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by inoljt

What Foreign Language Do North Koreans Learn? English!

10:34 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

By: inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

North Korea has been in the news in the past few days and weeks. Most of the attention has been negative; tensions have risen between North Korea and the United States. Not that this is new. The two countries have had bad relations – to say the least – for many decades now.

Coincidentally, just today I was watching a BBC documentary on life in North Korea.  The documentary is very good. It shows that North Koreans are just humans as well with dreams like the rest of us. On the other hand, there is something strange and broken about the society in the film.

Anyways, skip to 5:04.

It’s an English class, in North Korea! The middle-school children are learning English as their main foreign language.

This was truly shocking to me. English classes in North Korea! The concept is mind-blowing. One would think for sure that the main foreign language taught in North Korea would be Russian or Chinese. But nope, it’s English, the language of the imperialists. Because “foreign language is a weapon for the life and struggle.”

Apparently the children of the elite speak English in North Korea. For instance, the granddaughter of the chairman of North Korea’s parliament is apparently “learning English from British native speakers.” The United Kingdom has a British Council which sends a few English teachers to North Korea. It’s said that Kim Jong-Il once told Madeleine Albright about his desire “to invite Korean Americans to teach English to North Korean students.”

It’s also interesting listening to the lesson itself and the quality of the English being spoken. I had a hard time understanding what the announcers were saying; I got a bit more on the second pass. The man seemed to be a bit worse. The students spoke very quickly, and about half of it was comprehensible.

The teacher, on the other hand, spoke very very good English. She had a British(?) accent. It’s pretty amazing that she learned English in North Korea. I have no idea how she managed this. There were several Americans who deserted to North Korea in the ’70s, but if she had learned from them she would have had an American accent. To gain such an accent, she must have been young when she learned; since the British Council’s endeavors are only a few years old, she couldn’t possibly have learned from them. Perhaps a boarding school in the United Kingdom?

It really speaks to the power of the Anglosphere that even the primary foreign language taught in North Korea is English. And the North Koreans are doing pretty good given the lack of native English speakers willing to work in the country; their English might actually be better than Japan’s. That’s pretty embarrassing for Japan.

All in all, this is probably a good thing for North Korea. It’s impossible to truly learn a language without learning the culture of the countries which speak that language. North Korea may believe that “foreign language is a weapon for the life and struggle,” but foreign language is also a conduit to cultural influence. If the North Korean elite learn English, they’ll be exposed to an incredibly potent firehose of information. Hopefully that will bring positive change to North Korea.

by inoljt

How North Korea Fell Behind South Korea, Part 2

12:05 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

This is the second part of two posts examining how North Korea fell behind South Korea. The previous part can be found here.

As the previous post found, for several decades North Korea kept up with South Korea. Then, during the mid-1970s, the country started falling behind. Ever since then the gap between the two countries has widened.

This post will explore several factors behind what caused North Korea to fall behind. There seem to be three main causes: the failed ideology of juche (self-reliance), the end of Soviet aid, and Kim Jong-Il’s incompetent rule.

Juche

If one looks at Gapminder’s graphic, North Korea and South Korea are neck-and-neck until the mid-1970s:

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Then North Korea falls behind:

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What caused this? Well, in 1972 North Korea adopted the ideology of juche into the constitution. Juche stands for self-reliance. There’s a lot of fancy Marxist philosophical complexity behind the idea, but in its essence it seems to be basically a fancy form of protectionism.

Juche was very harmful to the North Korean economy. Here is North Korea before the official adaptation of juche:

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As is evident, North Korea was progressing during this period. This is not to say that juche wasn’t part of the state’s ideology in these years. Rather, it seems to have played less of a role.

A description on this website provides a good description of the progress during this time:

The 1954-56 three year plan repaired the massive damage caused by the war and brought industrial production back to prewar levels. This was followed by the five- year plan of 1957-61 and the seven year plan of 1961-67. These plans brought about further growth in industrial production and substantial development of state infrastructure. By the 1960s North Korea was the second most industrialized nation in East Asia, trailing only Japan. While a number of internal limitations appeared, such as in the production of consumer goods, the national standard of living was considered by many third-world nations as an alternative to the capitalist model of development sponsored by the United States. Building upon the ruins left by the Korean War, the North Korean economy by the late 1960s provided its people with medical care, universal education, adequate caloric intake, and livable housing.

