Korea: The Freedom Experiment

The Korean War of 1950 – 1953 was the first major conflict of the Cold War, and saw the beginning of one of the largest scale experiments of all time: the testing of two opposing economic theories- capitalism and communism. The resulting split of the Korean peninsula gives a fantastic case study from which to directly compare the impact of either encouraging or preventing social and economic freedom. From this we can see a stark contrast between the prosperity of two nations on which varying levels of freedoms were afforded.

The 27th of July 1953 saw the armistice that marked the end of the Korean War, despite no ceasefire ever being signed, with the peninsula officially ‘at war’ to this day. This saw the beginning of two new nations: the communist-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and the capitalist South Korea. The Soviet-installed leader of the DPRK, Kim Il Sung, continued to rule as he had prior to his attempt to take the South, whilst Rhee Syung-man was democratically elected again by the population of the South. Kim Il Sung began the communist totalitarian dictatorship that still stands today under Kim Jong Un, whilst Rhee Syung-man gave both economic and social freedoms under a capitalist system.

A fundamental principal of libertarianism is the economic liberty allowed to the populace of a nation, and it is particularly interesting to draw comparisons between the North and South based on this factor. Although still not reaching the heights for which libertarians aim, the South followed a similar path to post-WW2 Japan and aimed to stimulate economic progress by allowing highly competitive markets to drive innovation. This was achieved by opening the country to imports and exports and allowing South Korean businesses to trade freely with other nations. On the other hand, the DPRK shut its trading routes and disallowed all foreign intervention (excluding that of the communist Soviet Union and China), thus removing any trading freedoms. In the 1980s the DPRK attempted to introduce some economic freedoms but failed due to the overwhelming regulation and control the government had over industry. As in most communist nations, businesses were allocated capital and stripped of profits, with 50% of profits beings taxed and reallocated to the state, particularly the ‘Military First’ policy. This smothered any real motivation for progress; a disappointing yet predictable result of the North Korean attempt at ‘liberty.’

Today South Korea is the 23rd most economically free nation on earth whilst the North sits at 180th [1]The results of this divide are clear: to the South you have a developed economy where the populace has used business to create wealth, and so currently has the 29th highest GDP per capita in the world according World Bank[2]. Contrastingly, in the North the population starves as business is virtually non-existent with the nation sitting at a lowly 180th for GDP per capita[3]. It can easily be induced that the North is significantly poorer due to the economic restrictions imposed on it, whilst the South has flourished due to the utilisation of foreign trade and the freedoms that have been permitted.

Socially, the DPRK is comparable to the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany, with open criticism of the government being punishable by prison camps, or in some cases, the death penalty. Even pointing out simple facts about their ‘supreme leader’, for instance that he is overweight, can be punished by imprisonment. Libertarians strongly agree with the free speech specified under the first amendment of the US constitution, and thus believe that this censorship should be widely condemned as an unacceptable use of government power. Meanwhile, open criticism is allowed in the South without the fear of concentration camps and death. However, not even the South is innocent of limiting free speech, and so cannot escape criticism from the Libertarian viewpoint. In 2015, American citizen Shin Eun-mi was deported from Seoul for describing the Kim regime in the North in a more positive light than was deemed acceptable by the state[4]. Despite still struggling to permit full social freedom, South Korea has significantly greater social liberty. It is this factor that must be seen as key in contributing to the South’s success in comparison to the North.

What can we gain from this comparison? The simple fact that economic and social freedom leads to a wealthier and more content nation. In places where this liberty is limited, such as the DPRK, the dire results are clear. The North lacks even basic freedoms such as free speech, and for this reason they are held back, destined to remain a third world economy. On the other hand, South Korea is a free nation for the most part, and now competes with other nations in any ranking. The stark contrasts between these nations help underpin libertarian values, proving that freedom from economic and social restriction is the way forward for many states.


[1] http://www.theinvestor.co.kr/view.php?ud=20170216000755

[2] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD?view=chart,

[3] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html

[4] https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-01-19/south-korea-has-free-speech-problem


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