The Blue House Lied, People Died: How Appeasement Kills in North Korea

starving-north-korean-kid.bmpToday, the Chosun Ilbo helps us to peel away the myth of unmonitored “humanitarian” aid to North Korea. The aid wasn’t going to the people who needed it the most, and Roh’s government knew it all along.

South Korean military authorities have known since 2003, when the Roh Moo-hyun administration was inaugurated, that North Korea has transported rice supplied by the South for humanitarian purposes to frontline units of the North Korean Army. The South Korean military has admitted it found no fewer than 200 South Korean rice sacks transported to North Korean Army units on about 10 occasions to the demilitarized zone including Gangwon Province between 2003 and recently. [….]

[D]espite their knowledge of this fact, neither the South Korean government nor military authorities protested to North Korea or asked it for an explanation, apparently for fear of provoking Pyongyang.

A senior government source in Seoul on Wednesday said South Korean sentries “repeatedly detected North Korean soldiers unloading rice sacks bearing the logo of the Korean National Red Cross and the letters “Daehan Minguk” (Republic of Korea) from trucks or stacking them up in their units in the eastern and central frontline areas including Gangwon Province. South Korean military authorities have reportedly taken several photographs of such scenes. [Chosun Ilbo]

Let us consult the archives:

At least since 2000 when we began providing assistance to the North, no one there has been starving to death. ““ Former UniFiction Minister Lee Jong-Seok, April 2006

I try to do more than read the news for you here, since you can do that yourself. I also try to add value by putting the news in factual context and provoke thought. Here are some previous posts that will, I hope, put this in context:

– In 2006, a guerrilla cameraman caught a whole trainload of aid being diverted onto a military base, after the distribution of that aid has supposedly been monitored. This incident occurred in the far northeast. Given the state of North Korea’s infrastructure, that aid probably wasn’t transported to anywhere near the DMZ, but was probably consumed by officers and members of the elite between, say, Hungnam and Chongjin.

– In 2005, another guerrilla cameraman interviewed a starving North Korean soldier whose intestinal tract had been destroyed by “substitute” foods, such as noodles made from grasses and tree bark. He had been sent home to die. So we know that not all soldiers have been eating well, either, particularly among the lower ranks.

– Also in 2005, yet another key piece of guerrilla camera footage found fully sealed sacks of rice donated by the World Food Program for sale in a market in the northeastern city of Chongjin. Clearly, a significant amount of international aid is being diverted by people with the means to do so — probably corrupt officials or military officers — who resell it for a profit. Only those North Koreans with a good income (senior officials and private traders) can afford to buy this higher quality food.

Finally, we know from Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard’s must-read book, Famine in North Korea, that aid diversion is not always as simple as it would seem. Noland and Haggard think that simple corruption plays just as big a role as massive-scale top-down diversion on the regime’s orders. Maybe, but I’m starting to believe that a combination of both is mostly to blame. Let me explain.

First, we know that massive scale diversion probably is happening; the Chosun Ilbo piece is the latest evidence of that. Second, we know that even with diversion to the military, not all soldiers are eating well. Why not? Either soldiers are starved as punishment for infractions, the diversion is not sufficient to feed every soldier, or (my guess) corrupt officers are rediverting some of the aid that is meant for their soldiers and selling it in the markets for personal profit.

One can imagine the effect this must have on morale. (Indeed, it’s hardly necessary to imagine; we’ve started to see mass defections by military personnel in fleeing distance of the Chinese border.) Another likely effect is that it could lead to overstatement of North Korean military personnel strength. Since aid is likely distributed to military units on a per-capita basis, commanders have an incentive to overstate their strength, thus to squeeze more aid out of the central government. This practice was common enough among the South Vietnamese army that U.S. advisors coined a term for it: ghost soldiers. Inspectors general and advisors would thus find that this created a perverse incentive for commanders and province chiefs to let units fall below the strength required to be combat effective.

This is just one example of how corruption corrodes a regime. With food in much shorter supply this year than last year — when conditions were already bad — the corrosive effect will spread, and is spreading, to the greater North Korean population.

So what? Don’t soldiers need to eat, too? Yes, but remember two key points.

First, remember Noland and Haggard’s chilling finding that in the past, the regime actually reduced commercial purchases of food when it received enough international aid to meet the needs of the military and the elite (pages 11-13). It essentially used food aid as balance of payments support. This suggests that the regime manages the hunger of its “expendable” population, possibly as a method of control. It also suggests that aid mainly serves to prop up the regime but does not serve its intended humanitarian purpose.

Second, remember that by 2006, There was much less international aid to go around. In 2005, North Korea unilaterally terminated the World Food Program’s international aid programs, on which 6.5 million people had ostensibly depended. It also terminated most private aid programs that worked outside the WFP. It later let the WFP back in on a greatly reduced scale, to provide only the minimum marginal subsistence level of aid for 1.9 million targeted recipients from specific vulnerable groups — kids, the elderly, and pregnant women. This reduced program wasn’t designed to comprise the recipient’s entire diet, just enough to make the difference between an insufficient diet that would lead to stunting, wasting, stillbirth, or death, and one that would allow the person to survive. When aid isn’t distributed according to the carefully targeted plans of the donors, the needy starve and the actual recipients eat more than they really need.

Why does Kim Jong Il let that happen? Because we give him that option.

Photo: BBC