Here is what happens after the official adoption of juche:

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The website continues with a description of North Korea’s economic decline. I will quote the discussion in full because it’s quite comprehensive:

In the 1970s the expansion of North Korea’s economy, with the accompanying rise in living standards, came to an end and a few decades later went into reverse. A huge increase in the price of oil following the oil shock of 1974 hurt the economies of countries throughout the world, North Korea among them. North Korea has no oil of its own, and it had few export commodities of interest to the west. Compounding this was a decision to borrow foreign capital and invest simultaneously in the military and mining industries. North Korea’s desire to gain as much independence as it could from China and Russia prompted the expansion of its military power. They believed such expenditures could be covered by foreign borrowing and increased sales of its minerals in the international market. North Korea invested heavily in its mining industries and purchased a large quantity of extractive machinery and tools from abroad. However, soon after making these investments, the international prices of for many of these minerals fell, leaving North Korea with large debts and an inability to pay off the debts and provide a high level of social welfare to its people.

Adding to the above, the centrally planned economy, which emphasized heavy industry, had reached the limits of its productive potential in North Korea. Juche repeated demands that North Koreans learn to build and innovate domestically had run its course as had the ability of North Koreans to keep technological pace with other industrialized nations. By the mid to late-1970s some parts of the capitalist world, including South Korea, were advancing into new phases of technology and economic development and phasing out the coal-and-steel-based economies of the earlier period.

Kim ll-sung, trapped in an ideology that had once been highly successful, was unable to respond effectively to the challenge of an increasingly prosperous and well-armed South Korea, which undermined the legitimacy of his own regime. Having failed at their earlier attempt to turn to the market and conduct market-economy reforms such as those carried out in China by Deng Xiaoping, Kim opted for continued ideological purity. The DPRK by 1980 was faced with the choice of either repaying its international loans, or continuing its support of social welfare for its people. Given the ideals of Juche, North Korea chose to default on its loans, and by late 1980s its industrial output was declining.

One should note that the images above are models of North Korea’s economic path rather than based on North Korean statistics. Since North Korea doesn’t reveal its GDP, people have to make educated guesses. The people on Gapminder put North Korea as slightly wealthier than South Korea in 1944 and then modeled equal economic growth rates until the mid-1970s. At that point they put 0% GDP per capital growth to model North Korea’s stagnation during that period. Finally, they use slightly more accurate estimates after the fall of the Soviet Union to model North Korea’s famine and its most recent years.

Nevertheless, these models are based off what happened in real life. It’s undeniable that North Korea was stagnating during the late ’70s and ’80s. It’s also undeniable that there was a famine during the late ’90s. So while the graphic isn’t perfect, it’s a decent representation of reality.

The End of Soviet Aid

Juche seems to have been the main turning point in North Korean economic history. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that there are in fact two “parts” of North Korean economic decline. The first part, during the late ’70s and 80s, is stagnation – when North Korea doesn’t go forward but doesn’t go backwards. The second part starts in the ’90s, when North Korea actually starts going backwards.

What caused this?

Well, for all of its economic history North Korea depended extensively on communist aid. The Soviets were determined to prove that their system was superior and, like the Americans, gave lots of aid to their allies. Eventually it turned out that their system was in fact not superior, and by the end the Soviet Union couldn’t really afford to give out that aid. In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and all Soviet aid withdrew.

This hit North Korea hard:

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In fact, it eventually created a famine. This graphic shows North Korea after the fall of the Soviet Union. This is the second part of the country’s economic decline, when it actually starts going backwards. Soviet aid was particularly important because the Soviet Union sold North Korea oil at low prices. North Korea’s inefficient economy and agricultural system depended badly on petroleum, but it couldn’t afford to buy petroleum at market prices. When the Soviets stopped giving North Korea oil, North Korea collapsed.

Here’s a comparison with South Korea:

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Kim Jong-Il

Kim Jong-Il’s rule was incompetent and terrible for North Korea. Let’s take a look at North Korea under his father Kim Il-sung, until his death in 1994.

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We see progress throughout most of Kim Il-sung’s rule. During his final years, however, stagnation and finally decline sets in. Nevertheless, one could say that Kim Il-sung did good for North Korea.

What happens under Kim Jong-Il?

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Decline. Indeed, there’s a startling coincidence between Kim Jong-Il’s path to power and North Korea’s economic decline. Kim Jong-Il began taking power during the 1980s. During that time North Korea is well into stagnation. He takes over the armed forces in 1991. North Korea then begins going backwards. His father dies in 1994, leaving him in absolute control. North Korea then suffers a famine from 1994 to 1998.

Here’s North Korea and South Korea during Kim Jong-Il’s rule:

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Conclusion

It seems that there were three main events that caused North Korea’s economic decline: juche, the end of Soviet aid, and the incompetence of Kim Jong-Il. Juche turned economic growth into stagnation. The end of Soviet aid turned stagnation into absolute decline. This backwards path gained momentum as Kim Jong-Il gained power and ruled incompetently.

