North Korea: Falling Behind

Looking at the previous post on the country, a question arises: if North Korea was, in some respects, ahead of the South in the early 1970s, to the extent that, in 1970, the Black Panthers could look on it as a model of resistance, and Joan Robinson could speak of a (North) “Korean Miracle” in 1964, when, exactly, did it start to fall behind?

Surprisingly early.

It turns out that South Korea had always had a surprisingly high level of economic complexity of exports, being consistently among the top 25 countries in this measure -even as early as 1964 (click the link for PDF showing the development of South Korea and Peru’s export components). North Korea, meanwhile, remains middling in this regard, but this still means its economy is underrated, because other countries with similar economic complexity are, in every way, much richer.

According to the paper Assessing the economic performance of North Korea, 1954–1989: Estimates and growth accounting analysis., there was only one period in which North Korean per capita real GNP grew faster than South Korea’s: the period 1954-1960. From then on, North Korea, with the exception of the period 1980-1985, consistently had a per capita real GNP growth rate of below 3%, growing an average 1.9% per year from 1954 to 1989. This (except for the early 1980s boom claim) is consistent with the per capita electricity consumption figures, which show that while North Korean per capita electricity consumption from 1971 to 1989 grew at at a thoroughly unimpressive 2.14% per year, South Korean per capita electricity consumption grew at a stunning 11.5% per year during the same period. The energy consumption statistics are more consistent with the early 1980s boom claim. Interestingly, up until the 1990s, North Korean per capita electricity consumption was no different from Argentina’s, suggesting North Korea had a truly abysmal capital productivity, as Argentina had a per capita GDP (PPP) at least three times as high as that of North Korea. The North Korean country study seems to be consistent with the surprisingly early slowdown, describing the post-war three-year-plan and five-year plan of the 1950s as successes and the North Korean economic slowdown as beginning in the “buffer year” of 1960. On the other hand, the semi-socialistic outward-oriented South Korean economy boomed after the 1961 coup. Apparently, the South’s economic surpassing of the North in the 1960s is evident even from the statistics on the sectoral composition of the labor force.

There are some other indicators, all indicating severe zastoy had set in North Korea by the 1970s. Firstly, food rations, which were were stable from 1955, were cut in September 1973, and sugar rations were also eliminated in the early 1970s. Food rations were cut again in 1987.

However, from the 1950s to the 1970s, housing construction boomed while the rest of the economy slowed. Yet, even housing construction must have declined during the late 1970s, as there was a sharp slowdown in North Korean urbanization at the time.

In 2011, North Korea had about the same percentage of its labor force employed in agriculture as China. Yet, China is a much richer country than North Korea. China can definitely feed itself if need be. North Korea can’t.

So when Brad DeLong says he, too, thought Joan Robinson’s support for “absorbing the South into socialism” in 1977 was “loony”, we now know why.

The question remains why the North fell behind the South economically so early in the 1960s and continued doing so during the 1970s and 1980s, and why the North is so much poorer than even neighboring China. This is a question which must be explored in a later post.

Note: Pretty much all this post was written on April 12, 2015. Only the first link and this and the above paragraph have been added, as well as the note on the energy consumption statistics. It is only being published today due to A. Karlin’s response to R. Khan‘s brief post on Communism.

Development Successes; Development Failures

I recently wondered, after seeing Brazil and South Korea’s striking real GDP per capita divergence, which underdeveloped economies over the past forty years most succeeded and which most failed at growing their real GDP per capita. As Scott Sumner has pointed out, many countries (including, to some extent, the U.S.) experienced a permanent decline in real per capita GDP growth around the year 1973, though some countries (e.g., in Latin America) had high growth rates until the early 1980s Volcker Shock. North Korea, the Soviet Union, Singapore, South Africa, Japan, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Canada, and other nations that had managed to make great strides between 1900 and 1973 had dramatic growth slowdowns following that year, with Spain and Portugal having a decade of stagnation between 1974 and 1984 and Greece two such decades (1974-1994!). Italy, a country with lower living standards than China in 1900 and which had surpassed the U.K. in real GDP per capita (PPP) terms by 1976, had a growth slowdown around 1993 and another one around 2003. Japan had a very famous (and seemingly permanent) growth slowdown in 1991. Japan, France and Italy had all finished their phase of catch-up growth with the U.S. by 1973 (Germany had done so by 1961).

