The secrecy of North Korea’s regime and the recency of the floods mean that we should be wary of estimates we hear about the severity of the damage they caused, and that goes double for some of the detailed statistical compilations the papers are printing. We do know there were fatalies; South Koreans have found corpses that were washed downstream across the DMZ. Beyond that, things are less certain. North Korea officially claims that the floods killed 300 people and left 300,000 homeless. Those figures don’t jibe with each other. In a mountainous and underdeveloped country, any disaster large enough to make more than a quarter of a million people homeless — the size of a small city — would have claimed more lives.
This parade of statistics seems even more suspicious:
The UN said today that 58,000 homes were damaged in the flooding, 50 percent of the country’s health clinics were destroyed, and as much as 70 percent of arable land was under water. More than 800 public buildings, 540 bridges, 70 sections of railway and 500 high-voltage power towers also were destroyed, according to the UN. [Bloomberg; emphasis is mine]
According to other reports, the floods destroyed up to 450,000 tons of cereals, about 9% of the country’s annual food needs, but 11% of this year’s domestic rice and corn crop. Those figures are difficult to reconcile, and they almost certainly originate from the regime.
If the truth really is that bad, the North Korean government probably wouldn’t be able to pull those statistics together that quickly. Certainly the U.N. wasn’t given the access to the North Korean countryside needed to do that assessment independently. But such an assessment is essential if we’re to know the real extent of the humanitarian impact and mitigate it effectively. If we learned anything from the Great Famine, it’s that we can’t trust the North Korean regime to tell the world the truth, not even for the sake of saving the lives of own people alive.
Still, North Korea seems less opaque than usual this time. Its television stations have actually aired footage of the damage. Some novice Korea-watchers (a term that inevitably includes journalists with wide audiences) are ready to declare perestroika. I am underwhelmed. The floods struck the area around Pyongyang, the same area where most of North Korea’s TV sets and viewers are. North Korea’s propaganda machine may be crude, but it’s not unsophisticated. Ignoring the pink elephant in the room — or the flooded subway — would be unsophisticated. Instead, the government does its best to shape the public’s perception of a bad situation. That’s especially understandable if resident of Pyongyang have become less afraid to express their dissatisfaction.
Here’s a Yahoo slide show of news photos, and a selection of them:
Last year’s floods also affected the capital, but with less apparent severity than this year’s. But here’s a statistic for you:
Last year the nation was hit by what its state-run media called the worst flood in the country’s history, which left as many as 54,700 North Koreans dead or missing. [Bloomberg, Bill Varner]
That figure is casually dropped into the middle of that last report. Imagine — 50,000 people erased from the face of the 21st Century Earth, and 99.9% of the world will never even hear it happened. The floods of 1995 and 1996, which are blamed by some for triggering the Great Famine, were also fairly severe, but they were concentrated further north (more).
If this disaster is being treated differently, it might be because it’s affecting people the regime doesn’t consider expendable. Pyongyang is a city of privileged people. Only citizens of good political background are allowed to live there. There is a conspicuous absence of handicapped people in Pyongyang, a mystery that may finally have been explained. The capital contains North Korea’s most politically privileged and necessary people, and much of what they eat is grown within a 100-mile radius the city.
This time, letting the victims suffer and die isn’t an option, and if these floods really are the “worst ever in history,” there may be too many hungry people around Pyongyang to sustain them on what’s taken from more expendable people. What’s more, this Reuters photo is supposely of a cornfield in long-suffering South Hamgyeong Province, meaning that some “expendable” areas were hard-hit, too.
[Reuters/Korea News Service]
Only North Hamgyeong, Ryanggang Provinces appear to have been spared, and those areas may have already been experiencing a food situation that was bad and getting worse. This is a country with no margin of error in its food supply. So if Kim Jong Il is telling us the truth, he’s in no position to make unconditional demands. But he’ll make them anyway, and sadly, other nations will deliver with few questions asked. Even the United States has contributed $100,000. It’s a very small amount, but nothing suggests that the North is ready show any transparency in how the aid is distributed.
What a shame. In the ruined fields, there is an unprecedented humanitarian, political, and diplomatic benefit to be reaped. What if, instead of pouring cash and aid into the black hole of North Korea’s Public Distribution System, thus leaving the people vulnerable to its corruption, diversion, and political manipulations, international donors insisted on distributing their aid directly? This time, Kim Jong Il might not be in a position to refuse. There could be no greater humanitarian and political benefit that could be reaped from the ruined fields of North Korea than the sight of compassionate foreigners delivering food, tents, clean water, medical supplies, and even medical services. In the space of weeks, the regime’s base of support would begin to question all of the xenophobia, national supremacy, and self-sufficiency with which it had been so deeply inculcated. Proponents of engagement have a historic opportunity to show their sincerity by demanding — just once, after ten years — that engagement finally do something for the North Korean people.
Too bad that opportunity is already being thrown away.
* Lee Myung Bak has won the opposition Grand National Party’s nomination for the presidency of South Korea. Lee is now heavily favored to win the general election in December. So far, it looks like Park Geun-Hye will accept the result, meaning a split ticket is less likely. Here’s some of Lee’s more recent ruminations on North Korea policy, via the Daily NK. Although Lee’s lastest statements are encouraging, he has been all over the map on the subject. Lee will run largely on economic issues, but his formula for recovery is massive public-works projects. I wrote a profile of Lee a couple of years ago, when it occurred to me that this man could amount to something.
* I’m also underwhelmed by the fact that in the year 2007, North Korea is finally contemplating getting its own Web domains. I’ll be whelmed when ordinary North Koreans have access to them, and to sites in other countries.
* Bloomberg reports that the North Korean economy actually shrank last year.
North Korea’s economy contracted in 2006 for the first time in eight years, as the communist country agreed to begin dismantling its nuclear weapons program this year in return for energy assistance.
The economy shrank 1.1 percent last year because of energy shortages and bad weather after expanding 3.8 percent in 2005, South Korea’s central bank said in a report released in Seoul today. This is the first time the economy has shrunk since 1998.
“Adverse weather conditions caused a decline in agricultural and fisheries production,” the Bank of Korea said in an e-mailed statement. “The nuclear issue also led to worsened international relations and energy shortages and appears to have resulted in an overall worsening of its economy.”
One other possible explanation you wouldn’t expect South Korea to highlight is that our enforcement actions against the North’s money laundering had a devastating impact. That would not only show just how effective those actions were, but just how much of the North’s economy was based on or linked to illicit activity.
* The latest from the nuke talks:
North Korea is prepared to come clean with a complete inventory of its nuclear programme under a February six-country disarmament deal, its deputy chief nuclear envoy said on Saturday.
Two days of talks on how to go about dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons programme ended on Friday in the capital of northeast China’s Liaoning province, Shenyang, where the U.S. envoy said more wrangling was needed to thrash out key terms.
“We will be making a transparent disclosure of all nuclear programme and nuclear equipment,” North Korean foreign ministry official Ri Kun was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency as telling reporters in Shenyang.
“More wrangling needed” must mean North Korea is still denying the uranium program. Meanwhile, as I predicted, the news media are paying almost no attention to talks on the full normalization of relations between the United States and North Korea.