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The Economy of North Korea

The North Korean electrical grid, as viewed by Google Earth From North Korea Economy Watch hide caption

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From North Korea Economy Watch

On today's podcast we're talking to Curtis Melvin about his excellent blog on North Korea's economy.

My first thought was, hunh, they have an economy? And, of course, they do. It's a strange one: an official, top-down Stalinist centrally controlled system alongside a chaotic, bottom-up and awfully meager market system.

Melvin created a great plug-in for Google Earth that identifies key features in North Korea. You can see the huge estates of the elite and the explosive growth of public markets. You can compare the nice neighborhoods in big cities to the near absence of development in the North East mountains.

He says you can actually get a really good sense of the tensions within North Korea from any computer with an internet connection.

Melvin has been a tourist to North Korea twice. But he says he's learned a lot from his home in Virginia by exploring Google Earth and YouTube.

Some basics: the farther a place is from Pyongyang, the more market activity is going on.

The road system seems to be almost entirely devoted to linking the elite neighborhoods in various cities. If you aren't an elite, you probably live on an unpaved road.

The border with China is shockingly porous, allowing a lot of black market smuggling of cell phones, video cameras, DVD players, etc.

One YouTube video was clearly shot secretly, the video tape is in a bag. The market is pretty primitive but, I have to say, more advanced than I expected. It's just people setting up simple stands under a roof selling food they made or raised like veggies and noodles and stuff. But I didn't expect it to be so formal: clear rows of stands, a roof. I thought it would just be a bunch of people standing in a field or something.

Melvin explains that even this basic market is pretty radical stuff. It means that North Koreans are able to earn their own living and sell their own wares at prices they determine (sometimes). It's a huge break from the strict Stalinist past.

He also says the North Korean regime has done a good job (not morally good, just effective) of preventing these new market players from immediately challenging their power. Basically, they set the system up so that the market folks benefit from the regime through corruption.

Listen later today.