BBG Watch Commentary
North Korea has a ruthless political and economic system called totalitarian communism and a total dictatorship based on the cult of personality, but a new Voice of America (VOA) report, “North Korea’s Economy Shows Signs of Improving | VOA News,” quotes a professor of North Korea history at a university in Seoul as saying that “the [North Korean] economic system now is a ruthless type of capitalism, rife with exploitation, but it is working.” This kind of mind-boggling news one can get these days on the U.S. taxpayer-funded Voice of America. It has become common to see VOA news reports that offer some correctly presented facts mixed with questionable claims and ultimately often confusing or misleading analysis for international audiences.
North Korean economic system is still very much a classic communist central command economy. It is nowhere near similar to the unbridled capitalism of the 19th century, China’s current capitalism, or any kind of capitalism, and it is definitely not working.
Anyone well familiar with the so-called “economic reforms” the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe under communism, where in the later period there was at least some limited political and economic freedom North Koreans can still only dream of, would know that those reforms attempting to introduce some elements of capitalism into centrally planned economies, as North Korea is apparently also doing, did not make much of a difference in the long run and did not save these countries from an eventual political and economic collapse. No one would have called those communist economies capitalism of any kind, ruthless or otherwise.
North Korea has a long way to go to even come close to those market reforms in the Warsaw Pact nations and the Soviet Union that never really worked and eventually failed. To refer to the North Korean economic system as “ruthless type of capitalism” that “is working” is baffling to say the least. VOA did not attempt to challenge or balance this highly questionable description and assessment of the North Korean economy or even to compare it with some of its own previous news reports.
VOA also did not define exactly what it means that that the economic system in North Korea “is working,” although the report said that “the country has experienced positive growth for the past three years.” VOA also reported that “the number of North Korean refugees entering South Korea dropped by more than 50 percent in 2009 (sic) to about 1,300 in 2014.” [This sentence in the VOA report needs editing.] At the same time, the VOA report said that increased border security and harsher punishments may be responsible for the drop in the number of refugees.
Perhaps the North Korean economy can be described as “working” if only 70 percent, or 18 million North Koreans, instead of 90 or more percent of the population, do not have a reliable supply of food? According to a recent United Nations report, 70 percent don’t.
VOA apparently lacks executives and editors with enough historical knowledge or willingness to check the VOA news website and be able to spot problems and ask questions. A former senior Voice of America correspondent commented recently that “given that the waves of retirements and buy-outs … have left VOA (and perhaps RFE [Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty]) without most if not all of the staff who experienced the Cold War … the loss of their institutional memory and leadership has left a gaping hole that will only grow larger.”
Voice of America under its current leadership simply can’t get its North Korean stories right. Only last month, another VOA (English) News report said that “floods, droughts and mismanagement have exacerbated the problem” of chronic food shortages in North Korea. This appears to be an accurate assessment but then the VOA report blamed North Korea’s economic problems on “mismanagement” (VOA News was quoting a United Nations official). Employing a euphemism rather than to blame communist dictatorship and communist economy was just as baffling as saying that North Korea’s economic system is now working under a ruthless capitalist model.
Even the political analysis in the VOA news report seems confusing and to some degree contradictory. VOA said in the lead sentence that “the reported purge of North Korea’s defense chief may point to instability within the Kim Jong Un regime,” but the second sentence says that “there have been no outward signs of instability in the Kim Jong Un regime.” The final paragraph quoted an expert in South Korea as saying that “apparent improved economic performance does not necessarily equate to increased stability within the Kim Jong Un regime. So something “may point to instability,” but “there have been no outward signs of instability,” “a ruthless type of capitalism, rife with exploitation … is working,” but “North Korea’s apparent improved economic performance does not necessarily equate to increased stability within the Kim Jong Un regime.” All in the same highly confusing VOA report.
VOA NEWS: “Although the reported purge of North Korea’s defense chief and other high ranking officials may point to instability within the Kim Jong Un regime, the country’s economy has shown signs of improving. Under Kim Jong Un, the country has seen lower numbers of defectors trying to escape to the more prosperous South.
In the wake of the reported execution of North Korea’s Armed Forces Minister Hyon Yong Chol and three other high-ranking officials, there have been no outward signs of instability in the Kim Jong Un regime.”
The latest VOA report quotes a professor at a South Korean university as saying that North Korea “is not on the verge of starvation or economic collapse.” Does this really mean that the economic system is working? According to a recent United Nations report, North Korea is on the verge of starvation. Perhaps the Voice of America should have talked to more experts.
In April, VOA News reported that according to the United Nations, “70 percent of the population, or 18 million North Koreans, do not have a reliable supply of food and lack nutritional diversity.” A U.N. report said that “nearly 2 million — mostly children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly — are in dire need of food assistance, and another 350,000 women and children need vaccines and health supplies.” VOA also reported last month that “malnutrition rates are high, with 27.9 percent of children under age 5 suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to a 2012 national nutrition survey quoted by the U.N.”
VOA News also reported in last month that the United Nations has launched “an appeal for $111 million to help a vast portion of North Korea’s population now facing a food crisis.”
According to the latest VOA News report, “although the reported purge of North Korea’s defense chief and other high ranking officials may point to instability within the Kim Jong Un regime, the country’s economy has shown signs of improving.”
Is there a food crisis in North Korea or not? Is the North Korean economy working or not? Can VOA post a news report with the headline that says “North Korea’s Economy Shows Signs of Improving” if nearly 2 million people “are in dire need of food assistance”?
In our view, quite a few VOA news reports in recent years cannot be described as fully balanced and comprehensive. They leave too many questions unanswered for international audiences and offer incomplete and sometimes misleading explanations. But the latest VOA reports about the North Korean economy are, however, still a great improvement over a 2011, a VOA video news report from North Korea and a VOA press release which showed well-stocked stores and well-fed children in North Korean capital Pyongyang but did not show any images or videos of starving North Koreans, which other Western news organizations have obtained and posted online. According to the 2011 VOA press release, a Voice of America correspondent described Pyongyang in his report as a city as “vibrant and busy with activity.”