Socialist North Korea and Capitalist South Korea: An Experiment We Ignore at Our Peril

Korea offers a tale of two cities, one that should give pause to anyone enamored of socialism.

By James Wanliss Published on June 8, 2016

At a recent UN Climate Summit, Bolivian Presidente Evo Morales said, “The world is suffering from a fever due to climate change, and the disease is the capitalist development model.” Morales is just one of many in the Green movement who assume it is always bad to have growing business.

To be fair, many other people assume that economic growth must always be good. Surely there is a middle ground; everything humans do has a ripple effect to the rest of creation. That is why Jesus said that before a man begins to build he should carefully count the cost. We dare not act without careful consideration and accounting of the cost of our actions. One way to count the cost is to look at examples, to learn from the decisions of others and the consequences of those decisions.

Take North and South Korea. The two nations were created after World War II, separated at the 38th parallel by the demilitarized zone where Soviet and American troops met after liberating the unified Korea from 36 years’ occupation by the Japanese. North of the 38th parallel is Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Just 120 miles southwards is Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea.

The North embraced socialism and the South capitalism, offering us a kind of laboratory to compare the results.

Other laboratories exist — U.S. capitalism and Soviet socialism, and examples could be multiplied. However, no laboratory offers conditions as ideal for comparison as North and South Korea. Here we have a decades-long experiment beginning with almost identical social conditions, geography, race, climate and other factors that might influence the outcomes. The dominant dependent variable over more than seven decades is economic system.

North and South Korea Population and Development - 600

The socialist government of North Korea bans private ownership and favors government ownership and control over the means of production. Socialists believe that removing individual freedom of economic and political action reduces inequality and thereby brings about a just society where everyone is equal. By contrast the South has an economic system much closer to capitalism, where legal conditions safeguard free and uncoerced exchange of goods and services.

One might object that neither is an ideal socialist or capitalist model. I agree completely. Utopia is impossible. But put side by side no one could mistake the system in Pyongyang as capitalism or in Seoul as socialism.

What, then, are some consequences of the differing choices?

North Korea is third world, and South Korea is now first world. North Koreans are the world’s most brutalized people. They endure severe restrictions on political and economic freedoms. They survive left-wing social engineering enforced at gunpoint. Tens of thousands have escaped to tell their stories.

Socialism: Poor and Environmentally Grubby

Evo Morales and other speakers at UN Climate Summits decry capitalist development models, but their socialist alternatives give no comfort. The twentieth century demonstrated that coercion is invariably necessary on a large scale to enforce scientific socialism. Socialist governments sought economic development, but their utopian policies resulted in most of the famine deaths of the twentieth century, in peacetime. Even apologists for socialism admit grim tales of devastation to both people and land.

In North Korea between 1995 and 1997, perhaps 2.5 million — no one is sure of the exact tally — North Koreans died from famine. And because of its command-and-control socialist policies, North Korea is always a step away from another horrific famine. This year the government told North Koreans to brace themselves for famine again, but to keep their chins up because “the road to revolution is long and arduous.” Sadly, there is no pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

The environment under socialism fares no better. It is incontestable that pollution is horrendous in many of the poorest countries with the lowest levels of political and economic freedom. By contrast, countries with the greatest levels of political and economic liberty tend to be the cleanest and the wealthiest.

True, it was not always that way. During the early years of the Industrial Revolution great European and American cities were little better. And following its economic revival, the Seoul of 1996 had air stale and brown as lukewarm coffee. By 2015 national energy use more than tripled, the economy swelled tenfold, yet air quality is enormously improved, except that now North and South also need to deal with severe air pollution blown over from China every year.

Pyongyang and the North are an environmental disaster, but Seoul and the South are full of beauty and abundance. The shocking irony is that by Green calculus the real pollution is in the South. North Koreans emit a mere 3.0 metric tons of CO2 per capita compared to 11.8 metric tons for South Koreans. Though perhaps horrified by North Korea’s oppression of its people, environmentalists admire the small “carbon (dioxide) footprint” made possible by socialism.

President Obama declared CO2 emissions the greatest threat to humanity. From an environmentalist perspective, the thriving South is a nightmare of carbon dioxide (the stuff plants breathe and thrive on, incidentally) while North Korea is painted as a leader in the war against global warming. According to the North Korean government, it has “consistently directed great efforts to the land management and environmental protection in order to prevent global warming.” They have policies that Western Greens pine for, and then some. In short, Pyongyang is Paradise.

The only problem is, nobody seems to want to live there.


James Wanliss is Professor of Physics at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC, a policy adviser to the Heartland Institute, senior fellow and contributing writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, and author of Resisting the Green Dragon: Dominion, Not Death

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