Informal Institute for National Security Thinkers and Practitioners - News from the Associate Director, Security Studies Program
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Putting Statistics to Work in a Land of Illusions (north Korea)
I have heard Nick Eberstadt at some conferences on Korea. He has done a lot of analysis of the statistical information that the north provides. In one example I vividly remember he showed how the data that north Korea provided show that population in north Korea actually increased during the great famine of 1994-1996 when the objective analysis shows that more than a million likely starved to death. Furthermore, the north Korean data on infant mortality at one time at least showed that north had a superior infant mortality rate than the US.
And I do not think that this program "risks" that these students will return to the north to be able to manipulate the data for the regime, I guarantee that it will whether by direction or necessity on the part of the newly minted statistician. Since advancement in the north occurs because of demonstrated loyalty to Kim Jong-un with one of the measure of loyalty being how good you make him and the Kim Family Regime look I believe that the statistics education these students receive will be put to good use for both the regime and their own personal benefit (e.g., survival). There is no way that these statisticians can ever report bad statistical news so they have to be very good at manipulating the numbers to tell the right story to and for the regime.
But in the long run I concur with Nick Eberstadt that this kind of engagement is good and can have long term positive effects and should be continued. The opportunity to influence some potentially important technocrats (they are all well-vetted and have to be loyal members of the regime) as well as potentially establish relationships that can later be exploited should not be passed up.
Wanted: statisticians to teach their craft in what many experts call the country with the least reliable statistics in the world.
The Pyongyang Summer Institute in Survey Science and Quantitative Methodology last year began teaching students at North Korea's first private university about such topics as probability, correlation and survey methodology. More than 250 students, mostly in their 20s, learned from 13 instructors from the U.S. and Europe. This summer, the institute hopes to have 30 teachers instructing 250 students and 100 government workers.
Since North Korea's establishment in 1948, its authoritarian regimes have made it state policy to conceal many statistics from the outside world, say researchers. Here, North Koreans shown last month leaving the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.
Several students sought grants to apply the knowledge in year-long projects, such as using statistical techniques to create a plan for an ice-cream business in Pyongyang, or to study college students' television-watching behavior, according to the institute's director, Asaph Young Chun.
In the U.S., these could be the unremarkable activities of an introductory stats course at a college summer program. In North Korea, they are extraordinary events that could have positive effects, but also come with risks, North Korea researchers say. Since the country's establishment in 1948, its authoritarian regimes have made it state policy to conceal many statistics from the outside world, and to falsify some of the numbers they do release, according to researchers.
"Trying to describe North Korea statistically for a statistician is like [climbing] Mount Everest," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank. "It's the last place on earth where one can't find regular, reliable data on a national scale."
Organizers of the summer statistical institute, known as PSI, say their goal is education and promoting engagement between scientists from different countries, without any political intent. "We are there to serve them, to learn from them," Dr. Chun said of the institute's students, who last summer were drawn from the institute's host school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2010.
Some researchers familiar with North Korea's official statistics worry that training young people in proper statistical techniques won't achieve its goal, or will even backfire. Marcus Noland, director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., who has experience in similar training programs in arbitration and economic policy in North Korea, said graduates of the program likely "will never be able to put their new skills to use," because the government isn't equipped or willing to let them do so.