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01 / 05
The Secret Lives of North Korean Children

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

The Secret Lives of North Korean Children

Communist societies have a population of serfs with limited or no rights

In my beginner’s guide to socialist economics I noted that communism, which was supposed to lead to greater equality, has in fact led to a return of feudalism.

Like feudal societies, communist societies have an aristocracy composed of the communist party members.

Like feudal societies, communist societies have a population of serfs with limited or no rights and little possibility of social mobility.

Like feudal societies, communist societies are held together by brute force.

As if to prove me right, The Daily Mirror, has just released footage from North Korea’s northeast province of Ryanggang, where hundreds of children can be seen breaking and carrying rocks during construction of a local railway.

The children are eight or nine years old and work up to 10 hours a day in the heat of the blazing sun. Neither they nor their parents are compensated for this back-breaking labor.

[The image is provided courtesy of The Daily Mirror]

As the newspaper points out, these are the children of North Korea’s working class. Familiar class stratification has emerged in North Korea, with the communist party and the government employees at the top, and the underclass at the bottom.

The children of the former attend newly-constructed schools and enjoy, as much as they can in the Hermit Kingdom, a semblance of a normal life. The latter are barely surviving in a state of abject poverty and servitude. So much, then, for the communist commitment to equality.

In the Daily Mirror footage:

“In one film … a forlorn lad of around eight or nine, wearing an England football shirt, is ordered to break rocks at a cliff face. Girls pair up as they struggle to lift heavy loads into piles. One young boy winces under the strain of his work. Teachers shielding their faces from the glaring midday sun bark orders at other youngsters bent double from lugging sacks as big as their bodies. Mounds of massive sandstone broken up by the dusty child slaves can be seen piled high.” It is worth noting that child labour was once a completely unobjectionable part of human existence. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, which started in Great Britain in the late 18th century, no society thought twice of eschewing child labour. As Johan Norberg noted in his book Progress, “Prior to the mid-19th century it was common for working-class children to start working from seven years of age.”

It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that child labor should come to be so closely associated with the process of industrialization – a topic well worth exploring in greater depth below.

child-labour-north-korea-graph-1

As the chart above illustrates, people did not write about child labor prior to the 19th century, because working children were so ubiquitous. Prior to industrialization, which massively increased productivity of the farm, there were no food “surpluses.” All of the food that the farm produced was consumed by the peasant families and their beasts of burden.

An idle child or, for that matter, an idle man, woman or donkey, was a waste of precious resources. “The survival of the family demanded that everybody contributed,” writes Norberg.

child-labour-north-korea-graph-2

Bemoaning child labor, in other words, made about as much sense as complaining about a lack of plans for the weekend—since most people worked at least six days a week. It was industrialization that changed all that.

As farm productivity increased, people no longer had to stay on the farm and grow their food. They moved to the cities in search of a better life. At first, living conditions were dire. Medieval cities were not prepared for the influx of millions of people from the countryside. Slums arose and disease spread.

By the mid-19th century, however, living and working conditions started to improve. Economic expansion led to an increased competition for labor and wages grew. That, in turn, enabled more parents to forego their children’s labor and send them to school instead.

child-labour-north-korea-graph-3

It is crucial to remember that it was only after a critical mass of children stopped working that people realized that life without child labor was possible. Legislation limiting child labor got more stringent as the 19th century progressed, but it was not until the Factory and Workshop Act of 1878 that the British Parliament banned labor for children less than 10 years of age and required that all children under 10 receive compulsory education.

Prosperity brought about by trade and industrialization in particular made child labor in the West obsolete.

Over the course of the 20th century, prosperity spread to other parts of the world. Today, child labor in Asia and Latin America are at an all-time low. It remains a problem in Africa, large parts of which remain stuck in the subsistence economy.

It flourishes in North Korea – a modern slave-state that, in the pursuit of communism, has returned its children to an impoverished, servile working class.