North Korea’s tale is fairly unique. It’s the story of a country which achieved a decent standard of living and high industrialization under communism. Then the strains of the system became apparent, such as the overreliance on petroleum, and it eventually collapsed. This is why one hears of a lot of North Korean factories that used to work but now don’t. One hopes that the new leader Kim Jong-un will turn things around for his people.

by inoljt

How North Korea Fell Behind South Korea, Part 1

5:37 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

This is the first part of two posts examining how North Korea fell behind South Korea. The second part can be found here.

The story of the two Koreas is a common American tale amongst the educated classes. As the fairy tale goes, once upon a time there was one Korea. By chance, one day this Korea was divided amongst the communists and the capitalists. The communist Korea fell into chaos and poverty. The capitalist Korea became rich and a democracy. Beware communism!

The general thrust of this tale is true. But there are some interesting complexities behind how North Korea and South Korea became the way that they are. After the Korean War, it wasn’t as if South Korea immediately began pulling ahead. For a long time it wasn’t obvious which Korea was doing better.

This is what happened:

The 1940s
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To write this analysis, I utilized the website Gapminder. Run by a Swedish professor, Gapminder shows graphics of different levels of every imaginable type of statistic amongst the world’s varying countries.

This is the most basic graph: it shows wealth and health in 1944. The y-axis is life expectancy. The left axis is income per person (in dollars adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity) put on a logarithmic scale (so that the difference between $1,000 and $2,000 is just as important as the difference between $10,000 and $20,000; this makes comparing things much easier). As one would expect, wealthier countries generally have higher life expectancies. The main exceptions, such as Germany, are busy fighting World War II.

This graph shows the state of the two Koreas in 1944. The South is relatively more populous and relatively poorer. One ought to note that at this time there were no good statistics; the figures here are estimates.

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Korea was divided in two in 1945. I started a year earlier, and this chart makes clear why. The destruction of World War II did quite a lot of damage to both countries. By 1950 they still hadn’t recovered, unlike much of Western Europe and Japan. Both countries were generally poorer than your typical country.

Then the Korean War started.
Read the rest of this entry →

by inoljt

The Gender Imbalance in People Fleeing North Korea

10:21 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

In the past decade an interesting phenomenon has occurred in South Korea: a small but steady flow of refugees from the northern end of the peninsula.

Here’s a graph:

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These numbers can be found at the website for the South Korean Ministry of Unification (an English version can be found here). Interestingly, Wikipedia has a graph of the number of refugees before 2001 – although it doesn’t state the source.

Why this has occurred would be the subject of a fascinating study. Life in North Korea is better than it was during the early 1990s, when the country suffered a famine. Yet the flow of refugees in the early 1990s was practically non-existent. Perhaps the fact that South Korea is now a First World country has something to do with it. Perhaps North Koreans just didn’t think about fleeing to South Korea until the first few people started doing it, and then started telling their family and friends back home. It’s also worth noting that South Korea isn’t the only place with North Korea refugees; China has about an equal or greater number.

As more North Korean refugees enter South Korea, their nature has changed drastically. Previously, the vast majority of refugees were male. Now, however, the vast majority of them are female:

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The female-male ratio of North Korean refugees increased steadily from 1998 to 2008, when there were 3.59 North Korean females for every North Korean male. Since then the ratio has fallen to about 2.40 females per male refugee, as of 2012.

Actually, the number of male North Korean defectors has basically remained unchanged throughout the past decade. It’s the number of female defectors which have skyrocketed.

Here’s a graph showing this in more detail:

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It’s a mystery why two to three North Korean females enter South Korea for every male North Korean. It’s equally a mystery how this gender imbalance affects the North Korean community in South Korea. Nobody, at least in the English-speaking world, is talking about this phenomenon or even aware of it. Migration does not necessarily have to be female-heavy; more often it’s the males who do the migrating. Mexican immigration to the United States, for instance, is tilted to the male side.

There’s one final interesting note. As of April 2012, the South Korean Ministry of Unification has indicated that 473 North Koreans renounced their country. If this rate of migration held up, by the end of the year only 1,419 North Koreans would defect by the end of 2012 – the lowest number since 2005. It’s worth noting that Kim Jong-un took power just at the end of 2011. Perhaps North Koreans are waiting to assess his rule rather than packing up and leaving.

P.S. A table of North Korean defectors in South Korea as of July 2012 can be found below:

Year Male Female Total Female Ratio
~1998 829 118 947 12%
~2001 563 480 1,043 46%
2002 506 632 1,138 56%
2003 469 812 1,281 63%
2004 626 1,268 1,894 67%
2005 423 960 1,383 69%
2006 509 1,509 2,018 75%
2007 570 1,974 2,544 78%
2008 612 2,197 2,809 78%
2009 666 2,261 2,927 77%
2010 579 1,800 2,379 76%
2011 798 1,908 2,706 71%
2012 (Provisional) 179 431 610 71%
Accumulated 7,347 16,358 23,705 69%

by inoljt

North Korea: A Very Rational Country

5:41 am in Uncategorized by inoljt

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It’s popular amongst the media to characterize North Korea as an irrational state run by a madman. North Korea continuously provokes the West, it is said, for no apparent reason. Proof that it’s an unpredictable, irrational actor that could do anything.

