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Stephan Haggard Speculates on the Future of North Korea


Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Milken Institute Review

North Korea watchers are getting accustomed to double-takes. Three months after the death of the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, his third son and chosen successor, Kim Jong-un, gave a televised speech. (Kim Jong-il, for his part, had not recorded so much as a radio broadcast in his entire 17-year reign.) 

A month later, the young monarch turned up at a decrepit amusement park to berate officials over broken equipment, peeling paint and uncut grass. He was later shown in footage on the  Today show, his portly frame strapped into a roller coaster, careering through a full loop. In July, Kim was accompanied by Ri Sol-ju, his new wife, to a pop concert complete with Disney characters and miniskirted dancers. 

This is certainly not your grandfather’s North Korea. Or is it? Guessing the size of the North Korean economy is a mug’s game. But the conventional wisdom is that average North Koreans are no better off now than they were in the mid-1970s – and remain worse off than they were in 1990, when the country’s Soviet patron collapsed and the nation descended into full-blown famine.

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Stephan Haggard is the director of the Korea-Pacific Program at IR/PS, where he specializes in the Korean economy. In 2011 Haggard published Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea with co-author Marcus Noland, with whom he had previously authored Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform. Dr. Haggard writes the "North Korea: Witness to Transformation" blog at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.