Here’s the latest from Professor Lee and me on the policy implications of the Commission of Inquiry’s report. The theme is that sanctions can be a tool to make Kim Jong Un’s misused wealth a source of funding for the U.N.’s underfunded aid programs — assuming Kim Jong Un allows the aid to be monitored.
Archive for Famine & Food Aid
My friend, Andrei Lankov, is again proclaiming that North Korea has reformed its agricultural sector, which he credits for last year’s improved harvest. I’ve grown comfortable with my pessimism about reform in North Korea, because events have never failed to vindicate it. Regrettably, nothing in my friend’s report dissuades me from adherence to my default view.
First, Lankov claims that these reforms have resulted in a 30% increase in last year’s harvest; however, the most reliable data we have show a 5% increase, but nothing resembling what Lankov’s sources claim.
Second, Lankov’s conclusion appears to rest on “Chinese experts who recently visited North Korea,” which means that this information could be disinformation, unreliable hearsay, unrepresentative of the country as a whole, or influenced by the bias of the “experts.” Aside from Andrei’s report, I’ve seen no evidence of a policy change from the Daily NK, New Focus, and other outlets with sources inside North Korea.
Third, I’m still reading fresh reports of the regime trying to calibrate the level of hunger, compensating for the improved harvest by sending more food to Pyongyang without giving regular rations to people elsewhere. You can’t really call a change of policy “reform” unless it’s reasonably calculated to improve the welfare of the people. Furthermore, such reform would be unsustainable. People won’t work harder to grow food that will only be seized from them. Instead, they’ll pilfer and hoard as much as they can, pre-harvest food to beat the tax man, increase their reliance on sotoji (private plot) agriculture, and find other survival strategies that will drive down or hide yields. All of this behavior also prevents any accurate assessment of harvests.
Finally, whatever policies changed last year, it’s hard to extend those trends into this year, given the purge of so many officials who held a more pragmatic view of property, trade, and commerce. Certainly the reports of mass currency confiscations in Pyongyang do not suggest that the regime has embraced economic freedom or the profit motive (unless it’s the one profiting).
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Foreign food aid is another food source that impacts this picture, although there is much debate about how much it impacts the availability of food to ordinary North Koreans. Since aid programs were scaled back dramatically in 2006, only 2.4 million North Koreans — about 11% of the population — were nominal beneficiaries, despite the fact that 84% of households have an insufficient or marginal food supply. If diversion and corruption continue to take a substantial cut of that aid, then the percentage of North Koreans receiving aid must fall far short of 11%. Furthermore, it’s fair to assume that the regime picks that 11% of approved recipients based on criteria other than need alone.
Still, foreign aid almost certainly does impact the aggregate food supply, if indirectly. Much of the diverted food ends up in markets (Item 8), where it affects commodity prices. And when the regime has less aid to give to the army, hungry soldiers become marauders and loot nearly farms to survive.
I tell you all of this to give some context to a report that “North Korea received record-low food aid from the United Nations food agency in 2013 due to sluggish contributions from the international community.” Last year, the World Food Program collected just 30% of what it appealed for, and donations were so “sluggish” that the World Food Program’s nutrition biscuit factories are on the verge of shutting down:
Some 38,000 tons of food were delivered from the World Food Program (WFP) to the impoverished communist country in 2013, some 30 percent of the agency’s target for the year, according to the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA).
It was less than half the amount sent in the previous year and the smallest since 1996 when the agency began helping the North, the report said, adding it was attributable to the WFP’s failure to raise enough funds to achieve the goal.
The amount of the U.N. agency’s food aid to the North has been fluctuating from some 136,000 tons in 2008, 50,000 tons in 2010, 100,000 tons in 2011 and 84,000 tons in 2012, according to WFP data. [Yonhap]
The WFP claims that food rations in North Korea today are 573 grams per person, compared to the WFP’s “minimum recommended amount” of 600 grams. Fortunately, very few North Koreans still rely on the state distribution system as a food source. Last week, a South Korean think tank estimated that 90% of North Koreans now derive at least part of their household income from markets:
A study of North Korean defectors by Kim’s institute showed that more than 74 percent had experience selling goods in open-air markets. They derived 70 to 80 percent of their income from unofficial economic activity and spent 80 to 90 percent of their incomes buying goods in informal markets rather than state-run stores.
