Famine & Food Aid Resistance

U.N. must confront the political causes of North Korea’s food crisis

In North Korea, the land of suspended disbelief, an almost unbroken twenty-year series of meteorological miracles has bounded droughts and floods within the blighted land between the DMZ and the Yalu River each year, without having once caused a famine or food crisis in South Korea. For a few months this year, a serious drought threatened to be the worst-ever again, until rains came and eased conditions in most parts of the country.

North Koreans can still look forward to a hard year (see here and here), but not a disastrous one. For this, many North Koreans may owe their lives to the sotoji farmers, who spent the drought tending their crops and covering them with plastic sheeting to hold the soil’s moisture. Although sotoji farmers grow their crops in backyards, cleared plots in the hills, and marginal land the state did not bother to collectivize, they provide “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. The state has fought them every step of the way, by confiscating plots, limiting their size, hiking land use fees, or planting trees on them.

Clearly, then, the causes of North Korea’s food crisis are not primarily meteorological. The same must be said of the solutions.

If anything good came of the drought, it is that it briefly revived the debate about aid policy, to which Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein makes an important contribution at The Diplomat. Silberstein takes aid agencies to task for enabling the regime’s avoidance of fundamental reforms that are essential to address the root causes of North Korea’s long-term nutritional crisis.

Sadly, in trying to counter North Korea’s suffering, the international community may ironically be contributing to its prolonging. The United Nations and other donors are enabling the North Korean regime to continue its disastrous policies when they act as cushions whenever the country runs out of food.

Foreign aid has been an integral part of North Korea’s food supply planning since the mid-1990s. This year is no exception, and the international community may have to allocate additional funds to North Korean food aid in order to prevent widespread malnutrition. But aid won’t change anything in the long run. North Korea will continue to be highly vulnerable to simple weather changes, unless its most basic economic policies are completely overhauled. [Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, The Diplomat]

He also raises an obvious question that aid agencies consistently avoid — that North Korea could import enough food to close its food gap, yet chooses not to.

The North Korean regime often emphasizes that the country consists mostly of mountainous regions not suitable for farming. That is clearly true, but the logical response to such a challenge would be to seek to import agricultural goods and export those that the country can produce in greater abundance to a cheaper price than others. Instead, the regime continues to uphold economic and political self-reliance as its overarching goal.

The first duty of a government is to either provide for its people or let them provide for themselves. States that fail this most basic obligation forfeit their sovereign right to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on flat screen TVs, jewelry, and expensive liquor; to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building ski resorts and water parks; and to spend a billion-and-change on missiles each year. All of these expenditures ($644M, $300M, $1.3B, respectively) dwarf what aid agencies are asking foreign donors to give to food aid programs ($111M). Even without subtracting out the aid agencies’ substantial overhead costs, this means that North Korea has more than enough cash on hand to feed its own people.

Silberstein concludes:

Like most disasters often termed as “natural,” the consequences of North Korea’s drought are first and foremost failures of policy, not of nature. By agreeing to supply North Korea’s shortfall in food production, year after year, even as the regime refuses to make any fundamental changes to the system that keeps on failing, the international community acts as an enabler for the regime’s continuing mismanagement. Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.

When two decades* of international aid fail to pull an industrialized society in a temperate zone out of a state of widespread, multi-generational, chronic malnutrition, aid agencies incur an obligation to identify and confront the real causes of hunger in North Korea. In North Korea, that begins with talking about an undeniable and criminally culpable misallocation of resources, but does not end there. The fact that North Korean spies have infiltrated the World Food Program (and UNESCO, for good measure) may not be the only reason why aid agencies haven’t met this duty, but until they do, donors will continue to stay away in droves.

