Exclusive: Kim Jong Il Buys More Stuff You Can’t Eat!

By now, it seems clear that South Korea, Japan, and the United States will all refuse to contribute food aid to the World Food Program. Contributions from the EU, Sweden, and even China are minuscule in comparison to the WFP’s appeal, and to the amounts that the United States was providing during the Clinton and Bush Administrations, before North Korea itself rejected further aid out of apparent spite. Republicans who dominate the House again are dead-set against giving aid this year, and the Obama Administration sounds dissatisfied with North Korea’s concessions to the World Food Program on monitoring.

I was inclined to agree with the latter assessment until a WFP spokesman responded to some interview questions I sent him. The responses moved me beyond mere inclination and convinced me that the WFP’s assessment and monitoring, despite some useful safeguards, are inadequate. I acknowledge how difficult these questions are, and I respect plenty of people who disagree with my view here. Advocates of food aid paint a picture of terrible suffering in North Korea. They’re not wrong about that, but they still can’t convince me that international aid would help them. And when you read things like this, you can see why donors nations think their money is better spent on people they know they can help:

A high level Pyongyang source reported June 29th, “The Mercedes Benz limousine used by Kim Jong-il during his recent China visit in May was a different model to the ones he used in his visits last year in May and August.” The new car was photographed by Yonhap news when Kim Jong-il arrived at his Jangchun hotel.

The source said that Kim Jong-il used to be conveyed to his destinations in the Maybach model of limousine but in 2009 the Benz S-600 Pullman Guard came out of production and onto the market. This new model was $100,000 more expensive than the Maybach. Given that customarily when leaders are transported there are at least two cars required to simultaneously convey protection units, at least $200,000 must have been spent on the vehicles.

Asked whether the new cars might have been provided by the Chinese authorities, the source said, “A photo confirms otherwise but also the Beijing plates that the car is carrying are just a matter of custom that the Chinese authorities usually apply in the immigration process to cars that were transported by air. It’s certain that the car was brought in from North Korea.”

Meanwhile according to figures The Korea Trade Association has derived from China-North Korea trade statistics, North Korea imported $3,100,000 of European manufactured cars through China last year. Given that a ton of corn costs about $250 dollars, Kim Jong-il splurged a quantity of money that could have bought 13,000 tons of corn for his hungry people. [Open News]

This obscene trade violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874‘s prohibition on the sale of “luxury goods” to North Korea, and again calls into question the seriousness of China (naturally), but also of the German and Swiss governments to enforce compliance with the resolution.

From January through May, North Korea imported 229 Swiss-made watches worth $45,000 (48.43 million won) and 9 watch components, the American network Radio Free Asia reported on the 8th. Among the Swiss watches imported by North Korea were 174 spring-wound watches and 55 battery-operated watches, worth an average of $198 each.

During the same period last year North Korea had not imported any watches at all. North Korea imported 284 Swiss watches in 2007, 449 in 2008, and 662 in 2009, an increase each year, but that fell to 339 last year. [Nathan Schwartzmann, via RFA]

Oh, and let’s not forget that nuke money paid to the Pakistani Army. Critics will note that this isn’t a revelation of recent activity, of course. It’s a revelation of activity at the very height the Great Famine, as a million or two North Koreans were starving to death, and as the American taxpayers’ generosity toward the people of North Korea reached its peak.

Not only are donors suspicious, but plenty of North Koreans probably are, too. Stephan Haggard points us to the remarkable results of a survey by NKnet of North Korean refugees in South Korea. Haggard, who advocates giving food aid despite acknowledging its limitations, boils the data down to confirm that North Koreans — at least, those North Koreans whose opinions we can access — share (and perhaps confirm) our worst suspicions:

# Some of the more interesting responses have to do with assessments of the causes of the crisis. Respondents were allowed to pick two responses, meaning that all responses total to 200%. 27% cited lack of agricultural inputs. But the vast majority of responses target the regime itself: excessive military expenditure (88%); irresponsibility and incompetence of the leadership (26%); agricultural policy (14%). Only 7% cited natural disasters. This comports with our findings that the regime’s narratives may be getting less traction than in the past (if they ever really did).

# 94% of respondents believed that the way to “fundamentally solve the food problem” was for North Korea to reform and open up; only 1.4% cited large-scale aid as a solution.

# A stunning set of responses had to do with food aid itself. 78% said that they had never received food aid, which as we note in Witness may or may not be true. But 27% said that they gave some of the food that they received from the PDS back to the government. NKNET claims that this occurred in areas where monitoring was going on. In short, food distribution was a classic Potemkin village set up, with aid distributed for the monitors and then taken back. In fairness, though, while 98 percent of the respondents said that they had never seen foreign monitors, 30 percent claimed that monitoring had at least some effect.

# With respect to who got food aid, respondents were allowed to check as many categories as they chose. The findings provide a nice weighting of the power structure:

* Military, 73%; party cadres, 69%; administrative organs, 49%, privileged classes 39%
* Children in vulnerable classes, 4%; general people, 0.2% adults in vulnerable classes, 0; pregnant women, 0. [Stephan Haggard, Witness to Transformation blog]

The latter groups being the ones that are supposed to be the WFP’s recipients. The ultimate result? Fully three-quarters of those North Korean respondents opposed the idea of South Korea giving food aid to their own homeland, where many of their loved ones are still trying to scrape by. Of course, these refugees aren’t counting on the U.N. to feed their hungry families; they’re using smugglers to send them money, which their loved ones are using to buy food in the markets, which draws food into the country and undercuts the corrupt and discriminatory food distribution system that’s to blame for this perennial crisis. Markets almost certainly feed more hungry North Koreans than the WFP can, and what’s more, they’re doing more to develop North Korea’s economy and alleviate its long-term food crisis.

This is the part where you can insert your own disclaimer about selection bias among a refugee population. Or maybe these North Koreans arrived at their views only after escaping and reading news reports in the South, but I tend to doubt that. There are now more than 20,000 North Koreans who were both willing and able to go through hell to get to South Korea, which suggests that the overwhelming consensus among this rapidly growing population represents a significant constituency at its source. The real story here isn’t that the North Korean regime is starving the people — we’ve known that for years. The real story is that the North Korean people know who’s starving them.


  1. I have been thinking that we should allow ALL luxury imports into North Korea, provided they are identified. And only allow free food supplies when the prior six month total of luxury imports is $0.

    The Maybach costs about $375,000 plus tax at Beverly Hills MBZ near me — so the alternative cars didn’t set the DPRK back $200,000: they set it back $950,000.