DPRK scores last place in economic freedom (again)

Heritage 2007 Index of Economic Freedom

North Korea’s economy is 3% free, according to our 2007 assessment, which makes it the world’s least free economy, or 157th out of 157 countries. North Korea is ranked 30th out of 30 countries in the Asia–Pacific region, and its overall score is the lowest in the world.

North Korea does not score well in a single area of economic freedom, although it does score 10 percent in investment freedom and property rights. The opening of the Kaesong industrial venture in cooperation with South Korea has been a start in foreign investment.

Business freedom, investment freedom, trade freedom, financial freedom, freedom from corruption, and labor freedom are nonexistent. All aspects of business operations are totally controlled and dominated by the government. Normal foreign trade is almost zero. No courts are independent of political interference, and private property (particularly land) is strictly regulated by the state. Corruption is virtually immeasurable and, in the case of North Korea, hard to distinguish from necessity. Much of North Korea’s economy cannot be measured, and world bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are not permitted to gather information. Our policy is to give countries low marks for specific freedoms when it is country policy to restrict measurement of those freedoms.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has maintained its Communist system since its founding in 1948. A serious economic decline began in the early 1990s with the end of economic support from the Soviet Union and other Communist-bloc countries, including China. Floods and droughts all but destroyed the agricultural infrastructure and led to severe famine and dislocation of the population during the 1990s. South Korean and Chinese investments in the economy have alleviated dire conditions. The government continues to rely on counterfeiting foreign currency and sales of missiles for money. That and the nuclear ambitions and isolationism of Kim Jong Il reinforce North Korea’s status as the hermit kingdom.

Business Freedom – 0.0%
The state regulates the economy heavily through central planning. The economic reforms implemented in 2002 allegedly brought some changes at the enterprise and industrial level, but government regulations make the creation of any entrepreneurial activities virtually impossible. The overall freedom to start, operate, and close a business is extremely restricted by the national regulatory environment.

Trade Freedom – 0.0%
The government controls all imports and exports, and formal trade is minimal. Data on North Korean trade are limited and compiled from trading partners’ statistics. Most North Korean trade is de facto aid, mainly from North Korea’s two main trading partners, China and South Korea. Non-tariff barriers are significant. Inter-Korean trade remains constrained in scope by North Korea’s difficulties with implementing needed reform. Given the lack of necessary tariff data, a score of zero is assigned.

Fiscal Freedom – 0.0%
No data on income or corporate tax rates are available. Given the absence of published official macroeconomic data, such figures as are available with respect to North Korea’s government expenditures are highly suspect and outdated.

Freedom from Government – 0.0%
The government owns all property and sets production levels for most products, and state-owned industries account for nearly all GDP. The state directs all significant economic activity. The government implemented limited economic reforms, such as changes in foreign investment codes and restructuring in industry and management, in 2002.

Monetary Freedom – 0.0%
In July 2002, North Korea introduced price and wage reforms that consisted of reducing government subsidies and telling producers to charge prices that more closely reflect costs. However, without matching supply-side measures to boost output, the result of these measures has been rampant inflation for many staple goods. With the ongoing crisis in agriculture, the government has banned sales of grain at markets and returned to a rationing system. Given the lack of necessary inflation data, a score of zero is assigned.

Investment Freedom – 10.0%
North Korea does not welcome foreign investment. One attempt to open the economy to foreigners was its first special economic zone, located at Rajin-Sonbong in the northeast. However, Rajin-Sonbong is remote and still lacks basic infrastructure. Wage rates in the special zone are unrealistically high, as the state controls the labor supply and insists on taking its share. More recent special zones at Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong are more enticing. Aside from these few economic zones where investment is approved on a case-by-case basis, foreign investment is prohibited.

Financial Freedom – 0.0%
North Korea is a Communist command economy and lacks a private financial sector. The central bank also serves as a commercial bank with a network of local branches. The government provides most funding for industries and takes a percentage from enterprises. There is an increasing preference for foreign currency. Foreign aid agencies have set up microcredit schemes to lend to farmers and small businesses. A rumored overhaul of the financial system to permit firms to borrow from banks has not materialized. Because of debts dating back to the 1970s, most foreign banks will not consider entering North Korea. A South Korean bank has opened a branch in the Kaesong zone. The state holds a monopoly on insurance, and there are no equity markets.

Property Rights – 10.0%
Property rights are not guaranteed in North Korea. Almost all property belongs to the state, and the judiciary is not independent.

Freedom from Corruption – 10.0%
North Korea’s informal market is immense, especially in agricultural goods, as a result of famines and oppressive government policies. There is also an active informal market in currency and in trade with China.

Labor Freedom – 0.0%
The government controls and determines all wages. Since the 2002 economic reforms, factory managers have had more autonomy to set wages and offer incentives, but the labor market still operates under highly restrictive employment regulations that seriously hinder employment and productivity growth.


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