In the third year of the Kim Jong Un era, the DPRK’s domestic propaganda has been amplifying a recurring theme: scientific and technological innovation as a fast track to economic development.
The first visit marking Kim Jong Un’s reappearance after a long absence from public view was to one of the new residential complexes built for scientists, and a look at DPRK media reveals that innovation in IT and science is celebrated on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, the country’s economy is still in very poor shape, as progress in science and other fields seems more substantial to domestic media than to outside observers. It could be reasonable, therefore, for someone who has only of late started following North Korean affairs, to think that the DPRK did not pay enough attention to matters of scientific progress before the economic collapse of the early 1990s and that the country could be classified as a late starter in development terms.
But the opposite is true: A look at reports published by UN agencies (in particular the UN Development Programme and UNESCO) reveals that North Korea has actively fostered scientific progress since the 1970s.
Then, in the 1980s, North Korea opened the door to a certain degree of experimentation, allowing a significant number of state-supervised and private markets, the existence of which was acknowledged in UN reports.
What, then, has kept North Korea so far behind South Korea in development? Has the country learned too little and, if so, why? To answer these questions we could look at whether North Korea received enough educational assistance and if such assistance was what the country needed at the time.
The first problem finds an almost immediate and unequivocal answer in nearly all documented sources: the DPRK seems to have received a good deal of training and educational assistance well before the collapse of its economy.
For instance: between 1983 and 1989, a UNESCO-UNDP sponsored project provided a total budget of $377,967 (roughly equivalent to $1.1-1.2 million in current value) for “the strengthening of human and equipment resources of the Central Scientific and Technical Information Institute (CSTII) of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
The CSTII project was completed in October 1989, yielding mixed results. Foreign technicians and observers reported that while the country had some potential to develop, domestic factors were hindering its growth, both at the micro and macro level.
Other projects documented in UNESCO or other UN reports covered vocational schools, the agriculture sector, light industry and language schools.
Some of these documents are 25 years old, and yet one can find in them statements well-suited to describing some of the problems faced by international agencies currently at work in North Korea.
The difficulties mentioned by UN officials and technicians include, for instance, that “nationals who were awarded fellowships were not proficient enough in English, which caused serious problems of communication. Consultants and staff members also had the same communication problem throughout their stay in the country.”
And that’s not because North Koreans did not receive language training. Another major activity of UN educational programs, in fact, related to the teaching of foreign languages (mainly English, French, German and Spanish, but also Russian, Bulgarian and a few others) to North Korean officials, technicians and academics. Even the documents issued by the North Korean government on topics of scientific and economic development sounded quite proactive.
Another UNESCO-commissioned report shows that in 1980 North Korean President Kim Il Sung called for technological progress.
“It is important to introduce the research and development results into the production process of the country,” he said. “By establishing an appropriate national system for the collection of the results of research activities to be transferred to the production sector, and for prompt dissemination of scientific and technical information in an appropriate and selective way, we will be able to introduce valuable (scientific and technical) know-how into the production process in good time.”
‘The Great Leader called back youths fighting with rifles in their hands on the front and had them study at colleges or institutes’
However, statements like this were often counterbalanced with ideological statements, so that actual scientific progress could hardly be inferred from domestic reports.
For instance, a passage from another UNESCO-commissioned report on the development of science in Asia, dated 1985, presented a chapter on the DPRK which was entirely compiled by North Korean officials.
“The Great Leader called back youths fighting with rifles in their hands on the front and had them study at colleges or institutes,” it stated. “In April and June 1952 when he was so busy in commanding the front and the war, he personally visited many universities and colleges through the gun smoke, and instructed us one by one on the direction and methods of training cadres.”
One may be excused in thinking that North Korea did not take development seriously by producing these kind of reports. Equally dubious was the country’s own vision for the future and its economic forecasts for the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s.
North Korea’s program sounded nothing short of ambitious. The country had planned to produce “100 million kwh of electricity, 120 million tons of coal, 15 million tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of nonferrous metals, 20 million tons of cement, 7 million tons of chemical fertilizers, 1,500 million meters of fabrics, 5 million tons of sea foods, 15 million tons of grain…”
However, figures from the same period reveal how little North Korea has really grown since then. The same 1985 report in fact presents a GNP estimate (dated 1978) of $1,000 (annual, per capita). The use of GNP as an indicator was later dropped in favor of GDP, but figures remained quite stable for more than two decades. Currently, North Korea’s annual GDP is presumed to be around $1,800.
In the same document, South Korea’s GDP was estimated at about $1,300 per year, while in 2013 the country’s GDP has been recorded at $26,000. In other words, during the last 25 years, the South has grown 20-fold, while the North has not even doubled its figures.
How can we explain the gap, in terms of scientific development? The issue, according to Balazs Szalontai, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul is not a lack of intellectual capacity among North Koreans, who study abroad or receive foreign training.
A serious problem seems to be found in North Korean patterns of learning, which do not seem to have changed much from the times of spontaneous collaboration with communist countries, to the post-1995 period, when the DPRK was forced to request international and Western aid.
