Could North Korea Become the Next Singapore?

    Graham Allison

    Security, Asia

    With a population about twice the size of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, Singapore has a GDP per capita that is 38 times larger than North Korea’s. Kim just be taking notes when he heads to his summit with Donald Trump. 

    Did President Trump choose Singapore as the site for next Tuesday’s summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un by accident? No way. One of Trump’s wildest cards in his unorthodox path to this meeting with Kim Jong Un is his vision of a prosperous North Korea. As Trump put it last week, “I truly believe North Korea has brilliant potential and will be a great economic and financial nation one day.” Trump’s tweet concluded: “Kim Jong Un agrees with me on this. It will happen!”

    If the objective were to excite the imagination of the leader of one of the most impoverished, isolated nations on earth, it is difficult to imagine a more captivating picture than Singapore. This modern megapolis is one of the wonders of the modern world.

    With a population about twice the size of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, Singapore has a GDP per capita that is 38 times larger than North Korea’s. Indeed, today Singaporeans are richer on average than Americans and twice as rich as South Koreans.

    Fifty three years ago when Singapore became an independent country under its founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, the poor, notoriously corrupt port could have reminded one of North Korea today. But thanks to extraordinary leadership, a full embrace of the magic of market economics, and integration into the global economy, Singapore has soared. If one compares its record with that of its neighbor the Philippines, on the one hand, or Zimbabwe (an African analogue that declared independence just a few years after Singapore), on the other, the results are stunning.

    Of every thousand children born in Singapore today, only 2.2 die in infancy. The United States’ infant mortality rate is three times that level. In the Philippines, the number is 21 out of 1,000, and in Zimbabwe, 40. In the Bloomberg Rankings, Singapore was judged the world’s healthiest country.

    Each year the World Bank produces Governance Indicators metrics on government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption. Singapore leads the United States by a significant margin on each of these measures, and is not even on the same page with the Philippines and Zimbabwe. Scores on prevention of graft and crime show similar results.

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