Tapdancing to the Graveyard

If we are to believe the International Business Times — and I’ve allowed the temptation to do so overcome my better judgment — North Korea ranks itself the second-happiest nation in own global Happiness Index.

I realize that reactions to this news may vary. You may be thinking that it’s an honor just to be nominated. Others will wonder which camp are the judges in now. One observer correctly notes that “[n]othing says happy like government-issued proclamations of happiness.” But all of that happiness isn’t free. It costs money, and comes in crates, preferably with falsified bills of lading. And in lean times like these, let no one — with the possible exception of almost 90% of North Koreans — deny that Kim Jong Il knows what his people really want. People can only become so desperately happy by clicking their heels and dancing the pain away!

Italy foiled an attempt by North Korea to import tap-dancing shoes in breach of a U.N. ban on the sale of luxury goods to Pyongyang, according to a U.N. report on the enforcement of sanctions against the North. [….]

The U.N. panel’s report said that Pyongyang has also attempted to skirt the embargo on luxury goods by purchasing a dozen Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment, more than three dozen pianos and cosmetics. Some of the items were successfully shipped to North Korea, it said.

“Most of these luxury goods reached or would have reached (North) Korea after transiting through a neighboring trans-shipment hub,” the U.N. panel’s report said. Diplomats told Reuters that the “trans-shipment hub” was in China. They said that China has also been a transit hub for missile technology transfers between Iran and North Korea, as detailed in the same U.N. report.

The panel said it was collecting information on other possible violations of the ban on luxury items involving “cars, watches, spirits or food.”

China voted for U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, both of which ban the import of luxury goods by North Korea and call on all member states to enforce that ban.

And in completely unrelated news:

U.S. government officials and experts focused on coordinating monitoring terms of possible food aid to North Korea during their trip to the communist nation last week, the U.S. administration said Tuesday.

“While they were there, they discussed, specifically related to the food assessment, monitoring terms necessary to ensure that if indeed we did provide humanitarian aid to North Korea, that it would reach those for whom it’s intended,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a press briefing.

Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, led a team of officials and experts to Pyongyang last week before the Obama administration makes a decision on whether to resume food aid to the hunger-stricken nation.

Inexplicably, some people continue to say that they don’t trust the North Korean regime to distribute the food to the people who really need it, or even to allow for a complete assessment of who those people are. I’ll be a little more specific: “some people” includes at least four senators. One European diplomat questions the depth of the crisis and reports seeing “quite a few Lexus cars” driving around Pyongyang. Some even question whether, in North Korean terms, this year is really a crisis at all. Depending on whether you believe South Korea or the U.N., North Korea’s 2010 harvest was either 4.3 or 4.5 million tonnes of cereals. Compare that with:

4.1 million in 2009,
4.21 million tonnes in 2008,
– just 3 million tonnes in 2007, in part because of particularly severe flooding,
– about 4 million tonnes in 2006,
4.5 million tonnes in 2005, and
4.24 million in 2004, and so on, and so forth

Statistically, then, 2010 wasn’t a worse harvest year than most recent years, although just like in previous years, plenty of people will still go hungry. To complicate matters even more, there’s little apparent correlation between harvest statistics, aid, and anecdotal reports of worsening hunger in the North, which made 2009 seem like a particularly bad year. There seems to be a different disaster to blame for North Korea’s unprecedented food crisis every year, though some say that there’s really been only one disaster at work all along. In an age of global trade, famines are seldom a function of food supply, they’re really a function of resource distribution. That’s especially true of permanent famines, and it’s positively inescapable for permanent famines in nations that aren’t (really) at war.

After all these years, it’s still striking how little we know about hunger in North Korea and its causes, beyond those elements that are obvious and overarching.

Unlike in past years, however, North Korea is asking for food aid this year instead of dramatically reducing it or refusing it altogether. What’s different this year? I don’t pretend to be able to explain Kim Jong Il’s decisions. Most speculation centers on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, but the interesting trend to me is that markets are doing a much more efficient job of feeding some of the hungry than the regime had been doing through the state distribution system, even with the support of foreign food aid. If past history is any guide, North Korea will again insist on channeling all aid through that system this year, too. But even as markets continue to reach greater numbers of underprivileged civilians, during the last year, there have been more reports of hunger in the North Korean military than we’d seen in previous years. I’ve speculated that the rising power of markets, combined with rising corruption, may be drawing food out of government and military storehouses. That might explain a few things.

Personally, I see North Korea’s willingness to be transparent and honest about its food crisis as a perfectly fine test of whether it’s capable of being transparent and honest about nukes, the Cheonan, Yeonpyeong, abductions, drugs, human rights, or anything else. If they can’t stop lying to us even when they’re begging, I’d say there are undoubtedly kids in other hungry places we can feed with our limited aid budget. How will we know? For one thing, they won’t insist on using their politically discriminatory state distribution system. For another, they’ll allow for nutritional assessments of those hungry kids who are paraded before cameras and aid workers, to ensure that they and their families are actually getting the long-term nutritional benefits of our aid. Finally, we will see an end to “closed counties” when it comes to the assessment of needs and the distribution of food. We’ll know they’re serious, in other words, when we can verify that the people in these places get their fair share of the aid, too.


  1. Excellent post Joshua. They’ve been infrequent but sweet. Why do we bother wasting money investigating a problem we already know the answer to? It’s not like Pyongyang is all of a sudden going to change their position on food aid distribution. There’s nothing to indicate that anything has significantly changed since 2008. Like you said, there are plenty of other people around the world who need food more, don’t have a track meet’s worth of hurdles to jump through, and we can ensure that the people in need receive the food. I’m still quite stunned that we would even bother sending anyone to look into the matter. Not only that, but why don’t we restrict the possibility of food aid for every incident North Korea is caught purchasing luxury items? For example, if Pyongyang purchases a fleet of Mercedes Benz, we close the book completely on food aid for one year. The penalties can be cumulative in order to maximize effectiveness (not that it would ever be necessary).


  2. One European diplomat questions the depth of the crisis and reports seeing “quite a few Lexus cars” driving around Pyongyang.

    To be fair to the Ambassador in question – Paul Menkveld of the Netherlands – he appears to have been expressing this in terms of attributing the crisis to mismangement and/or malfeasance by DPRK officials. He’s no Christine Ahn.