Rice, peace & freedom: It’s time we told the N. Korean people the truth about why they’re hungry.

It is fitting that Groundhog Day was a busy day in North Korea. On the same day that Pyongyang announced that it would test a long-range missile, the U.N. released $8 million from its emergency aid fund “to assist [the] most vulnerable women and children” in North Korea.

Bangkok, 2 February 2016) United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 29 January 2016 released US$ 8 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). These funds will enable life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people most vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition. The DPRK was one of nine countries to receive such grants within the overall $100 million allocation to underfunded emergencies.

Undernutrition is a fundamental cause of maternal and child death and disease: in DPRK, chronic malnutrition (stunting) among under-five children is at 27.9 per cent, while 4 per cent of under-five children are acutely malnourished (wasting). Around 70 per cent of the population, or 18 million people, are considered food insecure. Food production in the country is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs and is highly vulnerable to shocks, particularly natural disasters. Due to drought in 2015, 11 per cent of the main harvest was lost.

Health service delivery, including reproductive health, remains inadequate, with many areas of the country not equipped with the facilities, equipment or medicines to meet people’s basic health needs. Under-five children and low-birth-weight newborns are vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrhoea if they do not receive proper treatment or basic food, vitamins and micronutrients.

CERF funds will be used to sustain critical life-saving interventions aimed at improving the nutrition situation in the country through reduction of maternal and under-five child mortality and morbidity. More than 2.2 million people, including 1.8 million under-five children and 350,000 pregnant and lactating women, will benefit from assistance provided by CERF funds. “The commitment and support of the international community is vital. Protracted and serious needs must be addressed” said United Nations Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Mr. Tapan Mishra. “Humanitarian needs must be kept separate from political issues to ensure minimum living conditions for the most vulnerable people.” The United Nations will continue to work towards addressing the structural causes of vulnerabilities and chronic malnutrition through its interventions agreed with the DPRK Government. [Relief Web]

Separately, UNICEF recently warned that “25,000 children in North Korea require immediate treatment for malnutrition after a drought cut food production by a fifth and the government reduced rations.” But the true “structural cause” of the “vulnerabilities and chronic malnutrition” Mr. Mishra cites is staring us in the face.

watches3

The fact that donor nations can see this is why the U.N. must dip into its emergency fund to provide for the most urgent needs of North Korean children. No other industrialized country has ever experienced such a prolonged food crisis. Most readers probably have a general idea that Kim Jong-un could afford to feed his population by spending less on weapons, but let’s examine the figures in greater detail. First, $8 million is a small sum compared to $200 million, the total cost of the World Food Program’s (WFP) current two-year program to assist 2.4 million vulnerable women, children, and families. That’s an annualized cost of $100 million per year.

A close reading of WFP Inspector General reports reveals that a substantial, but unquantifiable amount of this is overhead — salaries of the aid workers, salaries of the North Korean workers provided to the WFP by the North Korean government, fuel purchased from the North Korean government, and other costs (such as storage) paid to the North Korean government. In other words, the actual food costs are likely just a fraction of that $100 million a year.

It also bears repeating that 2.4 million North Koreans represents a small percentage of the North Koreans who are food insecure. Recent U.N. studies have placed the percentage of North Koreans who are food insecure at between 70 percent and 84 percent, out of a population of roughly 23 million people. Before the North Korean government expelled most international aid workers in 2006, the WFP was feeding 6.5 million North Koreans. 

For comparison, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its missile programs in 2012 alone. In 2013, it spent $644 million on luxury goods, which U.N. resolutions prohibit it from importing. Let no one say that North Korea’s missiles never killed or hurt anyone.

Yet in listing the causes of the food crisis, the World Food program lists droughts, floods, typhoons, deforestation, an “economic downturn,” a “lack of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers,” and “limited capacity to access international capital markets and import food.”

In 2015, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring international compliance with sanctions against North Korea found that the North Korean government had placed an intelligence officer inside the WFP’s Rome headquarters.

Recent evidence, however, suggests that the North Korean government has no difficulty importing the things it really wants.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 7.25.37 AM

Satellite imagery of North Korea’s Nampho port reveals what appears to be a new 50-meter pleasure craft, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).

The boat which was first spotted by Curtis Melvin at the U.S.-Korea Institute in Washington D.C., and can be seen docked at the naval headquarters of North Korea’s West Sea fleet. [….]

“No visitors have reported seeing or photographing this boat. We are under the impression that this boat was imported, at one point or another,” Melvin added, though admitted more me definite proof (sic) had so far been hard to come by. [….]

The new boat joins a number of other pleasure craft visible on satellite imagery around the DPRK’s coasts. In 2013, an NK News investigation revealed Kim Jong Un’s $7 million yacht, originally manufactured by British company Princess.

UN sanctions prohibit the sale of pleasure craft, cars and other luxury items to North Korea, but patchy implementation often means that prohibited goods can still find their way across the DPRK’s borders. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 7.25.15 AM

Photos obtained by NK Pro reveal North Korea’s new gondolas at the Masikryong ski resort originally came from Austria, in what could constitute a breach of UN luxury goods sanctions and EU regulations.

The recently installed cable car system now running up the Taehwa Peak in the DPRK’s Kangwon Province, once ferried passengers around the high end Ischgl resort on the border between Austria and Switzerland as part of network of 45 ski lifts and cable cars.

