Why this communist state, with per capita income like ours, manufactures nuclear weapons and satellites while we can’t
Last week the U.S. announced its intelligence showed North Korea was planning to test another nuclear weapon. If it does, it will be the sixth nuclear test by this poor isolated nation.
It is estimated North Korea has about 10 nuclear weapons built by her scientists with little help from outside. Yet that country has an estimated nominal GDP of only $17 billion – $40 billion in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) and a nominal per capita income of $642 ($1,800 in PPP). This places the country among the poorest nations in the world, similar to nations of Sub Sahara Africa such as Mali, Mozambique, Uganda, Senegal, Malawi, Gambia, etc.
North Koreans starve to death for lack of food. There is no freedom or liberty and people are totally closed from the outside world. Over the past seven decades, its GDP per capita has been equal to that of many African nations.
Yet in spite of its small GPD and low per capita income, North Korea has made many technological breakthroughs; it manufactures nuclear weapons, has put a satellite in space, and designs, builds, and launches missiles that can fly hundreds of miles to their target. It produces heavy military hardware like armored personnel carriers, artillery, cannons, tanks etc. It builds its own dams, roads and railways, produces its own motor vehicles and home appliances. The country enjoys a high degree of industrial production.
So why does this country, often seen as having destructive policies, perform such technological feats? How come no poor or even rich Sub-Sahara African country has mastered technology to manufacture even rudimentary things like pins, leave alone mobile phones, which our people use in massive numbers?
Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko; when he was president of former Zaire (now DRC), tried to launch a satellite into space using German engineers. The project collapsed after the initial launch failed. When building dams, railways and highways, we rely on foreign contractors. Machinery to manufacture the most rudimentary industrial products in Africa is always imported. At best our factories assemble products made in and by other countries and peoples.
These questions also apply to the former Soviet Union. In 1928, the USSR (mainly Russia and its satellites) was a backward agrarian society when Josef Stalin embarked on a process of industrial transformation using five-year development plans. By 1941 when the most industrialised country in Europe, Germany, attacked them, the soviets were able to repulse the attack. In fact Nazi Germany was, among others reasons, defeated because soviet military technology was able to out-produce Germany industry.
By 1949, Soviet Russia was able to produce an atomic bomb. Soviet Russia that had for 30 years been terrorised by the brutal Stalin, again was the first nation to put a satellite in space and to orbit the earth. It was also the first country to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile and an antiballistic missile. Thus, in spite of tyranny and communism, the Russians were able to master highly sophisticated technologies including beating the Americans in space technology and certain aspects of missile technology.
So what is embedded in the minds, politics and social organisation of North Koreans that makes these technological innovations possible?
Many people say the problem of Africa is leadership – by which they often mean the president. But North Korea does not seem to have better leaders. Its leaders die in office and power passes to their sons.
It does not also need a rocket scientist to conclude that with their level of technological mastery, if North Korea opened itself up to capitalist production, it would leap frog to join the club of highly industrialised nations – just as its neighbor to the south did.
So the bad leaders are not a problem for North Korea – even though they are really awful. Their choice of economic policies: state control of the entire economy, absence of private property and competition, limited openness to trade etc could be a hindrance but not a deterrent as in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The case of North Korea can also be seen in China which, when it chose to reform herself under the same communist party but pursue capitalism, launched herself on the world’s most dynamic journeys from poverty to riches. In less than 40 years it has transformed from a poor country with per capita income levels of Africa to the largest economy in the world by PPP. Today it is the factory of the world.
As Africans we should therefore be asking ourselves what it is that inhibits our ability to produce our own technologies? Note that most sub-Saharan nations possess political institutions and public policies that (we are told) ensure prosperity.
Is it, therefore, our education system which is the problem? Is it our social organisation? Is it our colonial history that destroyed our self-belief in our ability to produce our own technologies? Is it the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism that keeps us looking outward for the solutions to our problems?
It is possible many Africans are busy tinkering with technology, producing small and big things in their backyards and in small labs. But our mindset, which shapes our political institutions and public policies, could be inclined to ignore these multitudes of inventions and innovations because we are fixated with the idea that technology comes from outside. So we do not invest in our own innovations.
I once visited the Uganda Industrial Research Institute in Kampala and found a semi-literate guy from the city’s metal fabrication hub, Katwe, had built a car engine. The project ended there. The nation’s top university, Makerere, also recently produced a car. But many Ugandans – in their narrow-minded hostility – sneered at it.
Could it be this lack of self-belief – prevalent in the minds of leaders and citizens (remember the leaders come from amongst us and therefore reflect who we are) – that explains our inability to master technology?
Our mindset is to always look outside for solutions to our problems. So we are obsessed with listening to international bureaucrats at World Bank and IMF for policy advice. We look to ICC to try our leaders. We seek Foreign Direct Investment as the solution to our investment needs. We want to educate our children from Europe, North America and Asia – not so that they can come apply the knowledge home but so that they can get a job at Google in California or Microsoft in Seattle. We want our political institutions to mimic those of Europe or North America. That mindset could be our real problem between us and progress.