How can a country as isolated and impoverished as North Korea survive in the 21st century?

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10 January
11:38
10 January
12:10

I think there’s a myth that isolated countries can’t survive. That simply isn’t true. A country can survive in isolation for a very long time. To keep your country going, essentially, you need basic economic support for your population, and you need external security. You get external security, as the North Koreans think they have, by frightening everybody away. The economy – although, compared to all its neighbours, North Korea is pitifully poor – is in better shape than it used to be, and that’s what most North Koreans tend to compare their lives to. 

The famine of the 1990s – the Arduous March, as the North Koreans call it – has scarred the popular consciousness. The food now may not be great, but the fact that it’s there at all is seen by many as a huge step forward. To keep the economy going, North Korea continues to need a lot of aid, which it gets almost entirely from China. As long as that relationship is kept intact, the present situation could go on for a while. 

"a cup of coffee, in terms of most Pyongyang wages, is not a casual purchase. It’s something you’d look forward to."

When you live in Pyongyang, you live in a city that is rich compared to the rest of North Korea. But compared to other Asian cities, Pyongyang is rather restrained. People live in very simple apartments. There are more cars on the street than there used to be, but it’s not a place where you expect big traffic jams. The shopping is very limited. But the outer elite these days can go out and have quite reasonable meals in quite reasonable restaurants, and there are coffee shops, but that’s a bit of a treat – a cup of coffee, in terms of most Pyongyang wages, is not a casual purchase. It’s something you’d look forward to. 

North Korea doesn’t make a whole lot. They build their own apartments, to a low standard – there was a scandal last year when an entire block just collapsed on its footprint, because someone had skimped on the materials. They make quite a lot of clothes – some of the clothes you buy that are labelled ‘Made In China’ are in fact made in North Korea for Chinese companies. So they can do textiles, but beyond that, the North Korean manufacturing base is very limited. 

There have been attempts to translate their engineering skills into a marketable car – I’ve seen a couple – but they do not appear on the streets of western cities. They’ve attempted occasionally to manufacture consumer knick-knacks, but they simply can’t compete with the skills elsewhere in the world. They don’t have the technical sophistication of Chinese companies, nor the marketing know-how of a lot of African or South-East Asian companies, so they’re really stuck. What they do, essentially, is sell raw materials, iron ore and coal in particular, mostly to China, and they use the money they get from that to import consumer goods – again, mostly Chinese. So China dominates the North Korean economy

"The isolation strategy depends heavily on people not realising how poor and how backward they are. Once they start to pick this up, people get restive."

I think it’s unlikely to survive indefinitely – but that isn’t because it’s impossible to live for a long time in an isolated state. It’s because the isolation is being whittled away, as more and more information gets into the DPRK. The isolation strategy depends heavily on people not realising how poor and how backward they are. Once they start to pick this up, people get restive. It seems to me likely that at some point, this is what will do for the regime. As for when that happens, we’re all guessing.

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