Silberstein devotes much of his article to the state of agricultural reform in North Korea, which he views as “nothing more than tweaking the edges of a failed system.” Even this may give Pyongyang too much credit, as the regime’s unsteady policies make every gain uncertain. Last month, for example, I wrote that the regime’s tolerance of markets was one clear bright spot in the economic picture. Since then, it has banned men under 60 from trading. To angry North Korean traders who are protesting to security forces, brawling with them, or jumping off buildings in angry desperation, the state’s liberalization hasn’t gone far enough. To them, when the state fails to provide, it is their right to provide for themselves:

Not only that, on the same day, an additional source in the same province reported a recent riot targeting MPS agents at Chongjin’s Sunam Market. The skirmish ignited when an agent arbitrarily targeted a male merchant in his 60s for the old middle-school textbooks mixed in with the secondhand books he was hawking at his stall.

When the books were confiscated he shouted, “What does the state give us? We don’t get rations or wages. If I got even one of those two things I wouldn’t be here doing this!” according to the source.

Moreover, “Passersby and merchants alike near the scene quickly stepped up to take the old man’s side, wasting no time in berating the MPS officials by shouting, ‘What’s wrong with what he said? Of course we’ve taken to market life–we’re hungry! We have to make ends meet! Why would be put ourselves through arduous work like this if we could be full and rich like you. Those who are full can’t grasp the hunger of others,” he explained.

Others at the scene chimed in, shouting, “Not even being able sell things without worrying–that’s too suffocating a reality,” according to the source, who added that this micro incident is directly reflective of a macro issue of citizens’ frustration regarding the authorities.

The agent, visibly overwhelmed by the outcries, tried to defend himself, shouting, “It’s not my fault that the state is not giving you rations. Go take your complaints to the district office,” according to the source, who said that he fled directly thereafter, during which citizens yelled after him, “ You’re all the same–living off the money of those struggling to get by!”

He added, “The MPS agent took off in a flash before the altercation could escalate further. Still, the tension hung heavy in the air long after his departure and a lot of the residents on the scene said that it helped them get [suppressed feelings] off their chests.” [Daily NK]

Today, street stalls are springing up everywhere, but what about tomorrow? Further complicating this picture is the fact that it can be difficult to determine, based on unconfirmed and isolated reports, whether reported incidents suggest a top-down policy change or bottom-up corruption. What matters in the end is what’s inflicted on the traders in the markets, and on the consumers who rely on them.

On the contrary, North Korea is not only refusing to change its economic structures to make them more resilient to events like the current drought. The state also continues to suppress those economic mechanisms that could help counter the effects of natural disasters. Even though private legal markets are now part of the formal economy to a large extent, imports and exports are still heavily restricted and largely rely on the willingness of border guards to accept bribes.

While Kim Jong-un has implemented measures that carry the shape of economic liberalization with one hand, his other hand has been used to tighten controls on border trade and smuggling. The government would only need to cease some of its control of the markets to alleviate the food shortages that will likely follow the current drought, a virtually costless measure. So far, it has done nothing of this sort. [Silberstein]

The regime now confronts a political paradox — small relaxations of control only beget demands for greater relaxations of control. As more people enter the market system and deepen their investments in it, their demands also become more aggressive. For North Korea’s poor, the market system is the new normal, even a new right. Year by year, that right becomes more unalienable. Unlike the generation that preceded them, most of North Korea’s untermenschen do not sit listlessly at the verge of starvation; they are merely poor, on the wrong side of a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasingly angry about it. Far better for the regime, then, to simply accept the inevitable change that it seems less able to resist each year.

North Korea needs fundamental, structural policy reforms at every stage of its nutritional cycle. First, it must prioritize providing food and medical care for its people, instead of luxury items and weapons. Second, it must fundamentally liberalize its markets and let its people provide for themselves. Third, North Korea needs real land reform — not sharecropping, or any other marginal reforms that people in Washington love to predict, and people in Chongjin never see and no longer believe in. To end North Korea’s food crisis, Pyongyang must give the land back to the tillers, let the market provide food to those who can provide for themselves, and build a functioning social welfare system for those who cannot.

Donor nations must recognize that the change North Korea needs is a fundamental transition to a market-based system, including land redistribution, and make clear that the world is ready to help the North Korean government implement that change by providing seed, fertilizer, environmentally safe pesticides, and training to farmers. Until then, they should unite to block the offshore funds that Pyongyang is wasting, and make those funds available for humanitarian purposes only.

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* Originally said “a decade.”