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Indexing Happiness

scatter plot GDP per capita / North Korean Happiness Index

Rich countries poor souls, according to the North Korean Happiness Index. Data source: shanghaiist/wordbank

It’s official: China is the happiest country on earth. North Korea comes a close second, while the American Empire (the U.S.) ranks at the bottom of the list. That’s according to a Happiness Index released by – surprise! – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For anyone outside Kim Jong-il’s monopoly of information, the index is a surreal and somewhat comical attempt to legitimize the government’s performance. The idea of measuring happiness in general, however, is not quite as far-fetched.

Indices like GDP per capita continue to dominate national debates about social and economic progress, but critics of this practice are no longer ridiculed. Traditional gauges of prosperity are seriously flawed; they do not, for example, take into account environmental degradation or the exhaustion of natural resources. And that’s only part of the problem. The more important argument is that measures such as the GDP disregard most factors that make life worth living.

The Economist has recently launched a debate about whether or not new measures of economic and social progress are needed for 21st century economies. Proposing the motion, Emeritus Professor of Economics Richard Layard argued that quality of life, as people actually experience it, must be a key measure of progress and a central objective for any government. An overwhelming majority of the readers agreed. » More

Begging for Food

What’s for Dinner? photo: oceandesetoiles/flickr

Officials from five aid agencies who have just returned from a trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) say they saw evidence of looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition, including people picking wild grasses to eat. The experts visited North Korea at the request of the DPRK government and were given unprecedented access to assess the country’s food situation. Their report now shows a nation on the verge of disaster. They are therefore appealing for quick assistance to feed the isolated country’s most vulnerable people. There are hurdles, however, to resuming aid to North Korea.

The charity workers – from Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision – spent a week in North Korea earlier this month. In their report, they say they visited hospitals, orphanages and homes as well as farms and warehouses. And they paint a very bleak picture. Last summer, heavy rains and flooding reduced vegetable crops by more than 50 percent, and a bitter winter has now frozen up to 50 percent of wheat and barley. Both the NGOs and the North Korean authorities estimate that food stocks will be exhausted before June.

North Korea has been suffering from food shortages due to economic mismanagement and natural disasters intermittently for the past two decades, when China and the former Soviet Union implemented hard currency payment systems that sharply reduced North Korea’s ability to import goods. The years of mismanagement thus resulted in famines during the 1990s which, according to some estimates, killed over a million people. In past years, therefore, South Korea and the US have been the primary external sources of food, either through direct food assistance or deliveries of fertilizer. But this year, with rising impatience and anger toward the North Korean regime, these reinforcements are in doubt. » More

Keyword in Focus: North Korea

When will this border be crossed again? photo:fresh888/flickr

After Tuesday’s incident, in which North Korea reportedly shot 170 rounds of artillery on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong killing two civilians and two marines, tensions have been at an all-time high in East Asia. Increasingly unpredictable and volatile in its behavior, the Kim regime seems to have embraced a whole new level of brinkmanship in this long-running conflict. Explanations in terms of reasons for such a brazen attack vary, from the internal power dynamics of the elder Kim shifting power to his newly appointed heir-apparent, to simple blackmail. Although we may never know what caused North Korea to risk so much (also in relation to its increasingly impatient ‘big brother’, China) the worry that the Koreas and their closest allies might be drawn into a war because of a provocation or freak accident is as worrying as ever.

I don’t believe that this conflict will escalate further. North Korea has pushed proverbial buttons before and will undoubtedly continue to do so, whether to consolidate the heir-apparent’s power base in the military or in order to push members of the six party forum to grant it further concessions in a yet unforeseeable round of talks. It is, however, unlikely to be willing to sign its own death certificate in the form of a highly destructive war and one which could involve the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons (shudder). We may not want to place much trust on the rational capabilities of Kim and his entourage, but China, for one, will do all it can to prevent this. » More

Take-Your-Kid-To-Work Week

Portraits of Hosni Mubarak and Kim Yong Il

Hosni Mubarak and Kim Yong-Il, courtesy of efouché/una vita a 12 volt/flickr

Do you get to bring your offspring to work once a year? Will that inspire them to follow in your footsteps or do they simply enjoy playing with office supplies and promotional freebies?

The world has seen two very inspiring dads in the past week. Hosni Mubarak and Kim Jong-Il have touchingly taken their sons along on their business trips.

Gamal Mubarak got a taste of one of Egypt’s main diplomatic conundrums: Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Let’s hope that he made a good impression in Washington – he seems pretty serious about taking over his dad’s job.

Reports from South Korea signal that Kim Jong-Un has also probably been getting a little field training with his dad. Speculations that Kim Jong-Il introduced him to the Chinese president last Friday have been making the rounds.

Both authoritarian leaders’ health is ailing, but as professional statesmen they are making sure that the succession will be smooth.

Jean Sarkozy must be so jealous. But don’t worry, good old democracies offer hereditary career possibilities, too. Just ask Uncle George for advice.

60 Years and Counting

Bombs over North Korea in 1950, courtesy of the US Department of Defense/Public Domain

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War; a war that gave rise to one of the most intractable conflicts in modern history. Technically still at war, North and South Korea were torn apart in the shadows of the early phase of the Cold War and in some ways represent one of the last remnants of it.

Yet the war itself, as well its veterans, are often overlooked; a mere footnote in the long, epic and tragic saga of the 20th century.

But to understand the current conflict, to see how deep the antipathy and fear go, it is important to look back at the war and to remember that the seeds of Kim Jong-Il’s madness, the source of China’s intransigence and the root of South Korea’s fear were sown in the conflict that a war-weary and exhausted world fought in 1950-53.

Here are some interesting resources on the topic:

  • The Boston Globe’s Alan Taylor takes us through some harrowing and haunting images of the war in a new picture series.
  • BBC provides an excellent overview of the war and its most important phases.
  • An Institut für Strategie- Politik- Sicherheits- und Wirtschaftsberatung (ISPSW) brief seeks to put together the North Korean puzzle.
  • The 1953 Armistice Agreement in our Primary Resources section shows how the war turned into the stalemate we know today.
  • A chapter from the Canadian Military Journal on the contribution and strategic effects of Canadian and Australian involvement in the war.
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