North Korea should embrace best technologies from around the world

Puksae’s “Pine Tree” model TV. Image: DPRK Today

The 14th Pyongyang Fall International Products Exhibition was recently held in Pyongyang’s Three Revolutions Exhibition Center in September. “DPRK Today,” a North Korean propaganda media outlet aimed at overseas audiences, reported that a new smart TV produced by the Puksae Electronics Technology Company received a lot of interest from exhibition attendees.

The name of the smart TV is “Pine Tree.” It functions as a digital TV and the screen displays high-quality, clear images. Using the country’s intranet, the TV allows users to peruse various North Korean publications, including the Rodong Sinmun. A mouse and keyboard can be attached to allow users to edit documents. Users can also play games on the TV.

The intelligent TV is a major development for North Korea when compared to the poor-quality, analog TVs of the past. The TV, however, is more than 10 years behind South Korea’s Samsung or LG TVs in terms of technology. It’s laudable that North Korea imports Chinese technology and builds them domestically under the spirit of “self-sufficiency,” but North Korea’s efforts also appear inefficient and behind the times given the fast pace of change in today’s global technology market.

North Korea believes that one-way economic exchanges and cooperation cannot bring about economic development. North Korean leaders have argued that the country must develop its own technologies so it can avoid being stuck in dependent relationships with capitalist countries like other developing countries have. They also argue that the country can build its own successful self-sufficient national economy.

There is nothing wrong with this argument on face value. However, North Korea’s focus on developing its own technologies while avoiding the import of products from developed countries means that it will continue to use and develop poor-quality or outdated technology.

Kim Il Sung once explained North Korea’s self-sufficient national economy to be an “economic system where all sectors of the economy are connected in an organic manner.” This economic system allegedly develops the economy in multifaceted ways, and allows for the domestic production of heavy industrial and light industrial products, along with the agricultural products required to make the country strong and improve the lives of the people. It is also supposed to encourage the use of modern technology and the country’s own natural resources.

Kim Jong Il made some small steps toward opening of the country economically in the 1980s with the Joint Venture Law and again in September 2002 with the designation of Sinuiju as a special economic zone. However, those policies were scaled down or even abandoned when small issues or complications arose.

Given the opportunity, North Korea’s leaders have always emphasized “the superiority of self-sufficiency” and that the “ultimate goal of self-sufficiency is the complete domesticization of production.”  

North Korean policymakers hold a negative perception toward globalization officially because they believe it prioritizes the developed countries of the world and that these same Western, capitalist countries feed off the resources of less developed countries. The North Korean leaders may not be able to abandon their views of the Western world, but they at least need to abandon their feelings of victimization at the hands of South Korea.

Dependence refers to something “existing with reliance on something else.” North Korea has to depend on South Korea during inter-Korean economic exchanges due to the South’s technical and economic superiority.

Although there is a negative nuance on the word dependence, in the field of economics the word refers to mutual exchanges and cooperation – not unilateral dependence. Goods and services require interdependence and mutually-dependent relationships. North Korea’s policies aimed at domesticating all of its production to avoid importing from abroad restricts much of this interdependence from taking place.

Perhaps the most important thing for North Korea’s economic growth is that policymakers have an innovative mindset based on accurate information and rational judgement. North Korea should avoid talking about doing things “for the happiness of the people” and, despite the dangers, focus on bravely embracing the world’s best technologies.

*This author is originally from North Korea.