The Mystery of the Rice Sacks

We may have our answer.

About a week ago, I linked to this report showing a Japanese NGO’s pictures of what appeared to be international food aid for sale in markets in North Korea. I suggested that this was evidence of diversion of food aid, most likely by heartless and corrupt officials. James pointed out that North Koreans sometimes recycle the sacks, which are made of strong fiber. It was a plausible possibility.

Today, I finally got around to watching these video clips from Barbara Demick of the L.A. Times (the first one, that is; the second one wouldn’t play). Demick’s hidden cameraman also filmed the aid sacks in for sale in markets, but catches the fact that the sacks (not those pictured here) appear to still be sealed. Now, it’s not proof-positive, but it does appear to be strong evidence that the bags contain food aid.

Now, if it were possible for any North Korean to travel freely to find work, get hired, or start a business, I’d say that the market would eventually be the best way to feed everyone. I’d tolerate the diversion and simply increase the aid until the market price fell drastically. That would not work in a system where you can’t travel without a permit, and where permission to buy, sell, or make most things requires state Convenience Bureau permission that’s just not available to many ordinary people.

The video has surprises in both directions. On one hand, Chongjin is–there’s just no better word for it–a shithole, where orphans who’ve lost their toes to frostbite squat in the mud and steal from stalls to survive, and where the desperately poor wheel goods through the streets in wooden carts. On the other hand, those who can afford cosmetics and even bananas–a rarity even in South Korea until the 1980s–can buy them in Chongjin, which is near the Chinese border.