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Political Economy of North Korea: Historical Background and Present Situation
Published May 25, 2011
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By standard statistical measures, North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK]) is the world’s most militarized society, and domestic propaganda incessantly proclaims the virtues of “military-first” politics. If comparable statistical measures were available for politicization, North Korea might rank first on this criterion, too. Internally, all aspects of society are suffused with politics, and externally, politics thoroughly permeates not only the country’s diplomatic relationships but also its economic relations.

A famine in the late 1990s resulted in the deaths of perhaps 600,000 to 1 million people out of a pre-famine population of roughly 22 million. Given the regime’s extreme preference for guns over butter, the North Korean economy does not produce enough output to sustain the population biologically, and population maintenance is aid dependent. Yet the October 2002 revelation of a nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium (in addition to a plutonium-based program acknowledged a de- cade earlier), undertaken in contravention of several international agreements, and North Korea’s subsequent withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have put continued international assistance in doubt.

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