In North Korea, no disaster is ever entirely natural

With all the news out of North Korea recently, I’ve been saving up links to news reports about the floods in the northeastern provinces until I had a moment to put some thoughts together. According to a U.N. aid coordinator’s assessment, the floods killed 138 people, damaged 30,000 houses, and made 69,000 people homeless. 



North Korea claims that these are the worst floods since World War II, and some news reports have obligingly reprinted that claim. But OFK has a long memory, and in its vast archives, I found that after floods in 2007, the government claimed that hundreds of people were dead or missing and that 300,000 were homeless. Going by North Korean government statistics alone — something no responsible journalist should ever do without careful fact-checking and prominent disclaimers — these are not even the worst floods in North Korea this decade.

There are, of course, other reasons to be skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims. In 2007, the Korean Central News Agency gave the Associated Press a photograph of knee-deep flood waters in Pyongyang. AP later withdrew the photo when it was revealed to have been a rather obvious photoshop job, altered to make the waters look deeper than they really were. This incident, Pyongyang’s long history of manipulating aid assessments, and its infiltration of U.N. organizations with intelligence agents show that Pyongyang has a motive and a willingness to deceive the world, to get sympathy, money, rations for hungry border guards, or even insurance payouts. 

These incidents and many others demonstrate the importance of doing thorough assessments of humanitarian needs, and of rigorous monitoring of the distribution of aid to prevent Pyongyang from diverting and misusing it. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that U.N. needs assessments this time will do any better than U.N. nutrition surveys have. After all, the areas affected by the floods include at least one prison camp, Camp 12, at Cheongo-ri. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has already published satellite imagery of flood damage to the prison.



The U.N.’s map of the affected areas also includes Camp 25 in Chongjin, the former Camp 22 in Hoeryong, and Camp 16 in Hwasong. Not only would Pyongyang never allow foreign aid workers near those places to do assessments, I doubt U.N. agencies would even have the courage to ask to go there. But why are the humanitarian needs of prisoners, including political prisoners, less deserving than those of anyone else? Ordinarily, humanitarian agencies insist on the non-discriminatory distribution of aid and adhere to the principle of “no access, no aid.” But in another case of North Korean exceptionalism, the has U.N. allowed North Korea to make itself an exception to those principles.

Worse, the state’s botched response is exacerbating the problem. It is prioritizing security over recovery by jamming cell phones and making it difficult to communicate, an essential function during a disaster response. It has deployed large numbers of untrained soldiers and citizens to perform recovery work, but the workers have burdened already scarce supplies of food and shelter. Food prices in the affected area have doubled, and some soldiers have looted private homes. 

Then, more than a week after the floods, Kim Jong-un made the decision to carry out a nuclear test, which is the clearest possible statement of the priority he assigns to helping the survivors. In theory, a dictator’s decisions should not be held against his subjects, but Kim Jong-un certainly knew that in practice, the test would contribute to already severe donor fatigue just when his people would be in desperate need of international aid.

Kim Jong-un has made several public appearances to celebrate the nuclear test, but has not gone to the flood-affected areas to command response efforts or console survivors. There are reports of widespread anger by North Koreans, who can certainly see this, too. 

In this light, Seoul’s hesitation to throw money at Pyongyang is somewhat understandable. As I tend to repeat because it can’t be repeated enough, the North Korean people are poor, but their government isn’t. Kim Jong-un has more than enough cash on hand to buy food, tents, medicine, blue tarps, and building materials from just over the border in China, or to import them into the nearby ports of Chongjin and Rason. I see zero evidence that Pyongyang is doing that, but if you do, by all means, post a link in the comments. Yet some people have let themselves be conditioned into the belief that the needs of North Korea’s people are everyone’s responsibility but that of His Supreme Corpulency himself.

“We have to ask ourselves if now is the appropriate time – considering Pyongyang’s two-faced attitude – to make such movement (for aid).”

The Seoul government, the ruling Saenuri Party, and right-leaning media have largely avoided responding to voices urging Seoul’s involvement in alleviating the worst effects of North Korea’s flood, NK News previously reported.

This position has been heavily criticized by scholars and former policymakers,  particularly from the Sunshine era, including Dr. Kim Yeon-chul, who was one of the observers of the Six-Party Talks in 2005.

“A hungry child knows no politics,” wrote Kim on his website, quoting the former U.S. President Reagan’s speech from 1984. “Will we ever learn…to sympathize about the other human beings? ” he added. [NK News]

Or so says a former advisor to Roh Moo-hyun, whose government told North Korean refugees to f**k off and die in place, and whose supporters spent more than a decade blocking North Korea human rights legislation.

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In addition to its casualty toll, the U.N., probably citing North Korean government figures, claims that nearly 400 North Koreans are missing. Some of them are probably dead. Others may be alive but lost amid the chaos. Still others may have slipped across the border into China, taking advantage of the fact that the floods washed away border fences and border posts, drowned some border guards, and generally broke down command and control in the region. This appeal from Liberty in North Korea certainly suggests so. 

Friends, North Korea is recovering from severe flooding caused by Typhoon Lionrock. Buildings and homes have been destroyed and thousands of people have been displaced. This has caused an increase in people fleeing across the border into China.

In the last few days, there have been an unprecedented number of requests for rescues from North Koreans who have just crossed the border, but we can’t keep up with this increased demand. This situation needs our immediate response. Our partners are on the ground and ready to go. You can help us, right now, provide critical assistance to individuals who have escaped in the midst of this disaster. [LiNK]

If these new refugees are counted as missing and presumed dead, so much the better for their families, who will be spared collective punishments and shake-downs by the security forces. Eventually, they might even receive remittances from China or South Korea to help get them through the long, cold winter to come.

For the regime, the loss of control of the northeastern border comes amid growing indiscipline among the border guard force, and just as it had begun to reassert control with inspections and restrictions on the soldiers’ movements.

As is so often the case, the North Korean people suffer, and their government does more to exacerbate their suffering than to ameliorate it. In other societies, botched disaster responses have political consequences. But in a place where there is no internet, no telephones, and no other means by which the people can share their grievances or organize to protest them, the regime will probably be able to isolate and suppress their anger. 

If you want to donate to help North Koreans without donating to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons fund, please give to LiNK, as generously as you can afford to.