There are in fact very few states in history that could actually can be said to have behaved irrationally. I can only think of one state in the twentieth century which fits the description above. That was Germany just before and during the Second World War.

North Korea has in fact behaved quite rationally throughout the past few years. As a pariah state with only one ally, a very weak economy, and the enmity of the world’s superpower – the government of North Korea has to realize a way to protect itself. This is especially true given that said superpower has repeatedly used its military to strike down dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi who have earned its hostility.

Muammar Gaddafi is an extremely telling example. One unfortunate side-effect of the successful American intervention there is that the intervention has probably permanently ruined any possibility of North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. Just look at Muammar Gaddafi to see what happens when countries hostile to America give up their nuclear weapons. And in fact, North Korea has done just this. The rational, logical conclusion: the only sure deterrence is nuclear weapons, especially with Seoul and Tokyo as hostages located so conveniently close to North Korea.

The death of Kim Jong-il also explains a lot of North Korea’s recent aggressiveness during the past couple of years. North Korea’s leaders knew that Kim Jong-il’s health was in dire straits after his stroke, and that he was probably going to die very soon. They were thus preparing hastily for his succession. The new leader needed a military accomplishment to add to his belt before entering power. Thus the artillery bombardment of a South Korean island, repeated nuclear tests, and the sinking of a South Korean ship. These were designed to be just enough for the new leader to boast about without actually getting North Korea in any danger of being seriously attacked.

North Korea is not another Nazi Germany. It’s just a very weak, very poor country whose government is trying its best to survive against the might of the world’s superpower.

–inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

by inoljt

What Does China Think About North Korea’s Aggression?

3:20 pm in Uncategorized by inoljt

By: Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

In discussing how America should respond to the North Korean artillery attack on South Korea, almost all the discussion invariably turns to what China will do. The only ally of North Korea, China is the only nation in the world which can effectively pressure North Korea.

There has been quite a bit of debate about what China is thinking right now. Many hope that China will value its commercial ties to the West above its ties to North Korea. Others point out, less optimistically, that China wishes to preserve North Korea – if North Korea fell, millions of impoverished refugees would flood into the country. Moreover, a reunified Korea would be aligned with the West, constituting a threat next to China’s border.

All this is very much speculation and guesswork. What does China really think about the North Korean attack?

Actually, it is very easy to find out what China thinks. In fact, the Chinese government has an official press agency: Xinhua. Most people probably don’t know this, but Xinhua can be read for free online in English.

So what does China think about the North Korean attack?

Well, what better way to find out than to go read the Chinese government’s official newspaper!

Xinhua has several articles covering the incident. Unfortunately, most of the stuff is fairly boring – a simple recitation of facts. Unlike newspapers such as the Times, there is little editorializing and little insertion of opinion. In general, more room is given to what North Korea is saying without the obvious disbelief present in Western newspapers. The frame is: South Korea says this, North Korea says that, we don’t know who’s right other than there was artillery fired by both sides.

Perhaps the most revealing section was this quote:

Though Seoul blamed Pyongyang for military provocations, there is still no way to confirm who started the shelling attack.

A statement issued by the DPRK army accused South Korea of setting off the exchange of fire, saying dozens of shells from the south fell in the waters of DPRK around Yonphyong Islet at 1:00 o’clock p.m. local time Tuesday afternoon. Ensuing shellings were countering measures of the DPRK, it said.

Acknowledging it did fire shots in the area, South Korea denied any of the test shots fell in the DPRK territory.

The incident came as South Korea was engaged in a massive annual military exercises involving some 70,000 troops, launched Monday and scheduled to last through Nov. 30. Pyongyang has repeatedly warned against such military drills, usually joined by U.S. soldiers, describing them as provocations and real threats to its security.

So here one gets a pretty clear sense of what China might say: either we don’t know who really started it, or North Korea’s attack was provoked by South Korea.

This is not very comforting for the West. For multiple times North Korea has launched military aggressions that could be construed as acts of war. Reading Xinhua seems to indicate that China still is not ready to out-and-out criticize North Korea for these attacks. The North Korean artillery attacks have not been the first time North Korea has killed South Koreans without much response. As long as China’s stance remains unchanged, it will probably not be the last.

(A note: Reporting in China can often be quite different between English-language and Chinese-language news. English reports in China generally have more freedom and leeway, and therefore may be more critical. For comparison’s sake, several articles in Chinese – translated by google – can be found here and here. The translation is pretty bad, but there didn’t seem to be too much difference between what the Chinese version and English version articles were saying.)