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Episode 290: North Korea's Illegal Economy

An idle North Korean factory, seen from the Chinese border.
Getty Images
An idle North Korean factory, seen from the Chinese border.

Note: This podcast was originally published in 2011. With North Korea in the news again this week, we're re-running it today.

North Korea relies on charity to feed its starving people. But the country's elites like their luxuries — imported wine, fine china, dancing shoes.

To buy those things, they need foreign currency. (North Korean currency is worthless outside of North Korea.) To get foreign currency, they need to sell things to the outside world. But North Korea's industrial base is a disaster, and the country doesn't grow enough food to feed itself.

On today's Planet Money, we look at the ways North Korea's leaders have managed to keep foreign currency flowing into the country. Their strategies include manufacturing drugs, counterfeiting U.S. dollars, and selling gigantic statues to foreign leaders.

For More: The book Nothing to Envy is an amazing look at the lives of ordinary North Koreans. And this WSJ story has more on North Korea's monument export business.

Music: Matthew Goods' "99% of Us Is Failure." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/ Spotify/ Tumblr. Download the Planet Money iPhone App.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.