This article first appeared in CapX. 

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 25

Maria Chaplia: An Update on Ukraine

Ukrainian lawyer and economist Maria Chaplia joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Blog Post | Overall Mortality

The Canadian Child-Deaths Would Not Have Shocked Our Ancestors

Half of all children died before adulthood in archaic societies, one quarter before their first birthday and another quarter before the age of 15.

Summary: The recent discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada have shocked the world and exposed the brutal legacy of colonialism. However, for most of human history, such atrocities were common and accepted. This article argues that we should appreciate the human progress that has made us more sensitive to this suffering.


Revelations of graveyards containing the bodies of some 4,000 children from the First Nations in Canada have shocked the world. The dead were some of the 150,000 indigenous children sent or forcibly taken to residential schools meant to divorce the former from their birth culture.

The graves represent the injustice and misery of the past, but our reaction to them is proof of our advancement. In pre-industrial times, child deaths were so common that those graves wouldn’t have shocked anyone. In fact, a death rate of some three percent of children is low by historical standards. It was only in the past 50 or 60 years that the child mortality rate fell below 3 percent – even in rich countries.

The usual estimation is that half of all children died before adulthood in archaic societies, one quarter before their first birthday and another quarter before the age of 15, which is the end of puberty and our reasonable definition of becoming an adult. That seems to hold over all societies examined, including the Roman Empire, 18th century Britain, and all other groups of humans over time. (It is also, roughly speaking, true of the other Great Apes.)

This sorry state of affairs was brought to an end in three stages. The first stage was the discovery of infectious disease. John Snow, for example, showed that cholera cycled through the sewage and water systems. His discovery led to the single greatest aid to human health ever: the development of proper water systems, which provide fresh water and carry away sewage. Essentially, drains were the first step in reducing child mortality.

The second stage was the development of antibiotics. As late as 1924, an infected blister killed the U.S. President’s son. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that effective antibiotics were deployed at any scale. It took another decade to discover a treatment for tuberculosis, which was one of the great killers of the first half of the 20th century.

The third stage was the development of vaccines for common childhood diseases. Smallpox had been preventable since the 1790s with vaccination and through variolation before that. But polio remained a problem until the 1950s and measles into the 1960s. That last disease could, if unleashed against a population with no resistance at all, kill over 10 percent of people infected.

The combined effect of these discoveries – alongside better medical care, nutrition, shelter, and heating – has been a 100-fold reduction in youth mortality over the 20th century. The process isn’t finished yet. Far too many children still die due to a lack of access to clean water, antibiotics, and desirable immunizations. But those discoveries are all spreading, and, in that sense, the world is getting better at record speed.

In rich nations, such as Canada, Britain, the United States, the child mortality rate ranges from 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent – down from 50 percent in human history. A significant portion of the remaining mortality is due to accident, not disease.

This article is not meant to diminish the pain of losing a child or to suggest that pain was lighter in the past because it was reasonable to expect to lose a child. Rather, it is to point out how that loss is so much less common today.

Nor is it implying that the First Nations children in Canada were treated acceptably. Rather, the above data is meant to remind the reader that previous generations of humans would have found nothing strange at all about graveyards full of children. That we find them shocking today is proof of human progress.

Today’s expectation, an entirely reasonable one, is that any child born today will live between 70 and 80 years. We’re in the first two or three generations of humans who ever existed where the assumption of reaching adulthood is better than a 50/50 break. How can that not be thought of as progress?

Blog Post | Government & Democracy

The Uyghur Genocide and Neo-Malthusianism

Countering neo-Malthusianism is especially critical now given the recent prominence of such thinking.

Mounting evidence shows that China has enacted wide‐​ranging human rights abuses, including coercive population control, on its Uyghur minority. An Associated Press investigation released in late June showed that while China’s rate of permanent sterilization procedures is falling nationally, the rate in Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs live, has skyrocketed. Many of those surgeries were involuntary. Many Uyghur women are forcibly sterilized after having two children, as third children are illegal in China. The two‐​child policy replaced China’s previous one‐​child policy in 2016.

