Why does North Korea still need food aid? (Updated)

The UN aid agencies working in North Korea — the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the World Food Program, and WHO (writing collectively as Relief Web) — have published a new report. I draw three main conclusions from it. First, despite some reports of improved food production, the humanitarian situation is still bad. Second, aid agencies still aren’t being forthcoming about the most important reasons for that. Third, various UN entities are working at cross purposes, and don’t share a single coherent vision of how to balance providing for North Koreans in need with responding to the aggressive behavior of their government.

The Relief Web report finds that “[f]rom a population of 24.6 million, approximately 70 per cent (18 million) are food insecure and highly vulnerable to shortages in food production.” As a misery index, this is a lower estimate than in the December 2013 WFP and FAO study, which found that 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, a difference that’s probably attributable to slightly different questions and methodologies. (The 2013 study looked at consumption during the lean season, the Relief Web report focuses on dietary diversity.) The new report also finds that “[t]he chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate among under-five children is 27.9 per cent (about 540,000) while acutely malnourished (wasting) affects four per cent of children under-five (about 90,000).”

As always, one should accept such estimates with great caution. The regime is very practiced at skewing assessments like these by showing aid workers precisely what it wants them to see. For example, North Korea denied the UN assessment teams access to the entirety of Jagang Province, a remote mountainous area that, according to the same report, has one of North Korea’s highest rates of food insecurity. We also know that — despite the professed principle of “no access, no food,” North Korea has long denied the aid agencies access to its horrific prison camps. Marcus Noland often says that one should never trust a statistic from North Korea that includes a decimal point.

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So why, after 20 years of aid, can’t this fully industrialized state feed its people? Primarily, the UN finds that “[f]ood production is hampered by a lack of” things that money can buy from any number of commercial sources, including (most obviously) food, but also “agricultural inputs, such as soybean seeds, fertilizer and plastic sheets.” But as OFK readers know, lack of money isn’t an issue for Kim Jong Un.[1]

The report also repeatedly describes North Korea as “vulnerable” to “shocks” like natural disasters, but doesn’t explain how it is that North Korea (again, in contrast to all other industrialized societies) remains vulnerable to famine after two decades of food aid. The report cites “the fragility of the national emergency response capacities,” but that’s an essential government function that other governments prioritize. If you can assemble, equip, and train a million-man army with special forces and a mobile missile force, why not a disaster response agency or EMTs? North Korea is in a temperate zone, not the sahel, so it’s not uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather. When is the last time you heard about anyone going hungry because of extreme weather in South Korea, or for that matter, Mongolia?

The report also reminds us not to assume that increased food production, even if we’ve measured it accurately, translates to a better nutritional situation:

DPR Korea’s Crop Production and Food Security Assessment (CPFSA), carried out by the Government in November 2014, reported a modest increase of 48,700 MT in cereal production in 2014, despite a prolonged dry-spell from spring to autumn. However, production did not reach the targeted level, which was higher than previous years due to increases in consumption patterns, as well as the need to use cereals for seed and livestock feed. As a result the shortfall of cereal increased from 40,000 MT in 2013 to 891,508 MT in 2014. Soybean production also decreased to 160,364 MT in 2014; approximately 1.83 per cent lower than 2013 and the third consecutive year of decline. Crop rotations of soybeans are critical to improve nitrogen levels in the soil and also to provide dietary protein for a number of protein-rich products, such as soymilk, soy-sauce and soy-flour. The estimated level of vegetable production was 0.45 million MT against a requirement of 2.50 million MT, leaving a gap of 2 million MT. Despite improved harvests in some crops, the food security situation will remains similar to previous years with poor food consumption in most households. [Page 7]

Does “increases in consumption patterns” mean that people are eating more, that the UN is adjusting expectations to account for what a human being needs to eat, or is it just creative accounting? I can’t tell.

What Relief Web doesn’t explain is that private, gray-market (sotoji) farming is another important component in North Korea’s food production story that UN survey statistics can’t measure. Andrei Lankov once wrote that in some areas, sotoji farming could account for “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” To some extent, and despite all of the renewed talk of agricultural reform, the state’s confiscatory policies toward sotoji agriculture may also be offsetting these nominal increases, but to an unknowable degree. The crackdown is manifested in two ways: increased fees for the use of the plots, and the confiscation of some plots in the name of reforestation. In the recent past, the regime has also exported “excess” production for hard currency. Stories like these cause me to wonder, at times, whether Pyongyang is deliberately limiting the food supply.[2]

According to the report, donor fatigue is a growing problem: “[F]unding for United Nations (UN) agencies decreased substantially over the past decade, from US$300 million in 2004 to less than $50 million in 2014.” It isn’t hard to think of any number of sound reasons for that, from the regime’s own culpably malignant priorities, to its interference with aid workers (see also Steph Haggard’s comment on this) by limiting access or expelling them, to the aid agencies’ own refusal to confront those problems frankly and directly. The UN agencies still appear to be relying on the state’s Public Distribution System, a system that experts will tell you barely functions at all.