“Both the pre-1989 Hungarian diplomatic sources and the more recent experiences of Syracuse University – one of the few and most important U.S.-based academic partners of North Korean universities – confirm the exemplary diligence of North Korean students, and, occasionally, their creativity and inventiveness (which was crucial in IT projects),” he said. “The state’s own educational system was also fairly extensive and demanding, particularly in comparison with most Third World countries. And still, the actual results in production were far below this technical and intellectual capacity.”
‘The focus back then was to selectively absorb foreign knowledge, and to steer away from fundamental systemic changes’
Furthermore, Geoffrey See, CEO of Choson Exchange, said it was North Korea’s national priorities that produced very small results in comparison with the efforts poured into the training programs.
“We need to distinguish between the different kinds of programs,” he said. “Traditionally, North Koreans have been very sensitive towards programs that are seen to encourage economic or political ‘reform,’ hence most programs were in sciences, medicine, agriculture, languages and so on rather than economics, business or law. The focus back then was to selectively absorb foreign knowledge, and to steer away from fundamental systemic changes. I believe that this policy has changed somewhat in recent years, with a marginally more permissive learning environment today.”
North Korea’s lack of scientific progress can also be understood from a historical perspective. Szalontai said that, in fact, technicians, academics and party officials were seldom allowed to spread knowledge acquired abroad, as many technicians who received training elsewhere were forced to discontinue their studies, or treated with suspicion and given inferior positions for political reasons.
“This was most evident in both the massive post-1957 purge and the abrupt recalling of students from the Soviet bloc after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution,” he said. “The purges of 1967-69 seem to have similarly forced many students to discontinue their studies in the USSR. The breakdown of Soviet-DPRK relations in 1990-91 probably produced a similar effect, breaking the post-1984 trend of increasing the number of students sent to the USSR.”
Furthermore, Szalontai said the issue of allocating technical support between civil society and the military also played a crucial role in determining what sectors of the North Korean state would benefit from foreign knowledge, leaving others behind.
“From 1962 on, the very best technical experts, such as engineers, IT specialists and the like have been regularly siphoned off by the military establishment, and thus their knowledge could not make a contribution to the civilian sector,” he said. “They were used to design and build tunnels, fortifications, tanks, missiles, cyberwarfare facilities and so on. The KPA is a huge mass army with an ambition to move to high-tech in missiles and WMDs; this requires lots of technical experts. As early as the mid-1960s, the military build-up caused a shortage of technical experts in other sectors.”
Ultimately, in spite of all the assistance received for decades from communist allies and other sources, North Korea seems to have fallen off its planning capacity due to chronic mismanagement of human resources. Studies on North Korean school curricula prove that instruction was always subordinated to labor necessities, be it for mass mobilization campaign like the Chollima Movement or emergency situations such as the mid-1990s food and energy crisis.
‘If technical experts tried to argue that some plan was (unattainable) they were punished; if they failed to fulfill the unrealistic plan they were punished again’
“Economic planning was actually very haphazard; it often occurred that the abrupt interventions of the top leadership led to sudden transfers of labor (including technicians) and financial resources from one project or sector to another,” Szalontai said. “Plan targets were set by politicians with big ambitions and limited insight into actual capabilities, rather than by technical experts able to judge what one could or could not achieve within a specific time frame. If technical experts tried to argue that some plan was (unattainable) they were punished; if they failed to fulfill the unrealistic plan they were punished again.”
THE FUTURE OF DEVELOPMENT
It would be unfair, though, to say that the responsibility falls on North Korea alone. See points out that, while it is difficult to assess the exact scale of resources dedicated to economics, business and legal training, the total amount dedicated to this field has always been known to be modest, both in the past and today.
In the early to mid-2000s when outsiders, namely Europeans and South Koreans, were actually willing to sponsor programs such as these, See said, North Koreans “were still very suspicious of programs with such content, preferring instead to redirect them towards ‘safer’ fields such as medicine, IT or sciences (for example, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology).
“That seems to me the only recent period in which substantial effort was made to provide modest economics and business training, but had the bad luck to occur in a period when North Korea was pulling back from the modest economic changes in made earlier in that decade,” See said. The aid-opportunity cycle was at a mismatch, as funding only kicked in at the tail-end of the that relatively exciting phase of changes, and just as Premier Pak Pong Ju was removed from his position.”
What’s in store for North Korea’s development then? A balanced approach seems to be key; one that considers both the peculiarities of the North Korean system and the ultimate goals for realistic development. See argues that the design of training programs should differ based on the objectives sought.
“At one level, the aim of programs is meant to outline desirable and achievable states of being that North Koreans might not be aware of,” he said. “Part of building a coalition that can drive policy changes is a need for effective targeting of programs at the right individuals (people who influence policy), institution-building and effective mapping of the set of institutions that should be lobbied for a specific change.
“Traditional programs pick a field and assume that whomever the North Koreans sent would be relevant. Failing to adequately identify that mix of institutions for a program is a recipe for failure.”
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
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