By Tom Scahill

With George W. Bush threatening military intervention to stop North Korea from resuming its nuclear energy program, and at the same time blaming the Koreans for their economic difficulties, it's important for people in the U.S. to understand the accomplishments made by North Korea despite generations of colonial occupation, war and threats of outside intervention.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist states in eastern Europe, North Korea as well as Cuba lost many of their trading partners. Meanwhile, there had been huge investment in the buildup of South Korea as an import-export economy by the United States and other advanced capitalist countries.

North Korea continues to face many difficulties, but in some areas its achievements have been amazing. Here are some statistics from the Illustrated Book of World Rankings 2001, 5th edition, for South Korea, North Korea, and a few for the United States, as well as for Myanmar (Burma), a nation in the region that, like Korea, has a colonial past. Figures are for 1998 unless otherwise indicated.

It should be kept in mind that the population of South Korea is almost twice that of the north, which has a harsher climate than the south. Myanmar's population, 45 million, is about the same as South Korea.

Gross national product: South Korea ranked 11th in the world at $485 billion. Myanmar ranked 58th at $55.7 billion. North Korea ranked 64th at $22 billion. However, many goods and services in North Korea, like health care, education and housing, are virtually free.

Percentage of income spent on housing: Myanmar ranked 87th at 10%, South Korea 140th at 4.1%, North Korea 164th at .8%.

Percentage of income spent on health care: The U.S. ranked first at 17%, South Korea 35th at 5%, Myanmar 92nd at 2.4%. North Korea was not listed. Health care there is free.

Hospital beds: North Korea was third highest at 135 per 10,000 population; the U.S. was 85th at 41 per 10,000, South Korea was 95th at 34 per 10,000, and Myanmar was 200th at 6 per 10,000.

Population per physician: Myanmar's ratio is 3,485 people to 1 doctor, South Korea is 784:1, North Korea is better at 370:1, and the rich U.S. is practically the same: 365:1.

Infant mortality: Myanmar had 79 deaths per 1,000 live births; North Korea had 23 per 1,000, South Korea was lower with 10 per 1,000.

Life expectancy in both North and South Korea was the same: 69 years. The U.S. wasn't much higher--72 years, while Myanmar was 58 years.

Of the three Asian countries, North Korea had the lowest death rate--5.3 per 1,000, while in Myanmar it was 9.9 and in South Korea 6.4.

North Korea did fantastically well on literacy: 95%. The U.S. had 95.5% and South Korea 98%. Myanmar was 83%.

Population with access to safe drinking water (1994-95): North Korea is listed with 38 other countries at 100%. Only 90% of people in the U.S. have access to safe drinking water, according to these figures. In South Korea, the number is 89%, and in Myanmar, only 39%.

Military personnel (1997): The U.S. has the second-largest armed forces in the world, 1,447,000, of whom 37,000 are stationed in South Korea. North Korea is fifth in the world at 1,055,000. South Korea is sixth at 672,000.

Military budget (2000): The U.S. is ranked first at $343.2 billion, more than the next 16 countries combined. South Korea is ranked 12th at $12.8 billion. North Korea is 32nd at $1.3 billion.

It is obvious that North Korea tries to compensate with human power for what it may lack in military hardware.

The importance of trading with Western developed countries was expounded by Kim Il Sung as early as 1975. In 1984, the DPRK officially launched an open door policy of trade with the West and in 1988 began to trade with South Korea, expanding joint ventures in 1993.

In the late 1980s, while trade with the United States was virtually nonexistent, nearly 60% of North Korea's trade came from the Soviet Union, followed by China and Japan. Today, North Korea's main trading partners are Japan, China and South Korea, as well as some countries in western Europe.

South Korea received $4 billion in grant aid from 1953 to 1974 from the U.S. Some 60% of all investment in South Korea before 1968 came from the U.S.

Its external debt grew to $46.7 billion in 1985 but fell to $23 billion in 1991.( Library of Congress country studies) According to the CIA fact book for 2001, South Korea's debt in 2000 was $137 billion while North Korea's was $12 billion.

In 1989, North Korea's total foreign debt was $6.78 billion, with $3.13 billion owed to the Soviet Union. Historically, loans to North Korea as compared to South Korea have been negligible.

Between 1980 and 1989 North Korea provided a total of approximately $26.4 million in aid to Third World countries, of which almost 74% went to African countries in the form of technical agricultural assistance. (Library of Congress country studies)

These are Western-compiled figures and may not do justice to North Korea's accomplishments. However, they do show that, if unthreatened by imperialism and allowed to grow into a united nation, the achievements of the Korean people would be monumental.

As the threats from Washington grow ever more serious, it is up to the anti-war movement to come to the defense of the Korean people.

posted March 6, 2003


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