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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Every Dollar Spent on Tourism in North Korea is a Dollar Spent Building Nuclear Weapons

by | November 17th, 2013 | 06:51 am
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NK nuke farming final

It’s a Grumpy Old Men weekend at Witness to Transformation. First, Steph goes off on some photographer. Today it’s my turn to take a whack at a self-serving travel writer, if I could only figure out who he is.

Someone passed along a piece titled “Every Person Working in Tourism is Making a Living Not Making Bombs” by Robert Willoughby over at NK News, which is run by Chad O’Carroll. Or Tad O’Farrell. Or Tad Farrell. I’m never sure which. Anyway, my basic reaction was that the piece was either stupid or disingenuous: it’s not like the fabrication of nuclear weapons is a labor-intensive activity like, say plantation agriculture, so that the availability of labor is the constraint. “Comrade, I was stuck down on the nuke farm until Walter Keats came along—now I have a job in tourism!” Rather, money—which allows the purchase of imported components and payment for imported technical assistance–is the constraint. So while I am pretty sure that the assertion that constitutes the title of this blog post is inaccurate, it’s closer to the truth than the “every person working in tourism…” claim.

But as I read the Willoughby piece it dawned on me that I had read the same piece before, or at least a very similar piece in the Guardian. A couple of keystrokes and lo and behold: “Tourism in North Korea: the secret state is opening up” by one Robin Tudge. But he makes an even more boneheaded claim: “every dollar spent on tourism is a dollar not spent on centrifuges or Mercedes.” Well, no. To the extent that the state controls the tourism sector (and no argument on this point since Tudge’s Exhibit A is Masik Pass, a state project if there ever was one), every dollar spent on tourism may well support expenditure on centrifuges or Mercedes. It depends in part on who is doing the spending. If it is foreigners, a reasonable supposition, since Tudge is flogging the opening of the secret state, then this means new money is injected into a state controlled project and the state can spend the money anyway it likes, including on centrifuges and Mercedes. Indeed, Sherman Robinson—at least I think it was Sherman—and I actually built a model of the North Korean economy in which we could estimate, using the expenditure patterns prevailing at the time, how much food aid would eventually boost military expenditure as the inflow of aid led to a diminution of expenditure on imported food. The issue even came up the recent Commission of Inquiry hearings. Tudge can look it up.

Anyway, the story gets stranger still.

The Robin Tudge piece set off a firestorm of critical commentary on the Guardian site, and who other than Robert Willoughby rides to the rescue defending Tudge! Now we know where Willoughby got the idea, misguided as it is, he stole it from Tudge!

But wait! When I click on Willoughby’s Guardian icon I see his website is robintudge.com.

Oh no.

Steph, You won’t believe this. The guy writes the piece under one name then responds to his critics under another, appearing to be a third party. Brilliant! Why didn’t we think of this?

And then he sells the piece to O’Carroll/O’Farrell/Farrell under a different name and picks up another paycheck. Ingenious! Why didn’t we think of this!? I wonder if McBarrell knows about the Guardian piece?

And what is it with these Brits and their multiple identities? Maybe I should ask Aidan Foster-Carter. At least he limits it just to hammering two names together. As far as I know, that is.

The possibilities are endless. On Facebook Willoughby can friend O’Caroll who can then endorse Tudge on Linkedin who can subscribe to McBarrell’s Twitter feed all while reading Sludge’s commentary on Drudge’s website.

I wonder what his real name is? Can’t really be Matt Drudge can it?

In sum,

  • Robert Willoughby is the same as Robin Tudge. (In fairness, I think that Willoughby/Tudge mentions this somewhere on his website.)
  • I’m not sure who runs NK News, but he seems like a pleasant enough guy.
  • “Every person working in tourism is making a living not making bombs” is a red herring.
  • Every dollar spent on tourism in North Korea indirectly contributes to making bombs.
  • The whole “tourism in North Korea” issue raises complex ethical questions that we and others have wrestled with and will continue to address on this blog.

Now where’s my extra paycheck?