Where North Korea’s economy stands today

David Gura Dec 19, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: Now to the big news from North Korea. Leader Kim Jong-Il has died of a heart attack. He’s being succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Un. For almost two decades, the elder Kim kept the country — and its economy — isolated.

Marketplace’s David Gura has an economic snapshot of North Korea.

David Gura: Mike Chinoy is a researcher at USC, and in August, he made his fifteenth visit to North Korea.

Mike Chinoy: You just get a sense of almost no energy and very little economic activity at all.

The country really has two economies. Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says one economy benefits the Kim dynasty, the elites.

Scott Snyder: The general economy is separate from that, and it’s pretty impoverished.

Hunger is widespread. North Korea is increasingly dependent on food aid. Infrastructure is in disrepair. Under Kim Jong-Il, North Korea invested heavily in defense; it has one of the biggest militaries in the world.

John Park is with the U.S. Institute of Peace. He says North Korea has economic ties to just a few countries. Two-thirds of its trade is with China.

John Park: We see the Chinese facilitating a lot of commercial and economic development activity along the border area.

— where there’s coal and iron ore. Experts say these next few weeks will be critical. They’re looking for signs of change.

But Mike Chinoy says not to underestimate the country’s political system, which he calls resilient.

Chinoy: The North Korean elite know that if they don’t hang together they could easily hang separately, and they will have strong support from China.

And that may mean more of the same.

In Washington, I’m David Gura, for Marketplace.

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