons.  I can still remember "J" remarking that he always thought 1984 was fictional, and never, ever imagined that it could be a reality.

What a messed up situation there!  The economic effect alone is staggering:
Back in 1970, the two countries were roughly comparable — in fact, AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt argues that, at the time of Mao Zedong’s death, North Korea’s workers were more productive and better educated than China’s. But, as you can see from the graph below, North and South Korea’s economies massively diverged around 1976, as North Korea’s rigid central-planning economy failed to keep up:

Data from the Historical Statistics for the World Economy.

During the early 1970s, North Korea’s economy stagnated, with GDP per capita flatlining until Kim Il Sung’s death. Then, in 1994, after Kim Jong Il took over, the economy started shrinking noticeably, per capita incomes fell, and the country became dependent on emergency U.N. food aid to stave off famines that had already killed as many as 3 million people. North Korea became, as Eberstadt puts it, “the world’s first and only industrialized economy to lose the capacity to feed itself.” (That said, there’s evidence that North Korea was growing weakly in the last few years of Kim Jong Il’s rule).
At the moment, North Korea’s per capita income is less than 5 percent of the South’s. As the Atlantic Council’s Peter Beck puts it, “Each year the dollar value of South Korea’s GDP expansion equals the entire North Korean economy.” 
And that is merely on the economic front.

I noted in an opinion piece a few years ago about a graduate school classmate, who was from South Korea.  When the war broke out, his parents apparently left their toddler daughter with the grandparents and fled south, with the idea that the war would end within a couple of weeks and they would all reunite.  The parents never saw their parents and the daughter since then.  In fact, they didn't even know whether the daughter was even alive. 

I am reminded of a student's remark in the context of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe because, I bet she would say the same here too: "if suicide bombers want to kill people, why don't they go near these dictators and blow themselves up? It will be a win-win-win situation."

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