The economy is perhaps even worse

Since the pandemic, the North Korean economy has become a huge black box more than ever: the Pyongyang regime keeps key economic statistics at bay anyway, and international NGOs and Western embassies have left the country since Covid. Since then, the annual estimate of the South Korean central bank in Seoul, which released its latest data Wednesday morning, has become even more important. The indicators were more than depressing: North Korea’s gross domestic product contracted for the second consecutive year, albeit at a slower pace than in 2020.

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A look back: In the first year of the pandemic, the hermetically sealed country suffered its worst economic meltdown since the late 1990s at 4.5%. Finally, in 2021, despite a low comparative base, North Korea was unable to take the helm, falling by another 0.1%. At least forestry and agriculture have been able to recover somewhat thanks to relatively good weather conditions recently. All other sectors remain operational, especially industrial manufacturing and the services sector.

The only remaining economic partner is China

The misfortune is mainly related to the crown pandemic, which led to the complete sealing of national borders. Foreign trade is now a meager $ 710 million. After more than two years of isolation, Pyongyang briefly opened freight trains to China, the only remaining economic partner, in early 2021. But the border crossing was closed again in April – apparently for fear of cases of imported viruses.

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Paranoia is not entirely unfounded, after all, Corona in North Korea would hit a largely malnourished, previously unhealthy and unvaccinated population that only has access to medical care in large cities. It wasn’t until mid-May that state media first admitted the outbreak of the Covid epidemic, though official information seems more than questionable. According to this, there were almost 4.8 million patients in total, but only a few deaths.

After Crown Blast: North Korea Reports First Death

Of the 25 million people in North Korea, few are likely to have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

At worst, if the economic downturn continues, a humanitarian tragedy such as the great famines of the 1990s could repeat itself. It is said that during this time, triggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, over a million people died of malnutrition and its consequences.

North Korea’s gross domestic product is already well below its 2011 level when ruler Kim Jong Un took office. In his early years, the young dictator proved to be a very skillful economist who managed to achieve modest success with trial market reforms – for example, in agricultural enterprises. However, the ongoing downward trend did not start with the corona pandemic, but as early as 2016 – just when the regime was re-conducting regular missile tests and developing its nuclear program.

Is union possible?

Subsequent UN sanctions have become so severe that even human rights NGOs have warned of their humanitarian impact on the rural population. Of course, Kim Jong Un knows that he will not achieve sustainable economic growth thanks to his nuclear program, which he sees as life insurance. Nevertheless, it sticks to its military course for the foreseeable future: the military is expected to soon test the first nuclear weapons from 2017.

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A woman stares through a barbed wire fence north in South Korea.

Even Seoul’s new conservative government is still reaching out. South Korea’s new foreign minister, Park Jin, signaled that they are “working with the international community on a bold plan to radically improve North Korea’s economy and people’s quality of life.” The precondition, however, is that Pyongyang intends to disarm its nuclear program first.

The look at neighboring South Korea, which has been surrounded by a mined demarcation line since the end of the Korean War, is more than sobering: after nearly 70 years of separation, the annual income of an average North Korean is only 3.5 percent compared to the prosperous and democratic south.

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