Why is North Korea exporting food while its people go hungry?

North Korean food exports to China have increased by more than 35 percent compared to the same period last year, and are at their highest levels in at least four years, according to Chinese customs data. [….]

[I]n the first eight months of the year, North Korea exported more food than it received in food aid in the whole of 2011 according to a recent World Food Program (WFP) report. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

And this, shortly after the regime just cut rations to their lowest level in three years in at least one region, citing the effects of a drought. The obvious question this raises is whether North Korea has food to spare when aid workers are pleading with other governments to contribute aid for North Korea’s hungry. The best available evidence tells us that it does not.

First, aid workers continue to speak of numerous stunted children with impaired mental functioning, and U.N. surveys tell us that the vast majority of North Koreans were barely getting enough to eat last year, after one of North Korea’s best harvests in years.

Second, The Daily NK’s tracking of rice prices shows that they rose alarmingly over the summer and have reached an unseasonably high level, even as North Korea enters the harvest season:

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Note that prices are always highest in remote Hyesan, where people are poorest, and lowest in Pyongyang, where people are richest. A careful reader will note that these data are at variance from Byrne’s statement that the price of rice has been relatively constant all year. Byrne is a first-rate reporter has done some exceptional reporting on sanctions violations, but in this case, the data contradict one of his assertions.

You could still excuse Pyongyang for exporting high-value foods, like ginseng and shiitake mushrooms, to earn revenue to buy larger quantities of cheaper foods rice, corn, and soy. Yet last spring, trade statistics told us that North Korea had reduced its food imports from China, despite the fact that this is ordinarily the hungriest season of the year, when winter stocks have run low. Byne notes that North Korea’s recent exports “even included a small rice export in July,” as market prices began to rise, and that North Korea exported seafood, traditionally an important source of needed protein in the Korean diet, including squid. No one who has ever entered a movie theater in South Korea could fail to notice the ubiquity of squid as a cheap snack food there.

In search of explanations, Byrne cites Andrei Lankov, who speculates that North Korea is actually having a good harvest and that North Koreans are eating well. I’ve often cited and been influenced by Lankov’s research in the past, but there are several problems with this argument.

First, even if you disregard the earlier reports of a drought, a good harvest wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone is eating well if the regime is seizing the crops, as it was also reported to be doing in South Hwanghae in 2012, and then exporting whatever the favored classes and the military don’t consume.

Second, the U.N. and its aid workers, who have much more evidence on their side, continue to tell us that the people are barely surviving.

Third, Lankov’s argument finds little support from evidence of a better nutritional situation or lower food prices, and only unsourced anecdotes to support his claims of agricultural reform. The latter claim conflicts with reports of seizures of collective crops, the confiscation and destruction of private crops, the seizure of private plotscrackdowns on remittances, and intensified efforts to seal the border — evidence that Kim Jong Un’s agricultural policies are actually more statist than his father’s. Lankov’s previous claim, of a 30% rise in food production last year, also conflicts with stronger evidence of a production increase of just 5%, although all of these estimates should be treated with suspicion.

So which is it? Either (a) the U.N. data and aid workers’ anecdotes are the product Pyongyang’s manipulations, (b) the trade statistics are incomplete or manipulated, or (c) Pyongyang is willfully starving its own people. Option (c) is the only theory that doesn’t require me to ignore evidence. Each of these explanations is its own argument that aid isn’t helping North Korea’s hungry, and won’t unless aid agencies are willing to speak hard truths about hunger, access, and monitoring. So is the fact that we still aren’t sure which lie Pyongyang is telling us.

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