Perhaps donors should still do more to meet UN’s requests for vaccination programs to prevent tuberculosis, malaria, and cervical cancer, and for the treatment of tuberculosis and pneumonia. Even medicine isn’t completely free of the risk of diversion, however, which means that monitoring is still important.

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Of course, what the report does not confront is the fact that North Korea shouldn’t need humanitarian aid at all. According to Marcus Noland, North Korea could close its food gap with “less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of [its] military budget.” Its known annual spending on luxury goods is six times the amount of the UN’s latest appeal for North Korea. Its gap between rich and poor is obscene and growing. Similarly, every North Korean who died in the Great Famine of the 1990s was a victim of Kim Jong Il’s priorities — not weather, not lack of resources, and not sanctions. And yet the report says this:

Recent political developments resulted in further international sanctions on DPR Korea, creating additional constraints in providing vital assistance. As a result of sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank imposed in March 2013, led to the significant issues and delays in transferring funding into DPRK throughout 2014. UN agencies put in place contingencies to continue programmes, with lifesaving activities prioritised. Measures to reduce in-country payments included maximizing off-shore payments and minimizing in-country operating expenses. The inability of UN agencies to use their regular banking routes created multiple operational obstacles and affected in-country procurement, monitoring visits, effective programme delivery, in-country capacity building programmes and general operating expenditures. [Page 15]

Now, here is what a UN Panel of Experts charged with monitoring the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions just said about that same topic:

209. While the Panel has been made aware of allegations that sanctions are contributing to food shortages, its assessment has found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid. National legislative or procedural steps taken by Member States or private sector industry have been reported as prohibiting or delaying the passage of certain goods to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these measures from United Nations sanctions. The Panel will continue to seek information on the issue. 210. Although the resolutions underline that the sanctions measures are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population, there is no exemption mechanism in the resolutions under embargoes to that end. The Panel therefore recommends that the Committee propose to the Security Council exemptions under embargoes, provided that such items are confirmed to be solely for food, agricultural, medical or other humanitarian purposes. [U.N. Panel of Experts, Feb. 2015 report]

The latter recommendation, of course, is both humane and sensible. Sanctions resolutions and legislation should always contain flexible waiver and exemption provisions for purely humanitarian transactions. But agonizing dilemmas like these again point us to Pyongyang’s skill at using its own poor as human shields to divide the world’s response to its offenses and outrages.

To the extent sanctions have complicated aid delivery, the UN Relief Web report attributes that to “recent political developments” — that is, Kim Jong Un’s decision to test a nuclear weapon in February 2013 — and then says that this “resulted in further international sanctions” by the UN Security Council. The U.S. Treasury Department is obligated to enforce UN sanctions, so when Treasury concluded that North Korea was using its Foreign Trade Bank “to facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network,” it blocked that bank out of the dollar system. It’s unfortunate that North Korea also forced humanitarian groups to use the same bank, but thankfully, according to Ghulam Isaczai, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea, UN aid agencies have “been able to work around” those complications “and still bring in humanitarian aid to support the population.”

On close reading, the “complications” the aid agencies cite are related to “local procurement.” Those complications only exist because Pyongyang is demanding payment for that local procurement in U.S. dollars. In plain English, it looks like Pyongyang is charging UN aid agencies for fuel and labor in hard currency, leaving the aid agencies to feed poor North Koreans, while Pyongyang spends its own cash on ski resorts, limousines, private jets, and flat screen TVs.

Despite all of this, the aid agencies and NGOs choose to reserve all of their public criticism for the U.S., because they know the U.S. can’t expel them from North Korea, and actually cares if North Koreans starve. But that selective criticism only does more harm to their credibility and fuels more donor fatigue. Last month, in a supreme irony, Pyongyang expelled the Country Director of one of the NGOs that complained when Treasury blocked the Foreign Trade Bank.

And of course, the latest UN Panel of Experts report also contains this explosive allegation:

202. On 30 January 2014, the French Ministry of Economy and Finance ordered the freezing of assets held by two Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals affiliated with the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Mr. Kim Yong Nam and Mr. Kim Su Gwang, and one affiliated with the Korean United Development Bank, Ms. Kim Su Gyong, on the grounds that they were likely to engage in activities prohibited by the resolutions (Table 11).

203. At the time of the freeze order, Mr. Kim Yong Nam was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a contract as an employee at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and Mr. Kim Su Gwang was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a position as an international civil servant at the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome. Ms. Kim Su Gyong works at the Korean United Development Bank in Pyongyang and was engaged in financial activities under false pretences in order to conceal the involvement of her country. The three are related and have all provided support to Reconnaissance General Bureau officers abroad. Additional information obtained by the Panel regarding these individuals is summarized in annex 49.

