A Meaningful Plan for North Korea’s Development

North Korean poster proclaiming an economically powerful country.

by Emanuel Pastreich 

We must feel sympathy for the North Korean government officials suddenly faced with slick corporate operators from Koch Industries, or elsewhere, who come in to overwhelm them with gaudy presentations, to bribe them and to do everything in their power to get them to hand over the keys to their resources so they can be exploited for the benefit of investors who will never step foot in North Korea.

That process is all too well known. We saw it done in the case of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in which originally British Petroleum, and then Standard Oil (and later others) seduced a small group of the elite with the allure of riches and created a society in which natural resources are ruthlessly exploited for the sake of foreign investors, and a handful of Saudis, and the domestic infrastructure, let alone education and social services, are left in a state of deep decay.

North Korea will need our help and our timely advice on how to respond to these challenges in a meaningful manner. The possible rape of North Korea can become the rape of Korea. 

Needless to say the United States government, which has been stripped of all experts on climate change and is engaged in a reckless campaign to deny the very existence of this catastrophe, cannot play a role in that assessment of the environmental impact, or social impact, of foreign investment in North Korea. In fact, no corporations, or corporate consulting firms, can play a role because they are all subject to market pressures that force them to distort their findings in the interest of profit.

Here is a suggestion as to what the essential points in a proposal for North Korea’s development might look like. The proposal is so different from what is actually being discussed in government and industry that many readers may perceive it to be fantastic, entirely unrealistic. I hold that it is common for the truth to appear alien and out of place when it suddenly appears on a stage that has been trotted for decades by the deceptive and the duplicitous.

I invite you to take a careful look and to make your own assessment. At the minimum, I hope that Koreans will have the bravery, and the vision, to keep this model on the table as they debate other proposals made by those who are paid lavish salaries by the people who hope to profit from the “development” of North Korea.

What is often forgotten in Seoul is that once the North opens up, North Koreans will become simply Koreans and that South Koreans will be subject to the very same sorts of abuses that North Koreans will be subject to. This is a critical moment to put forth a vision for a better future.

The Process for Making a Plan

First, throw away any proposals made by corporations, by consulting firms linked to corporations or by government agencies that have corrupt relations with the corporations that stand to benefit from the exploitation of North Korea’s resources, or of its labor.

We then need to establish an international advisory committee, including a few North and South Koreans, that will provide relevant and helpful advice to the North Korean government and to its citizens as it struggles to respond to the coming confusion born of rapid social and economic change.

The advisory committee should be made up of experts from around the world who are known for their high ethical standards and for their profound understanding of the specific economic and social challenges that North Korea will face. Not one member of this advisory committee should have ties to investment banks or corporations that stand to profit from the exploitation of North Korea’s resources or of the labor of its citizens.

The task of that committee, and for those in North Korea who are involved in the process, will be to draft a plan for the development of North Korea that is focused exclusively on the long-term interests of the country, but does so in accord with scientific principles, without exaggeration or posturing, speaking the truth and presenting a vision for what is possible that is inspiring. The plan should stress that North Korea cannot be successful long term if it does not avoid short-term fixes that generate income for the few but undermine the livelihoods of its citizens, and that destroy the environment in a manner that will bring terrible costs in the future.

At the center of the plan must be the recognition of two fundamental facts that have been proven through scientific research beyond any doubt, but which are ignored by irresponsible politicians and a sensationalist media to the determent of all of humanity. First, that the greatest threat facing humanity is climate change, which is impacting North Korea primarily in the form of spreading arid land (and eventually deserts) and rising temperatures that affect agricultural production. The response to climate change must be a core concern in any program for development.

Second, that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few people has done tremendous damage to the social fabric of Asia and that it has undermined a healthy society for all of us. Any plan for the development of North Korea must promote profoundly different economic paradigms that encourage development starting at the local level and which assure that capital is used for the benefit of ordinary citizens. Addressing the problem of the concentration of wealth, and the abuse of finance by the few, is critical because the world is poised on the edge of a massive financial collapse. North Korea must avoid, at all costs, getting itself into heavy debt during the first stage of its development because there is a high risk that foreign firms that move in to make short-term profits will pull out of North Korea quickly, with no warning.

Natural Resources

There is tremendous interest from multinational corporations in North Korea. That interest has nothing to do with the human rights of North Koreans or the poverty that affects so many. Rather, investment banks are drawn in by the potential profits to be derived from the exploitation of the extensive deposits of coal, uranium, iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, limestone and rare-earth metals (required in the electronics industry now thriving in the region) that lie beneath the surface in North Korea. According the South Korean mining company Korea Resources, the value of those resources are around $6 trillion.