Yonhap’s report doesn’t pursue the reasons for the drop in donations. One must be the fact that North Korea is the only industrialized society that has ever had such a prolonged food crisis. “Normal” societies react to food shortages by instituting broad agricultural and economic reforms, and by using more of their wealth to purchase and import food from other nations. North Korea just imports less food when it gets more aid. It’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that the regime is “calibrating” a more-or-less constant state of hunger to keep its population docile, tired, and too busy surviving to resist.
Another, more obvious reason is that the regime so clearly has enough money to feed every one of its people, yet chooses to spend the money on weapons and ski resorts instead. Aid workers know this, but in the interest of maintaining their own access, they’ve chosen not to talk about it (even as they vocally criticize governments that implement U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea’s proliferation).
The result is the worst of both worlds. Some governments, particularly in Europe, are balking at designating North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank under UNSCR 2094, despite its history of involvement in proliferation. Ironically, European governments are justifying that decision based on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian aid programs they’ve stopped funding!
It’s reasonable for governments to conclude that their aid can do more good in other places. It is wrong, however, to simply give up on helping the North Korean people. The correct response isn’t to accede to the use of food as a weapon; it’s to force North Korea to make more food available to more of its people.
Because so much North Korean money allegedly resides in Europe, Europe could play an important role in forcing this change. (So could other nations, including Switzerland, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, and yes, China.) If host nations were to block Kim Jong Un’s known slush funds and make it clear that those funds are only available for the purchase of food and humanitarian supplies, it would not only increase the amount of food North Korea imports, it would put severe pressure on Kim Jong Un to change his food distribution and agricultural policies. In the short term, this could extract transparency from Kim Jong Un in monitoring the distribution of aid. In the longer term, it could force North Korea to become more transparent in other ways.
In North Korea, malnutrition remains widespread, crops are being seized in the provinces, women are selling their bodies to survive, NGOs say the country is in a state of humanitarian crisis, and a staggering 84% of households still can’t get enough to eat.
So what else is new? The U.N. says North Korea has just had its best harvest in years.
North Korea is still struggling with chronic malnutrition with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption, United Nations agencies said on Thursday, despite a 5 percent rise in staple food output.
Overall production for this year’s harvest is estimated at some 5.03 million metric tons, roughly a 5 percent increase from last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) said in a joint statement.
“Despite the improved harvest, the food security situation is still unsatisfactory with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption,” it said. [Yonhap]
Courtesy of Steph Haggard, you can read the WFP/FAO’s complete annual food assessment for North Korea here. Read it skeptically, because it still relies on what the regime shows and tells the U.N. According to maps inside the report, the agencies were only allowed to sample a few tiny tracts of the country, which raises suspicions of selection bias. Or, as the report itself concedes:
The Mission held interviews with a sample of 77 households to better understand household-level food and nutrition security. The Mission used a structured household questionnaire. In each county 2 to 3 households were selected. The types of household to be visited – cooperative farm or households dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS) – were chosen at the request of the Mission teams. The final sample consisted of 47 PDS-dependent households, 29 cooperative farmers, and 1 mixed household. In addition, the Mission visited 16 hospitals and 24 child institutions to assess the contribution of Government institutions to overall food security. Nine state shops and three farmers’ markets were also visited. Doctors, nurses and nursery managers were asked specific questions on the nutrition situation of children.
The sample cannot be treated as representative of the entire population as it was small and was not selected in a statistically random manner. The results presented in this report should, therefore, be considered as indicative only.
This doesn’t inspire much confidence. Aside from the obvious problems of methodology and the potential for manipulation, regime officials probably don’t have a complete picture of domestic food production themselves. Why not? For one thing, collectives have an incentive to underreport production. If they report less, less is seized from them, and more is left over to eat, hoard, or sell.
The regime also doesn’t know how much food North Koreans are growing on private plots hidden in the mountains, on their balconies and rooftops, and even on vacant lots in cities.
