In North Korea, hunger isn’t a function of production, but of state policy.

In North Korea, malnutrition remains widespread, crops are being seized in the provinces, women are selling their bodies to survive, NGOs say the country is in a state of humanitarian crisis, and a staggering 84% of households still can’t get enough to eat.

So what else is new? The U.N. says North Korea has just had its best harvest in years.

North Korea is still struggling with chronic malnutrition with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption, United Nations agencies said on Thursday, despite a 5 percent rise in staple food output.

Overall production for this year’s harvest is estimated at some 5.03 million metric tons, roughly a 5 percent increase from last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) said in a joint statement.

“Despite the improved harvest, the food security situation is still unsatisfactory with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption,” it said. [Yonhap]

Courtesy of Steph Haggard, you can read the WFP/FAO’s complete annual food assessment for North Korea here. Read it skeptically, because it still relies on what the regime shows and tells the U.N. According to maps inside the report, the agencies were only allowed to sample a few tiny tracts of the country, which raises suspicions of selection bias. Or, as the report itself concedes:

The Mission held interviews with a sample of 77 households to better understand household-level food and nutrition security. The Mission used a structured household questionnaire. In each county 2 to 3 households were selected. The types of household to be visited – cooperative farm or households dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS) – were chosen at the request of the Mission teams. The final sample consisted of 47 PDS-dependent households, 29 cooperative farmers, and 1 mixed household. In addition, the Mission visited 16 hospitals and 24 child institutions to assess the contribution of Government institutions to overall food security. Nine state shops and three farmers’ markets were also visited. Doctors, nurses and nursery managers were asked specific questions on the nutrition situation of children.

The sample cannot be treated as representative of the entire population as it was small and was not selected in a statistically random manner. The results presented in this report should, therefore, be considered as indicative only.

This doesn’t inspire much confidence. Aside from the obvious problems of methodology and the potential for manipulation, regime officials probably don’t have a complete picture of domestic food production themselves. Why not? For one thing, collectives have an incentive to underreport production. If they report less, less is seized from them, and more is left over to eat, hoard, or sell.

The regime also doesn’t know how much food North Koreans are growing on private plots hidden in the mountains, on their balconies and rooftops, and even on vacant lots in cities.

Two weeks ago over dinner, I spoke with a recent (circa 2009) defector from the Northeast about these private plots. (Let’s call him Mr. Lee, if that’s all right with you.) I asked Mr. Lee how much of North Korea’s food supply these private plots were providing when he left. He couldn’t offer more than a broad estimate of 20 to 25 percent, which happens to be about the same percentage that private plots once contributed to the U.S.S.R.’s food supply. Mr. Lee was emphatic that the WFP’s reliance on official statistics meant that it could not possibly arrive at an accurate estimate of this “unofficial” production, which the regime barely acknowledges, sometimes tolerates, and sometimes arbitrarily restricts. (By law, most grains and other food products may only be sold to the state.)

Although the U.N. report does refer to “home and kitchen gardens,” those terms don’t describe what Mr. Lee did, or that Andrei Lankov and his co-authors wrote about in this fascinating research paper. In the Northeast in particular, large plots called sotoji are cleared amid tracts of forest land, often after bribing the rangers. Writing in the Korea Times, Lankov estimated that in the Northeast, where Mr. Lee hails from, “sotoji fields seem to produce as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” There’s little else in the U.N. report to suggest a complete understanding of what people are producing privately and selling in the markets illegally (see, e.g., pages 15 and 22).

A few months ago, the Daily NK reported that the regime was cracking down on sotoji. (Update: In September 2012, Open News reported that the regime was confiscating and collectivizing them.) A crackdown might have had an outsized impact on the food situation, something that all of the statistics reported in the press could have missed. Privately, the regime could be overestimating this unreported production, causing it to squeeze the people more than they can bear. Or, it could be leading the U.N. to unrepresentative samples to make things look worse than they really are and bring in more aid (which never seems to dent the malnutrition problem for some reason). We know it isn’t above that.

In other words, U.N. estimates of the actual food situation, which can only be measured accurately by monitoring the health of a representative sample of the population over time, could be skewed in either direction.

But more fundamentally, hunger in North Korea isn’t a function of supply, but of state policy. State policy controls how much food is imported, how much is spent on things like fertilizer and machinery, who can grow what and where, what can be sold, how much is seized from those who grow and sell it, where the harvest goes once it’s collected, who gets a ration and how much, and how effectively foreign aid agencies can deliver aid. State policy at its harshest meant that each of the airplanes in these images killed as many people as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. But as Stephan Haggard explains, there’s no evidence of any reform in North Korea’s agricultural policies. Reform would mean the regime couldn’t use food to control people.

The WFP/FAO report does contain one telling sign that it got the larger food supply trend right. Last year, the regime slashed food imports by almost half compared to the previous year. (International food aid also fell.) Of course, we know that Kim Jong Un is diverting hard currency toward things like ski reports and water parks that no one is using (but hey, it’s December) and weapons programs. But the reduction in commercial imports could have an even more sinister significance. For years, I’ve suspected that the regime adjusts its food imports not so much as a response to receiving more food aid, but to calibrate its food supply at a consistently low level, to keep its “wavering” and “hostile” populations weak, listless, vulnerable, and obedient.

There is also evidence of abundance in some parts of North Korea. You’ll never guess where:

The authorities in Pyongyang have been distributing rice harvested this autumn to the public since October, having drawn down military grain stocks since the spring. The people of the capital are currently experiencing high food security as a result, as rice procured from North and South Hwanghae is used to service the population of the capital.

A source from Pyongyang reported to Daily NK on the 2nd, “At the beginning of October there was distribution of one week and then of two weeks of rice from the 2013 autumn harvest,” adding, “November was like October, with distribution divided into two lots, and the authorities have made it known that there will be normal distribution in December.”

“All the rice produced on the outskirts of Pyongyang goes to the military in those areas, whereas the rice that has been distributed this time came from further afield,” the source went on. “There was a good rice harvest this year so they started distributing it early, unlike in some other years.”

Moreover, the source added, “The Upper [the North Korean authorities] is propagating the idea that ‘The Marshal [Kim Jong Eun] is granting this distribution in accordance with his goal to ‘renovate Pyongyang within three years’,” and “Trust only in the Marshal and you’ll be able to live the good life.”  [….]

The source agreed. “The lives of people in Pyongyang are improving slowly off the back of two months of comparatively voluminous food distribution,” he noted. “People used to spend all the money they earned to buy rice and side dishes, but now they are buying things like clothes, or even saving their money.”

Meanwhile, other regions of North Korea are not receiving the same scale of distribution. A source from the northern border city of Hyesan, for example, told Daily NK that distribution there has been insignificant. “Since we got eight months of potatoes at the beginning of October after the harvest, there’s been nothing.”

A source from Hwanghae said the same, explaining that there has only been localized distribution of food to cooperative farm workers in accordance with production levels, and no mention of “rice distribution” at all.

Why would people in the provinces keep growing food they aren’t permitted to eat? There’s a hint of an answer beneath this dishonest Yonhap headline: “N. Korea offering incentives to farmers: WFP”. Incentives! Green shoots of capitalism at last! Huzzah, for profiteering can only mean reform! Except that if you read the article, it says, “North Korea is offering incentives to farmers who are productive, while cutting food rations for those who under-perform.” Yes, I suppose the threat of starvation counts as an incentive, too. Sigh.

As you’re digesting the last of your Thanksgiving leftovers, there are real children starving in front of their parents all over North Korea. Give thanks.