North Korea is a poor country and its government officials lack the expertise to judge the environmental impact of the exploitation of resources, or its social and economic impact. Underpaid government officials can be easily seduced by shows of opulence, or outright bribery, into making decisions that future generations will regret.

An unconditional freeze should be placed on the exploitation of any mineral resources in North Korea until Pyongyang possesses sufficient expertise to assess the long-term impact of the development of natural resources on its own, or with the help of disinterested, ethical international advisers. All proposals for mining of resources must be subject to extensive environmental impact studies conducted by true experts. Strip mining for uranium, coal and other resources, which destroys the far more precious soil and causes irreversible damage, should be prohibited.

What to do with the massive reserves of coal found in North Korea is a far greater challenge for us than the dismantlement of its nuclear program. The overwhelming evidence from scientific research is that the use of coal use has a catastrophic impact on the climate and that if we continue to use coal (and petroleum) we will make our Earth uninhabitable in the next 30 years. The best policy is for North Korea simply to leave the coal in the ground untouched.

Of course those who hope to make profits off of the sale of coal think about this issue differently, and at present they offer the only opinion presented in the mainstream media, or discussed by business leaders, or politicians. But what the majority of people believe based on misleading, or false, information is not of any relevance. The only relevant point is the truth, and if the truth is accessible to the people, in North or South Korea, the conclusion will be clear.

The development of natural resources in North Korea should be eventually managed by regulated national monopolies that have no profit incentive and that are entirely capable of ending operations if the resources that they develop are judged through scientific investigation to have a negative impact on the environment or on society. The profits for the exploitation of mineral resources should be focused entirely on the development of the North Korean economy in terms of investments in education, improved governance and welfare. Above all, developing a new generation of educated and motivated North Korean government officials who have the knowledge, the ethical principles and the bravery to stand up for the long-term needs of citizens will be critical for future development.

The negative impact of the development of natural resources is not limited to pollution. The sudden influx of wealth is often limited to a small number of the power elites and does little to benefit the vast majority of citizens. We need only look at the process by which British Petroleum, and later Standard Oil, developed Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s. The Saudi royal family became fabulously wealthy and sent all their assets overseas. Saudi Arabia suffered from terrible infrastructure, poor education, spreading deserts and poor wages for the vast majority of citizens.

Such a scenario must be avoided in North Korea. Our goal is to produce a new generation of healthy, highly educated, ethical and motivated North Koreans who can run their country for themselves and for their brothers and sisters. Linking economic development to the exploitation of cheap labor will slow down cultural and social integration of the peninsula.

There is already a dangerous trend in North Korea towards the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite. If future economic development is further concentrated in the hands of the well connected, who are in turn tied to international banks, they will have no incentive to end the exploitation of workers in factories and mines, or to stop the use of coal-powered power plants.

That is to say that the growing disparity of wealth could be a more serious problem in the long term than the poverty of ordinary citizens in North Korea.


It is common for politicians to show a satellite photograph of the Korean Peninsula at night and to remark that the complete darkness seen in North Korea, in contrast to Japan and South Korea, is testimony to the lack of economic development in that country. Although it is true that North Korea’s citizens have suffered needlessly from corrupt and arbitrary governance over the past few decades, lighting up the sky at night should not be a priority for anyone.

If anything, South Korea should strive to make sure that its territory is as dark as that of North Korea at night by ending the extravagant use of electricity and encouraging a culture of frugality. If North Korea, by contrast, builds dozens of coal-powered plants and lights itself up at night like a Christmas tree, that will be a monumental catastrophe for the entire region.

The smartest plan for North Korea is to stick to 100 percent renewable energy from the beginning and never start the import of fossil fuels, even if that may slow down the process. Encouraging traditional low-consumption habits can go hand-in-hand with efforts to promote better awareness about nutrition.

There may never be a need to import fossil fuels if North Koreans continue their frugal habits. There may be a need to import solar and wind-power technologies, but it will be critical that North Korea quickly acquires the capacity to produce such products on its own. Toward this goal, technologies related to solar and wind power should be made widely available without any payments for patents.

If North Korea becomes 100 percent renewable energy, it will be a point of pride for its citizens and will become something that South Koreans will come to learn about. Such a sense of worth and of purpose for North Korea is absolutely essential. That sort of psychological boost cannot be purchased with money. We must make sure that North Koreans never feel they are behind other “advanced countries” if they do not waste resources or indulge their impulses in response to commercial advertising. They should know, and we should know, that “small is beautiful.” That is the essence of traditional Korean culture.