The below are the answers to the question mentioned in the first sentence of this post. All real GDP per capita numbers are from the World Bank. They can be verified by looking at Google Public Data.
Development Successes:

Former Soviet States:

Estonia (astonishing growth from 1994 to today) and the other Baltics

Belarus (astonishing growth from 1995 to 2011, especially compared with Ukraine, but economy has stagnated for the last two years)

Armenia and Georgia (grew at almost exactly the pace and level of China until 2009, but fell behind China as these countries had a recession in 2009, while China didn’t)

East Asian Successes:

China (so far; 21X increase in GDP per capita in 40 years counts as a success in any book, even if the economy stagnates for a century after)

The Four Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong) and Macau

Slower-Growing East Asian Economies (successful for any other region, but not when compared to other Asian countries):

Vietnam (Grew 4X since reforms. Overly affected by China and seems like a complete failure compared to it).

Malaysia (GDP per capita 4.2X that of 1973).

Indonesia (GDP per capita 4.6X that of 1973. Seems like a failure compared to China).

Thailand (GDP per capita 5.3X that of 1973).

Latin American and Caribbean Successes:

Chile (2013 GDP per capita is 3.3X that at time of Pinochet’s coup).

Dominican Republic (2013 GDP per capita is 2.93X that in 1973).

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (2013 GDP per capita is 3.18X that in 1973).

Belize (2013 GDP per capita 2.96X that in 1973, but has stagnated for nearly a decade).

African Outliers:

Cabo Verde (2013 GDP per capita is 5.5X that in 1980)

Seychelles (2013 GDP per capita is 3.06X that in 1973).

Botswana (2013 GDP per capita is 6X that in 1973).

Lesotho (2013 GDP per capita is 2.93X that in 1973).

South Asian Successes:

Bhutan (miraculous growth since 1980 [GDP per capita 6.2X in 2013 compared with that of 1980] with no strong foundation of economic freedom, but, by all accounts, the best court system in South Asia).

India (2013 GDP per capita is 4.37X that in 1973).

Sri Lanka (2013 GDP per capita 4.66X that in 1973).

Mauritius (2013 GDP per capita 3.48X that in 1976).

Middle Eastern Successes:

Egypt (2013 GDP per capita 3.71X that in 1973).

Malta (2013 GDP per capita 3.68X that in 1973).

Celtic Tiger:

Ireland (2013 GDP per capita over 3.5X that in 1973).

Development Failures:

Asian Failures:

Philippines (Fell into a dump between 1982 and 2003. Very instructive East Asian failure, if only for showing East Asian economies can fail in an age of microchips.)

Papua New Guinea (18% GDP per capita growth in 40 years.)

Burma and North Korea (for obvious reasons)

Latin American Disasters:

Brazil (a country that pretended to be China between 1968 and 1980; 38% GDP per capita growth between 1980 and 2013)

Mexico (a country that hasn’t lost its track record of failure since 1980; GDP per capita in 2013 20% higher than that in 1980).

Nicaragua (1976 was the best year it’s ever had).

Suriname (yes, not Latin American, but still a failure from independence to the Year 2000)

Venezuela (the classic Latin American basket case; GDP per capita today lower than that in 1964).

Argentina (moving roughly sideways since at least 1960; GDP per capita in 2006 65% higher than that in 1960, but this may be due to understated inflation).

Haiti (same place it was in the 1950s).

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras (all in the same boat-failures growing at 0-2.5% per year)

African Countries:

South Africa (fell behind Brazil in growth terms after 1974)

Madagascar (steady decline; GDP per capita is 55% of what it was in 1960)

Senegal (GDP per capita remarkably steady; no change since 1960)

Togo (economic miracle until 1969; no lasting change in GDP per capita after that even unto this day).

Malawi (economic miracle between 1960 and 1979; no lasting change in GDP per capita after that even unto this day)

Comoros (GDP per capita is 20% lower than peak in 1984).

Guinea (amazingly flat)

Kenya (strong growth until 1972, stagnation for three decades, return to less impressive growth)

Niger (fantastic decline from 1966 onward followed by stagnation)

Gambia (stagnation since 1978)

Belgian Congo (it was 2.6X better off in real GDP per capita terms under Belgium).

Djibouti (country still not up to its 1990 level of real GDP per capita).

Burundi (5% growth per 53-year period)

Ivory Coast (strong growth until 1978; then, collapse until 2011)

Now, ask yourself: what was different between the failures and successes? Both some of the Latin American failures and the Asian tigers had industrial policies. Mexico has more economic freedom than China, but the labor force in Mexico is prematurely shifting away from the productive sectors (manufacturing and agriculture) and into the famously unproductive traditional economy and services, while China has successfully continued its rapid growth. What prevented the Comoros from growing like Taiwan, Singapore, or Egypt? Why is Belarus, well known for its red tape and financial repression, one of the development successes?