One can only speculate as to how that infiltration has affected the WFP’s internal integrity or external messaging. The very fact that the WFP hired a North Korean government official into its headquarters in Rome is disturbing, much less a spy. After all, the WFP’s own Inspector General reports give the WFP ample notice of the risk of manipulation and diversion. I’ve yet to hear a single report that the WFP has begun an investigation, or fired the spy.

Let’s make no mistake here — sanctions are not the reason North Koreans are going hungry. UN aid agencies have an obligation to be honest about the greater causes, including North Korea’s inequality, military spending, and its restrictions on aid workers. If the aid agencies don’t protect their candor and integrity, the donor fatigue problem will only worsen.

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It’s the same story in other parts of the UN bureaucracy, where a whistleblower scandal is arising from the export of computers to North Korea:

At the center of the debate is the World Intellectual Property Organization, whose mandate includes helping governments create patent systems, allowing it to send technical equipment to sanctioned countries such as North Korea and Iran. Critics including former Justice Department official John Yoo argued that the computers could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

When three WIPO officials raised concerns over the shipments with member states in 2012, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee began an investigation. WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry blocked two of them from testifying before the committee and later fired one before he was due to publicly criticize the agency’s leadership, according to the three whistle-blowers, James Pooley, Miranda Brown and Moncef Kateb. [Swissinfo]

As The Daily NK noted when this story first broke in 2012, this isn’t just about a few loose MacBooks; it involves “advanced computer technology and data-storage servers.” How advanced? It would be nice to know a little more about just what that technology was. It may turn out that obstructing the whistleblowers’ testimony was a greater sin than the sanctions violation.

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There is, of course, a fourth U.N. report that no one is even talking about here — the Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights. It would do much to inform the other reports, especially Relief Web’s. Unfortunately, there is no UN bureaucracy whose job it is to represent the interests of that report’s subjects, or to implement its recommendations.

More broadly, all four reports point to a widening divide between different UN bodies, their interests, and their influences. It’s clear that North Korea has succeeded in wedging those divides to pit concerns for the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people against the interests of the Security Council in enforcing sanctions meant to disarm North Korea, thus exploiting the former and weakening the latter. No one in the UN is mediating and adjudicating these conflicting interests, even where (as with humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions) sensible compromises are within easy reach. Consequently, “United Nations” is again proven to be an oxymoron.

The obvious conclusion one draws is of a leadership vacuum in the higher reaches of the UN. But perhaps strong leadership that stifles free debate and disclosure would be even worse. That’s especially so when one considers that the leader is Ban Ki-moon.

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Updates, 15 April 2015:

[1] More about North Korea’s financial means, and how it chooses to spend it: North Korea increased its military spending by 16 percent over the last five years, to $10.2 billion (with a “b”) last year. That’s nearly 100 times the $111 million (with an “million) UN is asking for.

[2] Today, the Daily NK published another fascinating report on private farming, and it makes me wonder if we’re missing the real ag-reform story. To North Korean farmers, June 28th is so 2012:

While the North Korean authorities continue to push the bunjo [cooperative farm production unit] system, residents, on the other hand, are largely focusing on cultivating individual plots. According to sources within the country, this is because after failing to see the increased allotment of production under the nascent  system, discontent with the state’s hollow promises has spread rapidly among the population.

“As preparations for spring cultivation are in full swing, people feel that individual farming is far more of a priority than collective farming. It’s a major shift from last year,” a source from Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on April 13th. “With spring upon us, more households are facing decreased food supplies, so groups of residents have been gathering together to commiserate and mull over the matter together.”

North Korea stipulated in its “June 28th Measures,” announced in 2012, plans for the state to establish a “new economic management system in its own style.” Under the new system, production units on cooperative farms shrank from groups of 10 to 25, to smaller factions [pojeon] of 4 to 6 members. The state receives 70% of the target production, with farmers taking 30% and any surplus if targets are exceeded. [Daily NK]

According to the report, farmers have been cheated so many times now that they distrust the state to keep its share-cropping promises. Instead, they’re doing what they can to slip outside the state’s system and grow food privately. The story even causes me to wonder whether the June 28th measures were nothing more than a way to pacify farmers whose sotoji farms were being confiscated, or whose crops were being cut down.

2 Comments

  1. Here’s a book for you, Joshua…. Emma Sky; The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq. The Telegraph review says…

    “While the demand for a speedy drawdown from Iraq was driven primarily by Mr Obama himself, Mrs Clinton is accused of appointing an incompetent US ambassador to Baghdad, Chris Hill, who had little experience of the region and held its people in contempt.”




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  2. @North Korea has long denied the aid agencies access to its horrific prison camps.

    Would any genuinely want to venture inside though? For anyone with a degree of compassion, if the reports about what these camps are like, it’d be heart breaking and likely mentally scaring for any decent human being to see people being treated in such a manner and being in such a state. These people would need more care than any aid agency could provide and realistically would need to be liberated.




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