The frugality we see in North Korea is in part a result of poor economic planning over the past three decades which has limited North Korea’s ability to develop. Yet frugality is not a sin, but a virtue. If anything, South Koreans can learn from North Koreans about how to live meaningful lives without indulging in mindless consumption.


The first thing Pyongyang has to do before it signs any contracts for the development of infrastructure is take a long deep breath. There are numerous reports out by distinguished researchers that indicate that the approach to infrastructure and urban design in advanced nations has been an unmitigated disaster. Although looking out over rows of skyscrapers from an exclusive bar can be a thrill, as can be rolling down a highway in your sports car, the impact on the environment, and on society, of such infrastructure is largely negative.

First and foremost, there should not be any large infrastructure projects undertaken without an assessment of their impact on the environment, and on ordinary citizens.

The encouragement of consumption and of waste, the promotion of desires for big houses and luxury cars through advertising, are things that North Korea does not need. North Korea does not need luxury apartment complexes, extensive highways or wasteful department stores and malls that encourage endless consumption and are run by a small number of foreign investors.

Rather, the first step should be to educate North Koreans so that they can judge for themselves what the costs of poorly planned development will be long term for the country. The trips of privileged North Koreans to China and other countries have not taught them much about the serious problems associated with modern infrastructure, and the businessmen they are meeting are not paid to explain these problems to them either. We must find ways to tell them the truth.

It is a tremendous blessing that North Korea requires new infrastructure. This situation provides us with a rare opportunity to create a complete infrastructure system that is appropriate to the circumstances of the North Koreans and also that addresses the challenge of climate change. All North Korean infrastructure should be 100 percent renewable from the beginning. Such a model for a society will be benchmarked by the world and will inspire substantial change in South Korea as well.

All buildings should be required to have substantial insulation on all walls, double or triple-pane storm windows and to be covered with solar panels. They should be held up to the highest possible standards for energy efficiency. Wind power and other forms of renewable energy should be used as well to the greatest amount possible. Such renewable energy, however, should be maintained and administrated at the local level by the citizens so that the jobs are theirs, and they should participate in the design of their communities.

Massive apartment complexes should be avoided and the combination of residential and agricultural spaces should be encouraged. North Korea does not need to become an urban society.

We should allow local populations to participate in the decision-making regarding the development of their regions and also to participate in the projects themselves. People should be encouraged to build their own homes out of materials that are readily available in North Korea and to hire their neighbors to help that process. North Korea needs expertise, experience, and education about environmental issues and about social issues more than it needs imported goods.

Finance and Capital

Although educating North Koreans so they can respond to challenges is the highest priority, the manner in which projects for infrastructure, agriculture and energy production are financed is also critical. We must not create burdens for the future. North Korea will need the advice of ethical experts as it figures out new strategies for developing capital. First, it should put together programs to collect capital at the local level through agricultural cooperatives and community banks that are owned in part by citizens. Such efforts to build up domestic capital will be critical for North Korea’s economic development and help the people build and to control their economy and to build up true economic self-reliance. Considering the massive financial crisis that looms on the global horizon, it will be critical for North Korea to be as self-sufficient as possible.

What will the future banks of North Korea look like? They should not be branches of multinational banks that seek profits for investors in Tokyo or Kuwait. They should be cooperatives, and they should be regulated monopolies at the highest level that do not have profit as their primary goal.

There will be a need for international loans. Such loans should be focused on long-term projects and carefully reviewed by experts who have no conflict of interest. North Korea needs long-term loans, 20-40 years, that will finance solar power and wind power so that it is completive with fossil fuels. Moreover, by focusing investment on long-term loans aimed at the betterment of the lives of the people, North Korea can assure greater financial stability. Capital will be tied up for productive purposes and there will not be any space for a speculative economy (stocks, bonds or futures). The North Korean economy should be kept out of speculative markets like stocks for some 10 years and North Korean natural resources should not be introduced in international futures markets.


North Koreans need work and they need for it to be real, stable and meaningful. They should not be herded into foreign-owned factories to make products for export at low wages under unhealthy conditions. Such a state of dependency in manufacturing will permanently limit North Korea’s potential.

Rather, we need to encourage the creation of long-term jobs that are rooted in local communities and that will not be taken away if foreign companies pull out during economic downturns. Local manufacture should be encouraged and done with pride. The local manufacture by craftsmen of shoes, tools and containers (for food and other goods) was common in traditional society and it can be extremely helpful in revitalizing local communities. Clothing and furniture should be made to last for 20 years or more. We should not have one-use products, or built-in obsolescence products, that have been so destructive to our environment and our society.

