North Korea’s Floods: The Next Lost Opportunity

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 some of the footage.

Here’s a Yahoo slide show of news photos, and a selection of them:

flood4.jpg     flood3.jpg     flood2.jpg     flood5.jpg

[Korea News Service/Reuters; the second photo from left is also claimed by KCNA and AFP, so it’s fair to assume that all of these photos are from North Korean government sources.]

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.

See also:

*   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.


  1. “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.”

    The Yonhap report seems way too hopeful here and I would bet the “diplomatic source” is a hopeful ROK official. Normalization is a 6-party denuclearization end-game event and (one hopes) not a US card to be tossed in early.


  2. Good Morning Joshua Stanton. Thank you for your fine analysis of the current floods in northern Korea. As ever, from data collection to policy implications, you do the work that the “mainstream media”, be they USA- or RoK-based, will not do. In any fair comparison with William Lloyd Garrison, you must fare well. Keep up the good work.

    One difficulty for an American administration, though it may have the data and be staffed in part by people who are aware of the bottom-line reality, is that the Kim family regime will likely never be its first priority. Doing the needful will be subordinated or subverted by policy priorities elsewhere. So far, this is the only way I can understand how the successful policy involving Banco Delta Asia was so incontinently jettisoned. How can we look for Bush, Rice, Hill & Co. to use the opportunity you have so well identified? Possibly that begs another question: how can any hypothetical right-minded USA policy be implemented while the RoK is governed by its present administration? Hard to have an engine pulling the train forward when another engine is hitched to the rear pulling the other way!