How could North Korea’s economy be growing faster than Brazil’s?

Doing their civic duty.
Doing their civic duty.
Image: AP Photo / David Guttenfelder
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For an internationally condemned and reclusive communist state, North Korea’s economy isn’t doing all that badly. The economy grew 1.3% last year, according to South Korea’s central bank, which analyzes data gathered by South Korean institutions. This marks the country’s second year of growth and its fastest pace since 2008. That rate is better than Brazil’s economy, which grew just 0.9% last year, on par with Taiwan‘s growth last year, and not far behind Singapore’s.

Of course, North Korea’s economy is tiny, at $30 billion, or a little less than 3% the size of South Korea’s. And 2.8 million North Koreans are still affected by chronic food shortages, according to a recent United Nations report. But the new leadership, under Kim Jong-un, appears serious about economic growth—and not just destabilizing the international system with the country’s nuclear ambitions. It’s unclear just how big a dent international sanctions are making in those ambitions at this point.

So what’s helping the economy chug along? Agriculture, farming, and fisheries as a combined sector grew 3.9% last year, according to the Bank of Korea. Livestock farming increased 12.3%. Industrial output and manufacturing were both up by 1.3% and 1.6% respectively. Aid and trade from China is helping, as is an underground economy.

North Korea’s modest, but better-than-expected growth, is spawning a small class of new rich (and refrigerator sales.) The impact of economic growth could be felt elsewhere as well: North Korea’s national soccer team, eliminated from the next World Cup, could have a fighting chance in the future as the state pours more resources into national sports. In May, officials opened a special training academy for young soccer players.