Justin V. Hastings


On his book A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

Cover Interview of May 30, 2017

The wide angle

My first book, No Man’s Land, showed how and when geography and the technologies that we generally associate with globalization—cheap and fast transportation, containing shipping, the Internet, mobile phones, and the like—affect the ability of terrorist groups, organized crime syndicates, and insurgencies to operate. In writing that book, I saw the economic networks that undergirded clandestine groups—terrorists and insurgents survive and are able to blow things up in part by being good businessmen—and wondered what it would look like if an entire country operated through black and gray markets. That led me to North Korea, a country that has survived in large part through taking advantage of globalization with international trade that straddles the line between legal and illegal.

Because no country is truly unique, how North Korea’s economy has developed over the past several decades is reminiscent of the changes seen in China and countries in the Communist bloc in the 1980s. China famously began economic reforms in 1979 that saw a large number of privately run, state-owned companies come into existence while the economy was still officially centrally planned. Eastern European Communist countries also developed ‘second economies’—private economic activity that was often tacitly encouraged by the state to provide a safety valve for the inevitable failings of command economies.

North Korea differs from China in that North Korean officials in general refuse to call what’s happening in the country ‘reform.’ The changes in North Korea have often occurred without any official government sanction or control, and it is not clear to what extent the North Korean state would actually be able to stop the country’s entrepreneurs even if it wanted to. It differs from Eastern European ‘second economies’ because it has stumbled upon this new status quo in an age of globalization. North Korea’s second economy actually depends on trade and interconnectedness with the global economy in a way not typically associated with closed-off, planned economies.