There are many obstacles that complicate economic growth in North Korea. Some of these are, of course, directly related to the institutions and policies of the government itself, while others are quite objective in nature (geography, weather, natural resources available, etc. dictate the situation) while the rest lie somewhere in between, having been partially created by a mixture of the two.
The sorry state of North Korea’s infrastructure is a good example of the latter group.
Generally speaking, Leninist command economies paid little attention to infrastructure. It was believed that factories and industrial equipment were vastly more important than roads, electricity, and phone lines. However, even against such a background, the situation in North Korea is somewhat unusual.
In 1945, when North Korea became independent, it was the most advanced industrial region in Asia (outside Japan, at least). Predictably, its infrastructure was among the best in the world. The Kim family regime, however, despite their obsession with heavy industry, neglected the state of transportation, communication, and electrical generation.
As a result, these vital industries have changed remarkably little since the 1940s.
It is worthy of notice that in the late 1940s Soviet engineers were specifically dispatched to North Korea’s Sup’ung power station in order to study the Japanese-made generators installed there. These generators were reverse engineered, and for a long time were reproduced in Leningrad.
It is not surprising that when the DPRK, North Korea’s official name, was officially established in 1948, a depiction of a power station was a central part in its coat of arms.
A distant memory
This is now a distant memory. Satellite imagery nowadays reveals a dark North Korea surrounded by vibrantly lit South Korea and China (a widely seen image on the Internet.) Frequent blackouts are a regular part of North Korean life.
Transportation is hardly better. The total length of all paved roads in North Korea outside major metropolitan centers is just under 800 km. To put this in perspective, South Korea, with a slightly smaller land area, has at present about 80,000 km of paved road outside the major metro areas.
North Korean railway technology has remained virtually unchanged since the 1930s. Until just a few years ago, one could frequently encounter a Japanese steam engine locomotive manufactured in the 1930s but still puffing along at a North Korean railway station. A Chinese-based tourist company even sold travel packages to railway history buffs willing to make the long trek into the North in order to see the last functional 1930’s era locomotive.
This is not the case anymore, but even the best North Korean railways rarely exceed speeds of 50km an hour while most branch lines are limited to 15-20 km an hour.
Unfortunately, these problems are unlikely to be solved by North Korea on its own. High-speed railways and roads cost billions to build. Further complicating things, the payoff is long-term, and is thus not always attractive for local entrepreneurs looking for a quick buck.
In a country like North Korea, one may expect foreign investors to come in and do the job, since the amount of capital needed cannot be realistically found within the country itself. This is, however, unlikely for two reasons.
First, the domestic nuclear program tends to scare investors away. They don’t want to become targets of international sanctions, and they don’t want to invest money in a potentially unstable region.
Second, the North Korean government itself is not known for its constructive attitude towards investors, to put it mildly. The best example is the sorry fate of Egyptian telecom company Orascom, which built North Korea’s first mobile telecommunications network. The project was a success and drew much international attention and praise. However, Orascom quickly found it would not be allowed to remit any of the funds from the North back to Egypt.
So far, the North Korean government remains rather indifferent to the country’s infrastructure, which is seen as inferior to “real” industries. To the extent they care about infrastructure issues at all, the top North Korean economic managers tend to pin their hope on massive mobilization campaigns.
In other words, they believe they can order local housewives to come out and, for a few weeks, participate in unpaid labor of countryside roads—or alternatively, mobilize soldiers to lay railway tracks.
Frankly speaking, this solution looks attractive to rather unsophisticated minds, since road building at the first glance does not appear to be a hi-tech activity, thus safely entrusted to housewives and/or malnourished soldiers.
However, modern railways, or even modern highways, are far beyond the capacities of such labor forces. Such undertakings require highly skilled, specialized labor, and advanced equipment. This does not seem to be understood by DPRK decision makers. Infrastructure development is still largely left to housewives and soldiers to deal with.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.