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The Two Koreas, 1950–2008: An Unplanned Experiment In Economic Systems, The Carbon Footprint And Human Well-Being

Lately, North Korea has been very much in the news. Its population—or should I say, “captive population”—greets the passing of the baton from one ruler to another in the same spirit as “Kim is dead, long live Kim!” probably because they are unaware of the following satellite photos.  Many readers here have probably encountered them previously.

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East Asia at night. Top photo from 1994-95 which outlines North Korea is from MSNBC at  http://photoblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/19/9564314-satellites-document-north-koreas-dark-ages?pc=25&sp=25. Bottom photo is from 2009. Source: http://agora. ex.nii.ac.jp/~kitamoto/research/rs/stable-lights.html.en.

Not only do the photographs illustrate the lack of economic development in North Korea, they show that it has one of the lightest carbon footprints in the world. And the various indicators of human well-being reflect that dark reality, as shown in the following table.

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It wasn’t always thus. In the early 1950s, to the extent data are available, the two countries were about equal in terms of economic development and human well-being. In fact, in 1960, according to the World Bank data, North Korea’s life expectancy was marginally higher than in the South (55.2 yrs vs. 53.0 yrs). Of course, the North’s data may have been fluffed up a little bit by its government before being adopted by the World Bank, but I don’t know for sure.

But over time, South Korea’s freer economic system pulled it ahead. Then, the loss of external support because of the collapse of the Soviet Union turned North Korea into a basket case in the 1990s (see the following figure). Finally, the South also became more democratic and its economic and social systems became more transparent. The consequences are evident in the above photographs and the following figure.

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Per capita GDP and per capita CO2 emissions, 1950-2008. Sources: Maddison (2008) and World Bank (2011).

The photographs and the figure are, among other things, also a stark warning of the dangers of excessive zeal in limiting a country’s carbon footprint.