How Bad is Life in North Korea?
By Bryan Caplan
When a country forbids foreigners to freely wander around and talk to people, smart money says that something monstrous is going on. North Korea is probably now the world’s clearest example. It’s hard to confirm that the alleged horrors are going on, but the fact that we aren’t allowed to confirm them is a damning confirmation.
But now the North Korean government has accidentally tipped its hand. As the Los Angeles Times reports, it is now earning a lot of hard currency by letting trusted citizens work abroad:
The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings… Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans working abroad in behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. In addition to the Czech Republic, North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, defectors say.
Almost the entire monthly salary of each of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, is deposited directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the workers only a fraction of the money.
…By the time all the deductions were made, each received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.
The key to this story is that despite everything, working abroad is considered a good deal. It’s one of the few ways to save some money to help their families back home. And only the “most loyal” North Koreans qualify, with their families left behind as hostages:
By far the largest number of North Koreans working outside their country are in Russia, where they do mostly logging and construction in military-style camps run by the North Korean government. When the camps were set up in the early 1970s, the workers were North Korean prisoners. But as the North Korean economy disintegrated in the late 1980s, doing hard labor in Siberia came to be seen as a reward because at least it meant getting adequate food.
It follows, then, that as wretched as the lives of North Koreans working in Russia or the Czech Republic are, life in North Korea is far worse. In short, it’s pretty bad even by the historical standards of other Communist regimes.
Well, at least this time, few Western journalists are pretending that hell on earth is utopia.