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THE LAST WORD: Africa through North Korean eyes

Why this communist state, with per capita income like ours, manufactures nuclear weapons and satellites while we can’t

By Andrew M. Mwenda

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.

5 comments

  1. What language does North Korea speak? India? France? Germany? And what language does Uganda speak? Kenya or Africa for that matter? What if the leadership of North Korea was more receptive to the outside world, may be the economics would have been different?

  2. 1. Ministry of Education
    2. Longevity in power

    The major problems of Sub-Saharan Africa.

  3. Kant Kanyarusoke

    Andrew and all,
    Unfortunately, in a forum like this, I cannot do full justice to a topic as dear to me at this moment as this one. However, let me give a few thoughts from my recent research and current effort on ‘decolonising’ engineering education in sub-Sahara Africa.
    First, all those things: safety pins engineering, automotive engineering, chemical and nuclear, aero and astro engineering etc. are within the capabilities of most well trained and motivated teams of engineers irrespective of their colour, race or whatever. There is sufficient knowledge out there in the open for anyone with a proper mindset to use and make progress in these areas. What is needed are the materials, the organisation and motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic) to do so.
    In most of SSA, materials and necessary critical mass threshold numbers (of technical and engineering personnel) are missing – in part due to balkanisation of the continent and a deliberate effort by colonialists to eliminate traditional engineering/technical work.

    Knowledge is easy to acquire: skills to use that knowledge take time to develop. When traditional African artisans were eliminated, the education that replaced their training emphasised non-technical work like clerical, teaching the 3 Rs, administration, – and later, law, commerce, etc. Medicine came in so that the Africans could be treated by their kind – but you realise it is also NOT Technical. Technical education that has capacity to transform the societies was downgraded and left to ‘failures’ first at P7 and then at S4 level.
    Apart from knowledge and skills, the other necessary ingredient to transform society is ‘attitudes’. Colonial education ensured (and so does the post independence one I am now fighting against) that the old African semi-egalitarian outlook to life in society was thoroughly swept out of minds of those who acquired the new education. An individualistic and capitalistic outlook was and continues to be implanted in our learners and opinion leaders. Education is no longer free nor compulsory as it used to be. It is now monetised and looked at as an individual family’s capital investment which must obey the usual capitalistic rules of investment (maximise monetary returns in the shortest time possible). Failures in the system resort to previously abominable means of recouping their failed investments (e.g. through corrupt politics and unethical business). The idea of a common good is long gone in SSA. Thus, even the motivation on the few engineers and technicians to work for the good of an unrewarding society first and foremost is apparently gone. It is therefore a far cry to have a China, a North Korea, a Russia, an India, etc. among these tiny SSA countries. That is a war some of us have to fight!

  4. Kant Kanyarusoke

    For some reason (may be length?) this comment had been ignored.

    Andrew and all,
    Unfortunately, in a forum like this, I cannot do full justice to a topic as dear to me at this moment as this one. However, let me give a few thoughts from my recent research and current effort on ‘decolonising’ engineering education in sub-Sahara Africa.
    First, all those things: safety pins engineering, automotive engineering, chemical and nuclear, aero and astro engineering etc. are within the capabilities of most well trained and motivated teams of engineers irrespective of their colour, race or whatever. There is sufficient knowledge out there in the open for anyone with a proper mind-set to use and make progress in these areas. What is needed are the materials, the organisation and motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic) to do so. In most of SSA countries, materials and necessary critical mass threshold numbers (of technical and engineering personnel) are missing – in part due to balkanisation of the continent and a deliberate effort by colonialists to eliminate traditional engineering/technical work. Knowledge is easy to acquire: skills to use that knowledge take time to develop.
    When traditional African artisan training was eliminated, the education that replaced it emphasised non-technical work like clerical, teaching the 3 Rs, administration, – and later, law, commerce, etc. Medicine came in so that the Africans could be treated by their kind – but you realise it is also NOT Technical. Technical education that has capacity to transform the societies was downgraded and left to ‘failures’ first at P7 and then at S4 level.
    Apart from knowledge and skills, the other necessary ingredient to transform society is ‘attitudes’. Colonial education ensured (and so does the post-independence one – some of us are now fighting against) that the old African semi-egalitarian outlook to life in society was thoroughly swept out of minds of those who acquired the new education. An individualistic and capitalistic outlook was and continues to be implanted in our learners and opinion leaders. Education is no longer free nor compulsory as it used to be. It is now monetised and looked at as an individual family’s capital investment which must obey the usual capitalistic rules of investment (maximise monetary returns in the shortest time possible). Failures in the system resort to previously abominable means of recouping their failed investments (e.g. through corrupt politics and unethical business). The idea of a common good is long gone in SSA. Thus, even the motivation on the few engineers and technicians to work for the good of an unrewarding society first and foremost is apparently gone. It is therefore a far cry to have a China, a North Korea, a Russia, etc. among these tiny SSA countries. That is a war some of us have to fight!

    Pan Africanist/Inventor: Eng Kamt Ateenyi

  5. The Motto of some primary school in Bugolobi reads”Slowly by Slowly an egg shall walk just imagine the impact such a motto will have on its pupils.

    Uganda is slowly becoming a charcoal stove(sigiri) economy just pass by any market in Kampala both men and women are cooking food along the road side you fund Rajab & his wives with their 3 huge saucepans of yams waiting for customers now can a nation develop in that way?Omeros opens up a retail and thinks he is working so hard how do you sell 50kgs of sugar and gain 3k as profit per bag in 1 month?

    Africans should allow their natural resources to be exploited by the rich nations if they are to gain some good bucks. the price of a missile and that of coffee or toursim are not the same definitely one who sells technology and electronic gadgets and ammunition will make more bucks.

    USA and North Korea are terrified of each other even movies causes tension amongest these states.( The N.Korean president has the best hair cut in the world he is the only president who owns a play station)

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