DPRK not about to collapse

Newsweek has an interesting article which makes the case that the DPRK economy is not as bad as the public tends to think.  According to the article:

…North Korea isn’t broke—and its economy has been moving away from collapse in recent years-. The Hermit Kingdom may not be getting rich—the CIA estimates its GDP at roughly $40 billion, ranking 96th in the world. But it’s not failing either, and for the past decade, its economy has grown at an average rate of about 1.5 percent a year, according to South Korean statistics. While Seoul estimates that the North’s GDP shrank by 2.3 percent last year, some analysts say it actually expanded, arguing that South Korea’s recent figures on the North are deflated for political purposes.

To understand how the Dear Leader has managed this, you must first drop a few of the myths surrounding his country. First, the North Koreans haven’t been living in caves for the past two decades, nor is their economy de-industrializing, as is sometimes reported. Instead, with help from Beijing, Pyongyang has revamped its outdated infrastructure in recent years and repaired the mining facilities that were battered by massive floods during the mid-’90s. It now aims to shift from recovery to growth, with a focus on steel production, mining and light-industrial manufacturing.

Second, the North doesn’t have to rely on the black market to support itself. True, Pyongyang has sold missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, and annual revenue from such exports is roughly $100 million, but analysts say that other illicit activities like drug trafficking and counterfeiting add very little to that sum. According to a former U.S. diplomat in East Asia who asked not to be named discussing sensitive intelligence, during the Bush years Washington investigated the oft-heard counterfeiting accusations, and found that the notes in question had actually been produced privately by former Chinese military officials, in China. “The Treasury Department couldn’t find a single shred of hard evidence pointing to North Korean production of counterfeit money,” the American says.

The biggest myth is that North Korea remains isolated. Despite supposedly comprehensive sanctions, Pyongyang today has diplomatic and commercial relations with more than 150 countries, including most European Union members. North Korea trades its abundant gold reserves—estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 tons—in cities like London, Zurich and Hong Kong, and buys and sells shares on the New York Stock Exchange via a legitimate London-based brokerage firm it essentially owns. While there are no figures on the volume of such transactions, the former U.S. diplomat says that such activities are “a substantial source of hard currency for North Korea.” In recent years, European firms have also begun eyeing investment opportunities there; In 2004, the London-based energy firm Aminex signed a 20-year deal with Pyongyang for exclusive rights to explore on- and offshore oil-and-gas deposits. Other companies are looking for ways to exploit the North’s cheap labor supply, and while most of these deals have yet to take off for technical and political reasons, ties to the outside world are expanding. In 2008, the country’s overall trade rose 30 percent from the previous year, reaching a record $3.8 billion, including imports of $2.7 billion, according to Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

North Korea has proved adept at avoiding restrictions: when Tokyo slapped it with sanctions five years ago, Pyongyang simply reshuffled its deals, turning to the BRIC economies as well as South Korea and Singapore. Meanwhile, China now accounts for nearly three quarters of North Korea’s total trade, sending it crude oil, petroleum and manufactured goods in exchange for coal, steel and rare metals like tungsten and magnesite. The North’s natural resources have become a major growth engine: the Musan mine in the country’s northwest is now said to be one of the largest iron-ore fields in Asia, and could eventually yield 10 million tons of ore a year.

Finally, there’s the southern connection. Despite deteriorating relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, factories at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex are still operating at full gear, earning the North about $35 million annually—enough for eight or nine No-dong missiles. And that figure was projected (before the current crisis hit) to jump to $100 million by next year, says Lim Eul Chul of Seoul’s Kyungnam University.

I should point out that the CIA estimate of the DPRK’s GDP is among the highest.  Most other estimates are below $30 billion for 2008.

Read the full article here:
How Kim Affords His Nukes: The myth of a failing economy.
Newsweek
5/30/2009

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  • http://www.dprkstudies.org/ Richardson

    The author of the article does not understand North Korea, and did not do any real research; this is headline news level reporting.

    The article (1) vastly underestimates counterfi8eing revenues, (2) discounts Supernotes with obviously not research into the issue, (3) Seems to thing that elites training gold means the country isn’t isolated (if I lock my wife and child in the basement but continue to work, is my “family” isolated?).

    Newsweek must have cut back on fact checkers.