Justin V. Hastings


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

Cover Interview of May 30, 2017


The enterprising nature of North Korea’s trade networks cuts both ways. It is a testament to the resilience of average North Koreans who have found creative ways to survive under terrible conditions. But it also shows how the North Korean state has been able to ‘flourish,’ inasmuch as state trading networks have been able to evade sanctions and other attempts to stop Kim Jong-un from profiting off the population’s suffering. Even as sanctions have tightened with every nuclear or missile test, Pyongyang has experienced a building boom, the North Korean won and food prices in the capital appear to be stable, and the North Korean economy seems to be growing at a very modest clip.

This has several implications for how we think about North Korea. The old view of North Korea as Communist, paranoid, totalitarian, and cut off from the world is not really accurate, and is not particularly useful in dealing with the country. The population of North Korea is increasingly untethered from the state in terms of its survival. North Korea is unlikely to collapse solely due to economic catastrophe, and waiting for the regime to fall is not a viable long-term strategy. At the same time, precisely because North Korean trade networks have been so enterprising, Kim Jong-un may be prone to riskier behavior, inasmuch as he is freed from the need to provide for the population, and is confident that state-owned companies can evade any sanctions thrown at them. The end of North Korea is likely to come more from political challenges and outside pressure than economic tribulations.