Coming amid momentum for fresh United Nations sanctions to respond to the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test, the gondola is the latest in a string of controversial purchases by the North Korean resort, which also include skiing equipment and specialized machinery sourced from Europe and Canada. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

A government that can import yachts and ski gondolas surely has the means to import rice.

In its 2014 report, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found evidence of crimes against humanity in North Korea discussed Pyongyang’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of the right to food” in extensive detail.

660. Large amounts of state expenditure are also devoted to giant bronze statues and other projects designed to further the personality cult of Kim Il-sung and his successors and showcase their achievements. These projects are given absolute priority, which is also evidenced by the fact that they are often completed in a short period of time.  The DPRK Minister of Finance, Choe Kwang-jin, reported about the 2012 budget of the DPRK:

Of the total state budgetary expenditure for the economic development and improvement of people’s living standard, 44.8 per cent was used for funding the building of edifices to be presented to the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung, the consolidation of the material and technological foundation of Juche-based, modern and self-supporting economy and the work for face-lifting the country.

661. In 2013, Kim Jong-un ordered the KPA to construct a “world-class” ski resort that would rival the winter sports facilities that are being built in the ROK in preparation of the ROK’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. When visiting the site in May 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly “was greatly satisfied to learn that soldier-builders have constructed a skiing area on mountain ranges covering hundreds of thousands of square meters, including primary, intermediate and advanced courses with almost 110,000 meters in total length and between 40 and 120 metres in width.” 

662. A number of similar prestige projects that fail to have any immediate positive impact on the situation of the general population have been pursued, including the construction of the monumental Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, the Rungna Dolphinarium and Pleasure Park in Pyongyang and a beach resort town in Wonsan.

(f) Purchase of luxury goods

663. The DPRK continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods, as confirmed by the reports of the United Nations Panel of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009), which inter alia monitors the implementation of the Security Council sanctions prohibiting the import of luxury goods. In one report, the Panel of Experts described the confiscation, by Italy, of luxury items such as high quality cognac and whiskey worth 12,000 euros (USD 17,290) and equipment for a 1,000-person cinema valued at Euro 130,000 (USD 187,310). The report further revealed that the DPRK has attempted to purchase and import a dozen Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment, more than three dozen pianos and cosmetics. 

664. Luxury goods expenditure by the DPRK rose to USD 645.8 million (470 million euros) in 2012. Reportedly, this was a sharp increase from the average of USD 300 million a year under Kim Jong-il in October 2013. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on Human Rights in N. Korea, Feb. 2014]

In response to North Korea’s missile test, a State Department spokesman called on Pyongyang to “put food in the mouths of the North Korean people instead of spending money on dangerous military capabilities.” There is fresh evidence that this message would resonate with North Koreans, too. Although the North Korean government’s propaganda blames international sanctions for causing food shortages, the claim is nonsense. Professor Lee and I debunked it here, in the pages of the New York Times. The North Korean people also question that narrative.

Q: North Korea may be sanctioned again by the international community. I presumed that only ordinary people will suffer, not the upper class. What do you think about that?

A: Our life is so miserable; we are so poor with or without sanctions. We make a living selling in the marketplace, because the government no longer provides rations as they used to. Sanctions make any difference. [….]

Q: North Korean official media are showing scenes of people in Pyongyang celebrating the success of the hydrogen bomb test. How about in the provincial towns?

A: There haven’t been any meetings or gatherings regarding the nuke test. No one has any interest in it. A successful test will not provide a single teaspoon of rice. We are only concerned about the price of rice. We don’t care about that shitty bomb story; we are too busy trying to feed ourselves. [Rimjin-gang]

And separately, this:

Q: How do the people feel about the hydrogen bomb test?

A: I doubt that many people would have pride about that (the nuke test)! We don’t have enough food to eat! Everyone is making an outcry since they are doing that kind of thing even though we are so hungry! [Rimjin-gang]

North Korea watchers often speculate that the regime uses bomb and missile tests to create an us-versus-them mentality, to bolster national pride in the regime, and to distract the people from the hardships they endure. As The New York Times notes, “Most of the country, especially outside the capital, remains in dire poverty, a fact that analysts say has spurred Mr. Kim to focus attention on his nuclear program.” There’s evidence that it’s not working anymore.

She said, “People here are more apprehensive than boastful. They say the regime has finally blown it after the repetitive talks about the nuclear test. People in the markets also argue, ‘The government should have spent the money on food supplies. The state media announced that the nuclear test was a success, but who knows whether it was.’ ”

The situations in the North Korean border region remain unchanged; the residents are largely indifferent to the success of its nuclear test. The regime propagated justifications for possessing nuclear weapons and its success on the 4th nuclear test, on the basis that it defends peace and protects from the United States and its other enemies.

In the past, people in the DPRK have been proud of nuclear test success and its purported power to defend the state. But public opinion has turned against nuclear weapons over the years, with people’s perception of nuclear arms development going from ‘possession of national defense power’ to ‘waste of financial resources’. [New Focus Int’l]

The South Korean government has just announced that it will increase its loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ. If Seoul ever develops and deploys a comprehensive information operations strategy for broadcasting to the North Korean people, it should make the true causes of hunger in North Korea a centerpiece of its message. Seoul’s message to the people of North Korea should be a variation on a message that has long proven effective when delivered to oppressed people: rice, peace, and freedom … and reunification.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *