Image: North Korea - Little Miss by Roman Harak on 2010-09-06 06:48:55
North Korean statistics paint a very peculiar picture: this country is very difficult to categorize indeed.
On the one hand, when it comes to its economy, it is clearly a very poor nation, below even the sorry level of the Third World. However, if you look at the social indicators, the country looks far more advanced, and could even be compared with a less successful developed nation.
Let’s start with the most basic macroeconomic indicator: per capita GDP level. Since the North Korean government ceased releasing statistics in the early 1960s, the exact level of this indicator is unknown, and available estimates vary greatly.
CIA analysts estimate North Korea’s per capita GDP (on a purchasing power parity – PPP – basis) at $1800, while the Hyundai Research Institute recent estimate is $1013 (in current U.S. dollars, though, not on a PPP basis).
At any rate, this level is very low: if we believe the CIA’s estimates, this puts North Korea in the same group as Haiti and Sierra Leone, while the Hyundai Research Institute sees North Korea as significantly poorer than Myanmar, one of the poorest on earth.
NOT THE FULL PICTURE?
However, if we look at social indicators we see a different picture. Life expectancy at birth in Haiti is 63.8 years, and in Myanmar it is 66.6 years. In North Korea, it is 70.4 years. The literacy rate in Myanmar is 93%, and in Haiti it is merely 61%: in North Korea it is very close to 100%.
On one hand, when it comes to its economy, North Korea can be seen as a very poor nation
The total fertility rate (the number of children per woman) in Myanmar and Haiti is 2.2 and 2.8, respectively, while in North Korea this figure is 1.96. In other words, North Korea looks significantly more advanced than countries with the same economic status.
This paradox is quite common for all communist regimes. While their economic performance tended to be unimpressive, to put it mildly, there were areas where they could produce better results than market societies with roughly the same income level.
One of the major advantages enjoyed by centrally planned economies is their ability to concentrate a large amount of resources in a small number of selected economic and technological tasks which the top leaders consider vital (predictably, nearly all such tasks happen to be related to military power).
This is how North Korea has managed to acquire nuclear weapons and is, seemingly, coming quite close to acquiring long-range ballistic missiles (including submarine-based).
This success should not surprise us: the Soviet Union could not produce a decent washing machine, but was the first country to send a manned spacecraft to the orbit.
However, there are also social areas where the communist regimes fared well: above all, education (especially, primary and secondary), and provision of basic medical care.
EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION
An emphasis on education was shared by nearly all communist regimes, with very few exceptions (in his later years, for example, Chairman Mao was not at all convinced of advantages of the education). One can argue that this devotion was driven by pragmatic considerations, by the need to have a skilled labor force, or to make people more exposed to government propaganda, but, as a citizen of a former communist country, I find such explanations somewhat simplistic.
This paradox is quite common for all communist regimes
It seems that most communist states kept some residual commitment to the Enlightenment dreams of communism’s founding father Karl Marx, who, being a quintessential 19th-century rationalist intellectual, held an unwavering belief in the power of Knowledge, Education, and Science.
Surprisingly, education, especially primary and secondary education, benefited from the authoritarian nature of these regimes as well. It is easy for a police state to make sure that all children of the right age are sent to school by their parents, if this is the official government requirement.
No parent wants to get in trouble over an issue the government sees as important, so nobody would dare to challenge the demand for schooling, citing the family need for child’s labor, or religious disagreement, or belief in the corrupting influence of science on girls’ virtues.
Incidentally, the near-universal spread of secondary education has some impact on girls who are more reluctant to have large traditional families. Indeed, the fertility rate and female education level are adversely related, and the high education level of North Korean women means, among other things, that they are less willing to have many children – hence, North Korea’s low and fast declining fertility rate.
It is also important that secondary schools are not that expensive: one needs a large building, a qualified teacher, some textbooks and a blackboard.
Admittedly, when it comes to the college-level education, communist regimes had far more mixed records: they had problems with equipment, and the spirit of free discussion, essential to a modern university, was not always acceptable to party ideologues. However, regarding the first years of schooling, the system worked: government commitment and might of its police did wonders, ushering children through the gates of schools.
IN GOOD HEALTH
The same is applicable to health care. North Korea, emulating the Soviet Union, created a model of medical service which was quite different from what the majority of our readers are used to. In the West, as well as in countries which follow the Western model, doctors are well-trained and extremely well-paid professionals, and their job is one of the most prestigious in the country. In North Korea, doctors are merely holders of rather unremarkable white-collar jobs, with average pay and limited prestige – something like a junior bank manager or secondary school teacher.
This attitude might appear strange and somewhat humiliating, but it reflects a major part of the North Korean (or, to be more precise, Soviet) health care system: the emphasis is on quantity, not quality. As of 2003, North Korea had 32.9 physicians per 10,000 people, ranked between Sweden and the Netherlands – countries with some of the world’s best healthcare systems.
One can argue that a North Korean doctor, poorly trained and poorly equipped, is no match for his (or, since the medical profession is feminized in North Korea, ‘her’) Swedish colleague.
North Korean doctors are hardly capable of conducting brain surgery, but they are perfectly capable of administering antibiotics and fixing the broken bones of construction workers and tractor drivers. And the remarkable cheapness of their labor allows the government to place them within an easy reach of the majority of people.
BENEFITS OF CONTROL
There is another reason behind the rather high life expectancy in North Korea: being a police state, it can enforce prophylactics with an efficiency a less organized or more liberal country could only dream of. If the government believes that certain vaccinations should be made obligatory and administered to all kids of certain age, few people would dare to raise any objection.
If citizens are ordered to have a chest X-ray, or some other simple medical check, they do it if their employers and authorities are keeping them under control. Thus, North Korea has an unusually high – for such a poor place, that is – level of vaccination, and this, predictably, has its influence on the general health of population. This abundance of cheap doctors works.
Once again, such a model is not efficient when dealing with an aging population and complicated diseases. However, the North Korean population is not that old yet, and complicated conditions are treated only if they affect high-positioned individuals. Nonetheless, this model, like it or not, has some advantages for poorer countries.
North Korean statistics paint a very peculiar picture: this country is very difficult to categorize indeed. On the one hand, when it comes to its economy, it is clearly a very poor nation, below even the sorry level of the Third World. However, if you look at the social indicators, the country looks far more advanced, and could even be compared with a less successful developed nation.
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.