Skip to main content


What the Koreas tell us about capitalism

Kim: “No man is a villain in his own eyes.” AFP/KCNA/Getty

There was an “almost cartoonish quality” to last week’s meeting between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, says Daniel Hannan in The Sunday Telegraph. The North Korean leader travelled in a “Bond-villain armoured train”; the two men exchanged rifles and talked rockets. “You half expected them to disappear with a thunderclap into a Gothic castle alongside Dracula and Monty Burns.” Not that they will have seen it that way, of course. “No man is a villain in his own eyes.” Kim and Putin believe it’s the West who are the baddies; that although Western liberalism may yield a higher GDP, it costs far more in fragmented families, drugs and degeneracy. Who’s to argue, they would say, that people aren’t happier in Moscow and Pyongyang?

Well, just look at the two Koreas. They began from almost exactly the same place in 1953: the same language, culture and work ethic. Today, the South’s economy is 57 times larger than the North’s. Its people live more than 10 years longer. Its children are many times more likely to survive infancy – “and if that statistic doesn’t correlate with greater net happiness, I don’t know what does”. The rapid growth of the largely atheist South also undermines the argument that booming liberal capitalism is a measure of success only in predominantly Protestant cultures. The West is by no means perfect. But there’s a reason why 33,000 North Koreans have braved “dogs, mines and guns” to escape their home country. “States in which you can be liquidated, and your friends will be too scared to complain, are not conducive to human contentment.”