North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un might talk tough, but he presides over one of the weakest, most dilapidated economies in the world.
In fact, North Korea's military showmanship and threats of nuclear war usually come when the nation is desperate for food aid or other forms of economic assistance. "Any time the North Koreans are screaming and behaving badly, something's going on they're not happy about," says Stephen Haggard, a professor at the University of California—San Diego and an expert on North Korea.
The latest war of rhetoric on the Korean peninsula comes as Kim, in charge for just 16 months, reportedly seeks to consolidate his power internally, while trying to impress the United States as a bona fide nuclear power. He may pull that off. North Korea is believed to have perhaps half a dozen nuclear weapons, and the Pentagon recently concluded that the bellicose nation may have the ability to deliver those weapons atop long-range ballistic missiles.
As an economic power, however, North Korea is a laughingstock that can barely feed its own people, which is why some analysts think the country may collapse at some point, or undergo rebellion by insiders fed up with disastrous economic policies and relentless repression.
Like other dictatorships, North Korea has an elite ruling class that enjoys some basic privileges of modern life, such as indoor plumbing, automobiles, meat, coffee and a few luxury goods. There's a middle stratum that has sufficient food and, occasionally, new clothes, but not much else.
In general, however, North Korea is one of the most miserable places on earth. "The standard of living has deteriorated to extreme levels of deprivation in which the right to food security, health and other minimum needs for human survival are denied," according to a recent report by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a research group based in Seoul.
While it's difficult to get accurate information about North Korea – a police state that rarely admits foreigners – refugees and other sources of information have helped outsiders sketch the country's bankrupt economy. Here's a snapshot of life in North Korea:
– Annual GDP per capita is about $1,800, which ranks 197th in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. GDP is 28 times higher in the United States and 18 times higher in South Korea.
– About half of North Korea's population of 24 million lives in "extreme poverty," according to the KUNI report. These people subsist on corn and kimchi and "are severely restricted in access to fuel for cooking and heating."
– One-third of children are stunted, due to malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.
– The average life expectancy, 69, has fallen by five years since the early 1980s, according to the blog North Korea Economy Watch. The blog notes that those figures are based on official statistics, so the real numbers could be even lower.
– Inflation may be as high as 100 percent, due to mismanagement of the currency.
– Most workers earn $2 to $3 per month in pay from the government. Some work on the side or sell goods in local markets, earning an extra $10 per month or so.
– Most homes and apartments are heated by open fireplaces burning wood or briquettes. Many lack flush toilets.
– Electric power is sporadic and unreliable, with homes that have electricity often receiving just a few hours per day.
– Families that can afford them often have two TVs, according to New Focus International, a website that features dispatches from North Korean exiles; one TV is pre-set to state channels airing propaganda, while the second, illegal set is used to watch South Korean TV programs. Even so, fluctuating voltage in the electrical current often causes the screen to keep changing size, "going from big to small repeatedly," according to one exile report.
– Some of the most popular contraband items are DVDs of South Korean TV shows, which North Koreans often trade or sell among themselves.
– Parents who send their kids to schools are expected to provide desks, chairs, building materials and cash to pay for heating fuel. Some students are put to work producing goods for the government or gathering up discarded materials. Parents can bribe teachers to exempt their kids from labor or just keep them away from school, even though that violates official policy.
– North Korea has a "free" medical system, but hospital patients must pay for their own drugs, cover the cost of heat, and prepare all their own meals at home.
– Among the privileged class, cosmetics are considered "an ostentatious display of wealth," according to the KINU report. South Korean brands are preferred over inferior Chinese or North Korean products.
– There are about 1.5 million mobile phone users in North Korea, but service is spotty and no Internet is available. One popular use for mobile phones: as a "torch" to provide light when the power goes out at night.
– Kim Jong Un may be worth as much as $5 billion, according to the South Korean news organization Chosun Ilbo. The money comes from state-run enterprises as well as sales of narcotics, counterfeiting, and other types of criminality. It's believed to be held in hundreds of bank accounts – outside of North Korea.
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- He's Baaack! Cheney Stirs the Pot on North Korea
- North Korean War Rhetoric Reaches Breaking Point
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.