The immense cruelty of what is happening to China’s Uyghur population demonstrates the inhumanity of China’s two‐​child policy and the urgency of combating the mindset that undergirds it. The way that the policy is enforced is influenced by prejudice against minorities, but authorities justify the policy with neo‐​Malthusianism, defined as the fear that a large population size could lead to a humanitarian and ecological disaster and that combating so‐​called overpopulation is thus an urgent problem. “The tensions between population and resources and environment will not fundamentally change,” noted China’s State Council in its national population development plan for 2016–2030, released in 2017. The plan specifies, according to state‐​run news agency Xinhua, that the government must continue to implement the “two‐​child policy to promote balanced population development.”

Sadly, the view that some groups are less worthy of having children than others has often gone hand in hand with neo‐​Malthusianism, both historically and today. China’s government subjects Uyghurs to strict enforcement of the country’s two‐​child limit, using overpopulation concerns about resource scarcity in part as a cover to make forcibly decreasing the population of a minority more palatable.

The neo‐​Malthusian mindset has caused many people outside of China to turn a blind eye to the coercive nature of the one‐​child (now two‐​child) policy. As recently as 2018, New York University law professor Dan Guttman told Harvard Political Review: “With the one‐​child policy, China put into effect the single most effective climate change rule in the world.”

In fact, Western development professionals originally encouraged China’s birth limits. In 1983, the United Nations Population Fund bestowed an award on Qian Xinzhong, head of China’s State Family Planning Commission and the man in charge of the country’s one‐​child policy, as well as Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister who declared a national “Emergency” that suspended civil liberties and mandated sterilizations on a massive scale between 1975 and 1977.

Fears that without coercion, China would have seen an environmentally damaging “population explosion” are unfounded. China’s birth rate would have fallen without coercion, in the normal course of economic development. Today, even in Sub Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, birth rates are falling voluntarily. Projections of world population growth show that the total population of the planet will decline in the long run. Moreover, population growth can coincide with rising prosperity. China’s remarkable economic growth and poverty eradication over the last few decades have been the result of economic liberalization, not regulating women’s allowable number of births.

While many accounts of coerced sterilization and forced abortion have emerged from the Uyghur community, the Han ethnic majority is not exempt. Even as the Chinese national government now frets about falling birth rates’ impact on the country’s economy, many revenue‐​hungry local governments throughout China continue to fine couples for illegal births and enforce childbearing limits.

For example, last year, one couple in Shandong province, who could not afford a fine of $9,570 for violating family planning regulations had their life savings (around $3,000) seized. Also last year, a school teacher in Guangdong lost her job after giving birth to a third child in violation of the two‐​child policy. There are now many hopeful signs that the Chinese government may move toward ending childbearing limits, but that has not yet come to pass.

Today, neo‐​Malthusian thinking is seeing a resurgence. At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Switzerland, famed primatologist Jane Goodall opined, “All these [environmental] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.” The world population 500 years ago is estimated at 420–540 million people, or around 6.7 billion fewer people than today.

Goodall is far from alone in her belief that population growth is an urgent problem. Public figures, ranging from Prince Harry and Bill Nye “the Science Guy” to television host Bill Maher, have all recently expressed overpopulation fears. Last year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio‐​Cortez (D-NY) famously questioned the morality of childbearing in the face of climate change, asking, “Is it OK to still have children?”

Countering neo‐​Malthusianism is especially critical now given the recent prominence of such thinking. To learn more about the history of coercive population control inspired by neo‐​Malthusianism, and the problematic policies that persist today—including the forced mass sterilization of Uyghur women—consider reading my new paper, Neo‐​Malthusianism and Coercive Population Control in China and India.

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

100 Years of Communism: Death and Deprivation

The verdict of history is clear, but only if people are willing to see it.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. It did so by accident.

