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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

North Korea, A Port Too Far

by and Kevin Stahler | April 30th, 2014 | 07:00 am

In a series of three posts (on regional developments here; on cities here; on the urban-rural divide here) Travis Pope and Steph Haggard demonstrated some of the things that could be done by measuring luminosity culled from satellite data. One surprising finding was that average total luminosity from Nampo and Rason was almost equal to that in Pyongyang, but substantially more–roughly double–that of Chongjin and Wonsan on the East Coast. We speculated that this might be related to globalization; that if luminosity is an indicator of aggregate economic activity, it may be more pronounced in cities tied more closely to the world economy.

Again taking a global mapping approach, we now have some additional anecdotal evidence that this is true in the form of a time-lapse visualization of maritime transport routes in the region. In a similar vein, NK News’ Live North Korea Ship Tracking uses the same data to isolate the paths of not only North Korea’s maritime fleet, but other vessels that have known trade relationships with the DPRK.

Both approaches tell roughly the same story. First, North Korea is once again a relative black hole compared to its neighbors, literally bypassed by the myriad shipping routes around the peninsula. Second, what shipping does go into and out of North Korea tends to pass almost entirely through Nampo; other nominal seaports or potential ports–particularly on the East Coast–show virtually no traffic. Third, the map emphasizes the tremendous dependence of North Korea on China, both in what it shows and in what it doesn’t show. The minimal maritime trade North Korea engages in appears overwhelmingly destined for Dalian, Dandong, and other Chinese ports (there is also some activity near Vladivostok in Russia). A relative lack of sea trade also highlights a greater reliance on land-based trade, which traverses the twelve land ports along the China-DPRK border.

Finally, the map makes the opportunity cost argument very clearly; comparison with South Korea shows the effects of an export-oriented approach to growth and the tremendous costs in foregone opportunity of pursuing self-reliance.