Two weeks ago over dinner, I spoke with a recent (circa 2009) defector from the Northeast about these private plots. (Let’s call him Mr. Lee, if that’s all right with you.) I asked Mr. Lee how much of North Korea’s food supply these private plots were providing when he left. He couldn’t offer more than a broad estimate of 20 to 25 percent, which happens to be about the same percentage that private plots once contributed to the U.S.S.R.’s food supply. Mr. Lee was emphatic that the WFP’s reliance on official statistics meant that it could not possibly arrive at an accurate estimate of this “unofficial” production, which the regime barely acknowledges, sometimes tolerates, and sometimes arbitrarily restricts. (By law, most grains and other food products may only be sold to the state.)
Although the U.N. report does refer to “home and kitchen gardens,” those terms don’t describe what Mr. Lee did, or that Andrei Lankov and his co-authors wrote about in this fascinating research paper. In the Northeast in particular, large plots called sotoji are cleared amid tracts of forest land, often after bribing the rangers. Writing in the Korea Times, Lankov estimated that in the Northeast, where Mr. Lee hails from, “sotoji fields seem to produce as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” There’s little else in the U.N. report to suggest a complete understanding of what people are producing privately and selling in the markets illegally (see, e.g., pages 15 and 22).
A few months ago, the Daily NK reported that the regime was cracking down on sotoji. (Update: In September 2012, Open News reported that the regime was confiscating and collectivizing them.) A crackdown might have had an outsized impact on the food situation, something that all of the statistics reported in the press could have missed. Privately, the regime could be overestimating this unreported production, causing it to squeeze the people more than they can bear. Or, it could be leading the U.N. to unrepresentative samples to make things look worse than they really are and bring in more aid (which never seems to dent the malnutrition problem for some reason). We know it isn’t above that.
In other words, U.N. estimates of the actual food situation, which can only be measured accurately by monitoring the health of a representative sample of the population over time, could be skewed in either direction.
But more fundamentally, hunger in North Korea isn’t a function of supply, but of state policy. State policy controls how much food is imported, how much is spent on things like fertilizer and machinery, who can grow what and where, what can be sold, how much is seized from those who grow and sell it, where the harvest goes once it’s collected, who gets a ration and how much, and how effectively foreign aid agencies can deliver aid. State policy at its harshest meant that each of the airplanes in these images killed as many people as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. But as Stephan Haggard explains, there’s no evidence of any reform in North Korea’s agricultural policies. Reform would mean the regime couldn’t use food to control people.
The WFP/FAO report does contain one telling sign that it got the larger food supply trend right. Last year, the regime slashed food imports by almost half compared to the previous year. (International food aid also fell.) Of course, we know that Kim Jong Un is diverting hard currency toward things like ski reports and water parks that no one is using (but hey, it’s December) and weapons programs. But the reduction in commercial imports could have an even more sinister significance. For years, I’ve suspected that the regime adjusts its food imports not so much as a response to receiving more food aid, but to calibrate its food supply at a consistently low level, to keep its “wavering” and “hostile” populations weak, listless, vulnerable, and obedient.
There is also evidence of abundance in some parts of North Korea. You’ll never guess where:
The authorities in Pyongyang have been distributing rice harvested this autumn to the public since October, having drawn down military grain stocks since the spring. The people of the capital are currently experiencing high food security as a result, as rice procured from North and South Hwanghae is used to service the population of the capital.
A source from Pyongyang reported to Daily NK on the 2nd, “At the beginning of October there was distribution of one week and then of two weeks of rice from the 2013 autumn harvest,” adding, “November was like October, with distribution divided into two lots, and the authorities have made it known that there will be normal distribution in December.”
“All the rice produced on the outskirts of Pyongyang goes to the military in those areas, whereas the rice that has been distributed this time came from further afield,” the source went on. “There was a good rice harvest this year so they started distributing it early, unlike in some other years.”
Moreover, the source added, “The Upper [the North Korean authorities] is propagating the idea that ‘The Marshal [Kim Jong Eun] is granting this distribution in accordance with his goal to ‘renovate Pyongyang within three years’,” and “Trust only in the Marshal and you’ll be able to live the good life.” [....]
The source agreed. “The lives of people in Pyongyang are improving slowly off the back of two months of comparatively voluminous food distribution,” he noted. “People used to spend all the money they earned to buy rice and side dishes, but now they are buying things like clothes, or even saving their money.”