During a press conference, the spokesman for East Berlin’s Communist Party noted that citizens of the German Democratic Republic would be allowed to travel to the West. For months, pressure was building on the authorities, as tens of thousands of East Germans tried to flee to West Germany via the unguarded Hungarian frontier.

To regain control of the situation, the authorities agreed to start providing exit visas to the restless populace in the near future, but both the nature and the timing of the concession got lost in a frenzy of questions that followed the announcement.

The word of the border opening spread like wildfire. By midnight thousands of Berliners squared off against a few dozen confused policemen guarding the Bornholmer Street checkpoint. Overwhelmed, the police let the people through. Over the next three days, three million East Germans got their first taste of the life in the West.

The communist authority in East Germany crumbled along with the Wall. Within a year, the two Germanys were reunified. In Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania, communist governments met the same fate. Finally, in August 1991, communism fell in the Soviet Union, and the country dissolved on December 26.

Twenty-eight years later, those of us who lived through those momentous days still cherish the freedoms that we gained. For most people, alas, communism is but an echo of a distant past. So much so that socialism, an economic system of communist countries, is experiencing something of a renaissance.

In Venezuela, for example, an 18-year-old experiment with socialism is entering a horrific denouement marked by hyperinflation, hunger, rising infant mortality rates and increasingly brutal suppression of the opposition. In the United Kingdom, an unrepentant socialist came within a few percentage points of winning this year’s election, while in the United States, a socialist senator almost became the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency.

Let us, therefore, remind ourselves what communism wrought.

Writing in this newspaper, A. Barton Hinkle noted that “while the Soviet Union is no more and communism has been discredited in most eyes for many years, it is hard even now to grasp the sheer scale of agony imposed by the brutal ideology of collectivism.” Indeed.

“The Black Book of Communism,” a postmortem of communist atrocities compiled by European and American academics in 1997, concluded that the human cost of genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, and artificial famines stood at over 94 million.

Professor Mark Kramer from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University edited “The Black Book.” Subsequent research, he told me, suggests that “the total number (of people) who died unnatural deaths under communist regimes … (is) upward of 80 million.”

Let’s put that new number in perspective.

Between 1825 and 1917, wrote Stéphane Courtois from the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the Tsarist regime in Russia “carried out 6,321 political executions … whereas in two months of official ‘Red Terror’ in the fall of 1918 Bolshevism achieved some 15,000.”

Or, consider the Inquisition. According to Professor Agostino Borromeo, a historian of Catholicism at the Sapienza University in Rome, “there were some 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain … (between 1478 and 1834, but only) about 1 percent of the defendants (i.e., 1,250) were executed.”

Finally, consider the counterreformation. Queen “Bloody” Mary, who tried to restore Catholicism to England between 1553 and 1558, sent 280 dissenters to the stake. Between November 1917, when the communists came to power in Russia, and the North Korean famine in the mid-1990s, communists were responsible for deaths of at least 154 people every hour.

Consider, also, the economic legacy of communism. While socialist economies of Central and Eastern Europe continued to grow for much of the communist period, capitalist countries in Western Europe grew faster.

For example, look at East and West Germany. At the end of World War II, average incomes in Germany were, by definition, equal. By 1989, West German incomes were almost twice as high as those in East Germany.

Then there is North and South Korea. Once again, incomes in Korea were equal, on average, at the conclusion of World War II. Contemporary data for North Korea is tough to come by, but Professor Angus Maddison of Groningen University estimated that in 2008, South Koreans were 18 times richer than North Koreans.

Finally, those who are truly interested in the reality of daily life under socialism can see it for themselves by visiting Cuba and Venezuela.

No matter where it was tried, communism has always resulted in mountains of dead bodies. As for socialist economics, it has always resulted in shortages, inefficiency, poverty, and desperation. The verdict of history is clear, but only if people are willing to see it.

This piece first appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch