Bryan Caplan  

How Bad is Life in North Korea?

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When a country forbids foreigners to freely wander around and talk to people, smart money says that something monstrous is going on. North Korea is probably now the world's clearest example. It's hard to confirm that the alleged horrors are going on, but the fact that we aren't allowed to confirm them is a damning confirmation.

But now the North Korean government has accidentally tipped its hand. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it is now earning a lot of hard currency by letting trusted citizens work abroad:

The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings... Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans working abroad in behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. In addition to the Czech Republic, North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, defectors say.

Almost the entire monthly salary of each of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, is deposited directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the workers only a fraction of the money.

[...]

...By the time all the deductions were made, each received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.

The key to this story is that despite everything, working abroad is considered a good deal. It's one of the few ways to save some money to help their families back home. And only the "most loyal" North Koreans qualify, with their families left behind as hostages:

By far the largest number of North Koreans working outside their country are in Russia, where they do mostly logging and construction in military-style camps run by the North Korean government. When the camps were set up in the early 1970s, the workers were North Korean prisoners. But as the North Korean economy disintegrated in the late 1980s, doing hard labor in Siberia came to be seen as a reward because at least it meant getting adequate food.

It follows, then, that as wretched as the lives of North Koreans working in Russia or the Czech Republic are, life in North Korea is far worse. In short, it's pretty bad even by the historical standards of other Communist regimes.

Well, at least this time, few Western journalists are pretending that hell on earth is utopia.


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/419
The author at asiapundit in a related article titled stalin's labor camps a workers' paradise writes:
    How bad are things in North Korea? Soviet dictator Josef Stalin used to send dissidents and political prisoners to slave labor camps in Siberia as punishment. Today, North Koreans think being sent to a slave labor camp in Siberia [Tracked on December 29, 2005 12:09 AM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
Frances writes:

Why isn't the European Human Rights Commission raising hell about this?

billy writes:

Over at the Antry Bear there would be three responses to this news. One, it's Bush and the republicans behind this. Two, at least they are not betaken advantage of by capitalist pigs. Three, they are doing it for the greater good of their country.

James writes:

The situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is probably one of the most miserable in the world. The relative lack of outrage compared to many other issues really is surprising. See also this collection of defector reports.

Over at the Antry Bear there would be three responses to this news.

Or, they'd steadfastly deny its existence.

eric writes:

see Ted Turner's interview with Wolf Blitzer on North Korea.

snippet:

Turner: "I am absolutely convinced that the North Koreans are absolutely sincere. There's really no reason -- no reason for them to cheat or do anything to violate this very forward agreement. I mean, I think we can put the North Korea and East Asia problems behind us and concentrate on Iran and Iraq, where, where we still have some ongoing difficulties."

Blitzer: "I've got to tell you, Ted, given the record of North Korea, especially the fact that, in the Clinton administration in '93-'94, they made a similar pledge, which they violated and they backed out of, I'm not exactly sure that I accept all your optimism."

Turner: "Well, you know, I was optimistic about the Cold War when I got to Russia, too. But I looked them right in the eyes. And they looked like they meant the truth. I mean, you know, just because somebody's done something wrong in the past doesn't mean they can't do right in the future or in the present. That happens all the, all the time."

Blitzer: "But this is one of the most despotic regimes and Kim Jong Il is one of the worst men on Earth. Isn't that a fair assessment?"

Turner: "Well, I didn't get, I didn't get to meet him, but he didn't look, in the pictures that I've seen of him on CNN, he didn't look too much different than most other people."

ugh.

Matt writes:

Diplomacy and sanctions seem to be the only viable options of tackling the North Korea issue.

Military intervention is difficult and expensive and thus it's unlikely that any major power, especially the US is willing to take even with UN approval.

Chris Bolts writes:

I have to give it to him; Kim Jong Il is a genius, even if he is the world's most oppressive dictator.

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