Economics Student Pokes Holes in North Korea’s Secrecy

Posted: July 6, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:35 am

By James Greif

Curtis Melvin. Creative Services photo

Curtis Melvin. Creative Services photo

North Korea is known as one of the most repressive and secretive regimes in the world. In the United States, much of the news about North Korea pertains to the country’s developing nuclear weapons program and the erratic behavior of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the government controls the flow of information to its citizens and the rest of the world. A throwback to Stalin’s Russia, the Communist country operates in a cloak of secrecy and stopped publishing economic data in the 1960s.

However, Curtis Melvin, a PhD student in economics, has been poking quite a few holes in this cloak with his blog, North Korean Economy Watch.

The site takes a look at news items related to North Korea, including the soccer team’s advancement to the World Cup or the effect of international sanctions. The blog, which gets thousands of views each month, keeps readers up to date on mainstream news regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and missile tests, but focuses more on the economic aspects of the country and aims for a “highbrow” approach to covering DPKR news.

North Korean Economy Watch has received media attention in the last month because of an article in the Wall Street Journal that focuses on a feature of the site titled “North Korea Uncovered,” widely regarded as the most authoritative map of North Korea available to the public. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas used the map last year during a presentation about the country’s prison facilities and human rights record.

The map combines satellite images from Google Earth with personal accounts from visitors, former North Korean citizens and even the North Korean media to create a detailed look at the country’s economic, military, cultural and political sites.

Anyone who has downloaded the Google Earth software can view details of the country’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), jails, political monuments, residencies of the political elite, military bases and nuclear facilities.

“It is impossible to know everything about the country, but the Internet has made it easier for people with information about the country from all across the planet to share that information with those who don’t,” Melvin says.

A screen shot from Melvin's blog.

A screen shot from Melvin's blog.

The Wall Street Journal story also led Melvin to appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and NPR, as well as other newspapers and radio talk shows from all over the world.

Since launching in April 2007, the map has been downloaded more than 140,000 times.

If North Korea didn’t have nuclear weapons, Melvin believes there would not be much interest in what happens there. Melvin has also published a map of Turkmenistan, “a repressive regime in its own right,” but that map has far fewer downloads than the one of North Korea, Melvin says.

“These countries have built a fence around their yard, and with Google Earth, we can, in a sense, get up on our tiptoes and peek over the fence.”

“Through Google Earth, we can now see physically the extent of North Korea’s marketization,” says Melvin.

“We can view the disparity in the level of living standards between the political elite and ordinary citizens. Also, we can physically see the toll the famine has taken by viewing the burial grounds where it is estimated that more than a million people perished from hunger.”

Melvin has visited more than 40 countries and became interested in economic development as the result of his travels. He previously worked on the Mercatus Center’s Enterprise Africa! Global Prosperity Initiative.

“I became fascinated with how poor countries can transition to prosperous countries. Economics plays a role in the answer to this question,” Melvin says.

“When you look at South Korea and North Korea, you can see the effect policies have. Countries with similar cultures now have far different economic results due to each country’s policies. South Korea now has one of the highest standards of living in Asia, and North Korea has one of the lowest standards and one of the worst human rights records as well.”

Melvin says he was drawn to Mason’s economics program because of its notable faculty and programs in experimental and public choice economics. He adds that Mason is an exciting place to learn.

“In order to understand the [North Korean] government’s actions,” Melvin says, “I would fall back on a speech by Mason’s Nobel Prize-winning economist, James Buchanan, where he says to assume self-interest on the part of governments and predict their behavior based on constraints in needing to secure their authority as times change and the economy changes.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu