“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable,” as Mark Twain once said.
It is well-known that North Korea for the last fifty or so years has not been forthcoming with its statistical data, and there have been many discussions about the reliability of the data that is being provided by the state in recent decades.
However, the trend is not new, and even between the 1950s-1960s, when the North Korean Central Bureau of Statistics published statistical yearbooks fairly regularly, the question arises: to what extent did the figures published in those yearbooks reflect the actual economic conditions in the country?
As Mark Twain aptly put it, statistics are malleable, and there are many ways in which they can be tweaked to present a more favorable picture without giving outright fictional figures. Here are some examples of how the North Korean statistical organs took advantage of that (and in many respects continue to do now).
Feeding the population and achieving self-sufficiency in food production has been one of the most pressing issues and the most important goals for North Korea since its early years. Grain, and especially rice was (and still is) the main source of calories for North Korea, making grain production the key indicator in agricultural development.
Providing the truth, but not the whole truth, is not enough to reflect the actual economic situation
According to official North Korean sources, grain production has been growing steadily and rapidly since the end of the Korean War, exceeding five million tons of grain by 1963.
The leadership viewed that figure as a watershed for achieving self-sufficiency in grain – and yet throughout these years, the DPRK continued to purchase grain from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe in quantities of 300 thousand to more than half a million tons.
The catch here is in what was counted in grain production. What the North Korean sources at the time failed to mention was that from the 1950s, starting around the years of the Five-Year Plan, the official statistics on grain also included potato and root vegetables in the proportion of 4:1, as well as fodder grain.
And from around the early 1960s rice, the main grain cultivation was being counted “on the vine,” before threshing, which added about 20-25 percent to the net weight.
As a result, the figures given in the official statistics were around one-fifth higher than the actual harvest, which by the mid-1960s barely exceeded 4 million tons of grain, instead of the more than five million claimed by the press and the yearbooks.
It must be said though that the North Koreans were at least somewhat consistent in their grain policy. If you were to come to a shop or a market in North Korea in the 1960s you wouldn’t have found any potato or root vegetables on sale there, since, as they were counted as grain, they were also included in the ban on grain trade (in place since 1957) and were thus banned from sale.
The ban was then lifted for sweet potato in the mid-1960s but stayed in place for ordinary potato.
The trend of including other things into goods counts for better statistics extended beyond just grain. The fishers’ cooperatives and brigades often added seaweed to the weight of caught fish and seafood, moreover counting it as it was and not dried, so that it would add more weight.
The North Korean coast has good resources for seaweed farming, and gathering it requires much less effort than fishing, so it was a reliable way to make up for insufficient catch, at least on paper. And then those figures went on to higher authorities, to be included in official reports.
Another indicator of agricultural development is the level of mechanization, meaning to what extent technology is integrated into the process of agricultural production.
Again, official statistics indicate that the number of tractors per jungbo (100 hectares) of cultivated land was growing steadily throughout the 1950s-1960s, reaching one tractor per jungbo by the mid-1960s.
One might suppose that having the data for cultivated land and the average number of tractors per unit of land would be enough to calculate how many machines were used in the agricultural sector.
Yet that is not the case, since the North Korean statistical organs counted not the actual number of tractors and agricultural machines but fifteen-horsepower units.
Given that the North Korean-made Chollima tractors had 25-40hp, and those imported from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were on average 30-40 hp, the real level of mechanization was at least two times lower than the one given on paper, but as for the actual figures, we might never know them.
But the statistical data was ‘pliable’ not only in areas related to agriculture but in industry as well. The industrial statistics often included defective low-quality produce in the count, which could not really be used for anything.
Thus, when the first Five-Year Plan (1957-1961) was declared completed two and a half years ahead of schedule based on industrial output, the reported results incorporated (like in the Chinese Great Leap Forward) a certain percentage of steel, iron, machines and other industrial goods that were indeed produced but could not in reality be used any further.
In 1958-1959, inspired by the rhetoric of the Chollima movement and the idea of a self-sufficient independent economy, the North Koreans attempted to reproduce the Soviet Vityaz tractors and GAZ automobiles by disassembling and copying them part-by-part, without any technical documentation. In 1959 about 100 tractors and 120 automobiles were produced this way.
Understandably, there were no two of a kind among these ‘machines,’ and even the North Koreans themselves had to admit that they were essentially useless, as the parts were not interchangeable and had to be made for each unit specifically. Yet nevertheless, those tractors and automobiles were still included in the results of the five-year plan.
“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”
Light industry was also not left out of this trend. In 1962, assistance from the PRC was put into operation at the Hyesan paper mill, with the intention of producing kraft paper and kraft sack paper and satisfying the domestic demand.
The statistical reports show a rapid increase in paper production starting from that year. But the quality of the paper produced at Hyesan was so low that it did not fit the technical requirements and could not be used, and thus despite putting the factory into operation North Korea still had to import 100 percent of the kraft paper it needed.
Yet at the same time, the produce of the Hyesan paper mill was also counted in the reports as paper produced in the country.
Statistical results were also played around with at higher levels. Despite having long-term (five-and seven-year) development plans, in the 1950s-1960s the North Korean economic development often deviated from them and went mostly by way of short-term one-year plans, the target figures for which, unlike the major plans, were often not published or disclosed to the general public.
This left an avenue for presenting a more favorable picture than in reality, by adjusting the goals to fit with the actual results when it became evident that the original figures would not be obtained.
Thus, for example, the WPK CC Plenum in December 1962 set the industrial growth target for 1963 at 11 percent, yet the targets for many heavy industry branches were not published, and neither were the results of the previous yearly plan.
Then in September 1963, the head of the State Planning Committee Jeong Jun-taek reported that the pace of development was higher than planned – but by then the planned growth had been lowered to 8 percent. The report was printed in the Rodong Sinmun,which made it appear as though passing the target was related to the original, and not the lowered, figures.
As such examples demonstrate, while North Korean official economic statistics from back in the 1950s-1960s were not completely divorced from reality, as it did not provide completely fictional data, one still cannot really rely on it, as the reality it presented was somewhat distorted.
It does bear a certain internal consistency, in that it is consistent with the way it treats, organizes and interprets the data. Yet as can be seen from the North Korean case, internal consistency does not equal statistical accuracy.
As official statistics from both recent years and the past have shown, providing the truth, but not the whole truth, is not enough to reflect the actual economic situation.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today
“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable,” as Mark Twain once said. It is well-known that North Korea for the last fifty or so years has not been forthcoming with its statistical data, and there have been many discussions about the reliability of the data that is being provided by the state in recent decades.However, the trend is not new, and even between the
Natalia Matveeva is a Ph.D. student at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), focusing on the economic and political development of North and South Korea in the late 1950s-early 1960.