Kim Il-sung happened

DAISY CHANG

If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, you know how influential geography can be on the success or failure of a civilization. Honestly, I haven’t read the book myself, but I did read an article by Diamond summing up the whole book in three pages and, summing up three pages into three words, geography is destiny. He may not put it that strongly, but for example, looking at Europe, the similar climates stretching over the east-west axes facilitated human development whereas Africa and Latin America’s North-West axes hindered them. Other factors included proximity to coasts, domestication of animals, and the geographic susceptibility to disease. There were many other arguments, better explained and stated more clearly, but this is not a book review (but do go read it if you have the time and tell me about it).

With this in mind, let’s look at Botswana and her neighbor Zambia. They share a border, are geographically similar (both are landlocked and are similar sizes), and have similar cultures. The argument follows that their economies should be in similar states as well, but the 2008 GDP per capita for Botswana was $13,574 and Zambia’s was one tenth of that at $1,357. Again, looking at Costa Rica and Nicaragua who share borders and both touch the Pacific on the west and Caribbean on the east: $11,232 and $2,689respectively (one fourth of Costa Rica’s). The Dominican Republic, $8,125, and Haiti,$1,124 (one seventh). And perhaps the most powerful comparison of all: South Korea,$27,658, and North Korea, $1,800 (one fifteenth).

Granted, no one outside of the DPRK border actually knows the GDP per capita (and probably no one inside either), but the numbers are still unarguably powerful. South Korea has been a miracle story over the past few decades with annual GDP per capita growth rates averaging at 8.04% from 1980 to 2009—that means the average household income doubled every nine years. That’s from $2,634 to $27,168 in less than three decades (World Development Indicators). To add some perspective, if I continue working my campus library job with this sort of growth, I would go from making$8.00/hr to $82.35/hr.

Scratch that. To put more perspective into this, I would be working below minimum wage and my sister would be making that $82.35/hr. We would live next door to one another with our wealthy neighbors (let’s call them, say, Japan, China, Singapore, and Taiwan) and my sister would fit right in. Potentially, I could join them but instead, I keep my door closed and I don’t.

Geographically, North Korea has everything South Korea has: similar physical size, easily accessible ports, proximity to all the Asian tigers. It even shares a border with China and is part of the Trans Siberian Railway, neither of which is true for the South. If Diamond’s theory were correct, North Korea should be thriving. And here is where we come to that same dead end we always come to, where we conclude, “But it isn’t.”

If geography is destiny, fate, or even just influential to economy, what happened in North Korea? There are a lot of answers to this question, most commonly “Kim Il-sung happened” and then a lot of rude words describing the DPRK’s recent leadership. In my next article, we’ll delve a little deeper than just that as I explore why.

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