Meanwhile, other regions of North Korea are not receiving the same scale of distribution. A source from the northern border city of Hyesan, for example, told Daily NK that distribution there has been insignificant. “Since we got eight months of potatoes at the beginning of October after the harvest, there’s been nothing.”
A source from Hwanghae said the same, explaining that there has only been localized distribution of food to cooperative farm workers in accordance with production levels, and no mention of “rice distribution” at all.
Why would people in the provinces keep growing food they aren’t permitted to eat? There’s a hint of an answer beneath this dishonest Yonhap headline: “N. Korea offering incentives to farmers: WFP”. Incentives! Green shoots of capitalism at last! Huzzah, for profiteering can only mean reform! Except that if you read the article, it says, “North Korea is offering incentives to farmers who are productive, while cutting food rations for those who under-perform.” Yes, I suppose the threat of starvation counts as an incentive, too. Sigh.
As you’re digesting the last of your Thanksgiving leftovers, there are real children starving in front of their parents all over North Korea. Give thanks.
The expression was “bread and circuses,” not “bread or circuses”:
Marshal Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, first chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, visited …
Wait! Let me guess. A steel mill? An artillery battery? A model collective farm that raises alpaca wool for export? A troupe of precious toddlers who were taken from their mothers at birth and trained to somersault through flaming hoops for the amusement of affluent Belgian tourists? No, none of these things.
… the 3-d rhythmic cinema and video games rooms newly built in the amusement house of the Rungna People’s Pleasure Park.
He first went round the Rungna 3-d rhythmic cinema.
He looked round various places of the cinema to learn about in detail its construction, specifications of equipment and plan to operate the cinema.
After going round the audience rooms, control room and editing room, he was greatly pleased that soldier-builders successfully constructed the modern cinema in a brief span of time.
Watching 3-d films “Winners” and “Don’t wait for us” in audience room No. 5, he learned in detail about the quality and sound effect of films and rhythms. [KCNA]
The Chosun Ilbo has a picture.
North Korea is not a starving nation, it’s just a nation with many starving people.
In April 2011, Jimmy Carter said that the United States and South Korea had chosen “to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation.” Discuss among yourselves.
Update: I changed the post title from “4-D” to “3-D,” because KCNA’s English text fails to support the Chosun Ilbo’s description of “in theater physical effects.” Can anyone find the original Korean?
European NGOs protest enforcement of U.N. sanctions, but not the millions Kim Jong Un wastes on European luxuries
Last week, the Swiss government announced that it had blocked an attempt by North Korea to buy $7.24 million worth of ski lifts, plus “golf, horseback riding and water sports” gear. That this transaction was beneath even the Swiss is saying something; historically, Switzerland was to kleptocracy what post-war Cambodia was to underage pederasty. Switzerland is near the top of any list of countries suspected of hosting North Korean slush funds that are variously estimated to be worth between $1 billion and $4 billion. Throughout the duration of a famine that, according for former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios, killed up to 2.5 million people, the Swiss sold Kim Jong Il $2.4 million worth of watches a year. Swiss suppliers sold the North Koreans their very own U.S. mint for printing perfect counterfeit $100 bills. More recently, Geneva-based Kempinski Hotels won the right to operate the Ryugyong Hotel, a vacant shell that was just glassed over for a cost of $180 million. In an unfortunate choice of words, Kempinski’s CEO promised that, when finished, the Ryugyong would be “a money printing machine,” but an escalation in North Korean war threats forced Kempinski to withdraw from the project. The estimated cost of the Ryugyong now totals $750 million, almost four times the annual budget that the World Food Program just authorized to feed 2.4 million North Koreans.
Because North Korea is North Korea, it protested that the Swiss government’s blocking of the ski lift sale was a violation of the U.N. Charter under the compulsion of “U.S. high-handed practices.” This reminds me to remind you that the Korean language actually has a word for “chutzpah,” and also, that this shouldn’t surprise you. As an aside, I can’t recall any other time in my lengthy study of North Korea that I’ve seen the “North Korea’s Skiers’ Association” this upset.
