Amartya Sen and North Korea

November 6, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, Nature, NorthKorea

A friend and reader, es, commented

Your posts about North Korea remind me of some parts from Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence” and “the Idea of Justice”. Over-generalization, exclusion, multiple identities, basic norms existing in each society and universal norms that should transcend them. Narrow views on North Korea can be attributed to people only focusing on one aspect of North Koreans’ identities through the lens of basic norms in the first world. There may not be norms based on social contracts in North Korea but that does not necessarily deprive them of their other identities and humanity. People tend to blur this line, though.

I haven’t read those books of Sen, but I appreciate the ideas of his I’ve come across. To have one’s posts compared with the ideas of a Nobel Prize winner is, of course, flattering. More important, to me, and for which I thank es, is that bringing up great ideas gets you thinking, which es’s post did.

Although a tangent to what es wrote, the comment made me think of Sen’s early work on famines, which showed that they can come from distribution problems even when enough food exists to feed everyone. As Wikipedia says

In Poverty and Famines, Sen revealed that in many cases of famine, food supplies were not significantly reduced. In Bengal, for example, food production, while down on the previous year, was higher than in previous non-famine years. Thus, Sen points to a number of social and economic factors, such as declining wages, unemployment, rising food prices, and poor food-distribution systems. These issues led to starvation among certain groups in society.

In the case of North Korea’s famines, supplies were greatly reduced within the country, but not globally, and I understand other countries and relief organizations wanted to provide food that North Korean decision-makers refused, at least in part. I doubt the supplies would have fed everyone, but they would have helped some. Meanwhile, the North Korean leadership ate extravagantly, according to this article, “The unpalatable appetites of Kim Jong-il,” and many like it.

I’ve thought of the issue recently in the context of conversations the many recent conversations I’ve had and overheard about Earth’s population reaching seven billion. People who say we haven’t overpopulated it point out seven billion people could fit comfortably in an area the size of Texas. They ignore that, however much resources we have, we don’t know how to distribute resources even when we have enough. Whether seven billion overpopulates the planet or not, I don’t know, but to calculate the amount of resources, whether food, space, energy, clean water, or what, without accounting for distribution can only tell you if you’ve overpopulated, not if you haven’t.

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1 response to “Amartya Sen and North Korea

  1. If I can opine on the why, I’d say distribution problems occur partly due to our wishful belief in reversion to the mean – the mean being an incongruent level of equilibrium faultily created by self-interest and biases.
    Not to discredit Thomas L. Freedman but the world is NOT flat. When we try to flatten it, it often results in unintended consequences, be it social gaps or Euro collapses. The world consists of multiple layers of societies and groups. What Sen addresses in his book is that we could leave the world undefined as it is with different values and systems because it is still possible to find a harmony in the context of bilateral/multilateral relationships through acknowledgment and acceptance of the differences among societies. This ultimately comes down to our individual selves and collective beings in a society as well. In either case, unilateral approaches eventually take their toll on us. In this sense, the current globalization is an oxymoron because it can be mere encapsulation of the world from an Anglo Saxon perspective. Just my two cents as a passerby……

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