North Korea’s arithmetic

A new initiative was launched recently to teach statistics to university students and government workers in North Korea, a country with an authoritarian government that many researchers in the region think issues the fewest, and least reliable, statistics in the world. The Pyongyang Summer Institute in Survey


Science and Quantitative Methodology began with about 250 students last summer, taught by 13 instructors from the U.S. and Europe, reports the Wall Street Journal.  “Soon, organizers hope to have 30 instructors, about 250 university students and 100 North Korean government workers, taught in classes hosted by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the country’s first private university, opened in 2010.

“’Capacity building in the area of statistics is helpful to governments everywhere because quality data collection leads to informed policy decisions in all areas of development such as agriculture, education, etc.,’ Justin Fisher, a PSI instructor last summer and chair of Statistics Without Borders, an international outreach group of the American Statistical Association that supports PSI, wrote in an email.

‘For example, how can you fund a country of hospitals efficiently if you don’t have data on morbidity and mortality? And while gathering the data seems like the first step, the step before that is for a country to have statisticians trained in sampling, survey methodology, and data analysis in order to gather this data.’

“The institute, known as PSI, is attempting to boost the quality of statistical practices and survey research in a country with a poor track record in the field, researchers say. Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, said he once visited government statisticians in North Korea and they told him “they were producing rubber statistics that could be stretched or shrunk according to need.”

“One sign of how hard it is to gather reliable statistics and conduct surveys in the country: Gallup has polled in 162 countries, including in Somaliland and Iran, but not North Korea — also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. “We’d sure like to add them to the list,” said Jon Clifton, a partner at Gallup. He added, “We’re just not sure at this point that it’s feasible.”

“Daniel J. Schwekendiek, an economist at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, said the country is facing ‘a quantitative and qualitative deficit of statisticians and technical experts.’ He added, in an email, “While other nations in the Eastern Bloc trained statisticians also because they arguably needed experts to ‘fine-tune’ these statistical publications for political reasons, North Korea simply ceased to publish data, thereby avoiding external and internal criticism on statistical inconsistencies and saving many resources to run statistical bureaus.”


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