Repair of products at the local level can also do much to revive the economy. Clothes, furniture, shoes and other items should be built solidly so that they can be repaired again and again. Micro-financing should be made available so locals can buy a solid pair of shoes on the understanding the money can be repaid through tiny payments over months or years.

We need to create communal workplaces that give a sense of belonging to their members; places that do not dismiss workers from employment based on the vagaries of the market. Employees are entitled to basic rights as workers.


North Korea is blessed that it has few automobiles and a limited number of highways. It offers a perfect environment in which to create communities that do not require automobiles at all for work or for shopping. If North Korea can create communities that work without mind-numbing highway commutes, it will be the envy of the world.

Communities should be designed so that they grow out organically from the existing topography and from existing villages, and should not be planned developments imposed by strangers. New roads and developments should not be built at the cost of farmland and the destruction of the natural environment merely to indulge the tastes of customers.

To the greatest degree possible, family members should be able to work from home, or from near home. Real estate speculation should be severely limited. Ownership of farmland should be limited to local residents. No outsiders, and certainly no corporations, should be allowed to take over farmland.

There is no need for highways in North Korea. They are expensive to build, expensive to maintain and they can create unnecessary foreign debt for developing nations. There are many ways to break down the transportation of people and of goods through overlapping circles of public transportation systems so that automobiles are rarely needed. North Korea can seize the opportunity to create unprecedented transportation infrastructure that will be the envy of the world.

It is much more critical that each community be self-sufficient (and not need to bring in goods from elsewhere) than that it be connected to other cities through wasteful highway systems. In that there are automobiles, they should be electric from the start. It would be relatively cheap to make North Korea 100 percent electric transportation and it would benefit the country immensely as it develops if it sticks to that principle.


The United States and South Korea have seen education turned into a multibillion-dollar industry. North Korea is not ready for that sort of a world, if it ever will be. Education should be focused on ethical issues, the creative expression by individuals and the scientific investigation of the world, including rigorous debate among students, and by extension, among citizens. Book reading should be encouraged as part of a larger project for the individual and for society to understand current challenges and to contribute to society.

Such a shift in the approach to education, from elementary school on, is sufficient to transform a society. The mindless indulgence in video games, vapid videos, commercialized music and pornography that has rendered the youth in many countries as passive consumers incapable of engaging with the issues of their age must be avoided in North Korea.

Education for ordinary citizens in North Korea about climate change, and about land stewardship, will be a critical part of international cooperation in North Korea. Much more money should be invested in developing agriculture than in encouraging people to buy and consume unnecessary products that they cannot afford.

Increasing the quality of education is an essential part of the project of reviving North Korean society. It is also a valuable opportunity to establish a new model for developing countries, and even a model that can be imported into South Korea.

Education is also linked to the arts and humanities, which must stand at the center of a healthy society. Creative and nuanced expression through the arts must be encouraged so as to engender a thriving civil society. You will never get civil society by consuming processed foods or disposable cosmetics. Painting, sculpture, music and song, dance, poetry and narrative should be made part of the lives of citizens, to help them understand the world around them and to imagine a better one.

Art should not be focused on advertisements that encourage thoughtless consumption, but on opening people’s eyes to problems and suggesting solutions. By making art something that is generated from the community, by ordinary citizens, we can provide North Korea with an opportunity to define its own cultural identity and to make a contribution to the world.


Creating cooperative agricultural communities in North Korea will be far more important in the long term than building glitzy hotels, flashy restaurants and exclusive gated communities. Such indulgent projects that are aimed at the elite will merely create greater social alienation regardless of the short-term thrills for decision-makers. North Koreans should be proud to be farmers because farming is the future of the global economy and it is the most honorable and most important job in the economy.

There are those who assume that the process of North Korean modernization should involve a move away from agricultural society and toward an industrialized society in which everyone works in factories or in the service industry. There is no reason to make such an assumption.

In the near future, South Korea will face a deep crisis as the cost of agricultural products rises as a result of desertification around the world, and its own failure to protect its agricultural lands. It was a tremendous mistake of South Korea to sacrifice agriculture in the pursuit of an economy that is dangerously dependent on petroleum, and on exports and imports.

North Korea needs to develop sustainable organic agriculture that is run by the local community and is not indebted to multinational agricultural firms like Monsanto and DuPont. We must make sure that North Korea does not make such a tragic decision to become dependent on imported seeds, fertilizers and pesticides from the beginning.

Emanuel Pastreich is the director of the Asia Institute in Seoul, South Korea. Reprinted, with permission, from Korea Times.

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