Do you know who didn’t comment on this story? Katharina Zellweger, that’s who. Zellweger led the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation from 2006 to 2011. SADC, the Swiss government’s overseas humanitarian aid agency, is one of those NGOs that didn’t withdraw from North Korea years ago over North Korea’s use of food, including food aid, as a weapon against its disfavored political castes. In May, Reuters quoted Zellweger’s criticism of sanctions that caused European banks to shun transactions with the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, which, according to the Treasury Department, serves as “a key financial node in North Korea’s WMD apparatus,” to “facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.” A new U.N. Security Council resolution recently reaffirmed a ban on the export of luxury items to North Korea, and also requires states to sanction entities involved in proliferation or the evasion of sanctions.
Unfortunately, the FTB is also the bank that foreign NGOs use to transfer hard currency into Pyongyang, and in May, the sanctions at least temporarily threatened to affect SADC’s operations by requiring them to carry cash into North Korea in duffle bags. (Never mind why a humanitarian NGO needs hard currency to spend in North Korea while feeding hungry North Koreans, although I admit to being more than mildly curious about that). According to the Chosun Ilbo, the North Korean government requires U.N. agencies to use the FTB. If North Korea also requires the same of NGOs working with the U.N. World Food Program, as SADC does, that’s a significant omission from the reporting of how sanctions have impacted humanitarian work in North Korea.
U.N. Security Council 2094, the Treasury Department’s sanctions regulations, and E.U. sanctions regulations all include waivers or exemptions for humanitarian aid. Section 207(d) of H.R. 1771, a tough, bipartisan sanctions bill pending in the House of Representatives, directs Treasury to authorize a responsible foreign bank to provide financial services for humanitarian and consular operations in North Korea.
This still isn’t the most important missing piece of this story, however. By an exquisite and tragic coincidence, SADC’s annual budget for North Korea is 7.2 million francs, or $7.84 million, just slightly more than what Kim Jong Un would have squandered on just this one wasteful purchase. This certainly begs a few questions. For one, can you imagine all the good SADC could do for North Koreans if Kim Jong Un would donate that $7.24 to SADC instead of blowing it on high-end sporting goods? And why does Kim Jong Un insist on using food aid recipients as human shields for the financing of proliferation? Also, why should foreign donors contribute to aid programs whose budgets are dwarfed by North Korea’s spending on weapons and luxury items (many of the latter purchased from European suppliers with slush funds in European banks)? Finally, why shouldn’t those funds be confiscated from the European accounts of a government that prioritizes luxuries over feeding its people?
These may not be questions you would expect from the leader of an aid agency working in a country led by a ruthless, vindictive, and thin-skinned regime, but they are important to any honest examination of why the North Korean people need humanitarian aid in the first place. Any criticism that leaves them unexamined deserves to be dismissed as disingenuous.
Even these questions fail to plumb the depth of North Korea’s financial depravity. Two weeks ago, the World Food Program appealed to donor nations for another $98 million to feed North Korea’s can’t-haves. By contrast, according to South Korean government estimates, in 2012, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its missile programs alone. Had Kim Jong Un’s fiscal priorities been otherwise, that money could have bought 4.6 million tons of corn, enough corn to eliminate North Korea’s food deficit … for four or five years.
I emphasize that this $1.3 billion–a figure that looks like “$1,300,000,000″ when aroused to its full digital amplitude–includes just one year’s missile budget. It does not include what North Korea spent on its nuclear weapons programs, its conventional forces, or, say, the $1.5 million in used MiGs that it tried to buy from Mongolia. It does not include Pyongyang’s new dolphinarium, or the fitness center that serves as a distant-second line of defense against an outbreak of obesity. It does not include the cost of remodeling this palace, the $1,600 spent on Ri Sol-Ju’s Christian Dior handbag, or any of the other couture d’impératrice that brought on spasms of homoerotic simpering from the shallow end of the press pool last year.
Historically, discriminating North Korean tyrants have preferred European brands. With occasional exceptions, such as the blocked sale of two Azimut-Benetti yachts from Italy (price, $4.4 million) Europe has seldom hesitated to sell them. In 2010, Kim Jong Il distributed 160 Mercedes-Benz sedans to his cronies at once; the following year, he imported over $3 million worth of European cars. During a visit to China, he rode in a $400,000 Maybach (though it gives me a certain ghoulish satisfaction that he rode to Hell in a ’76 Lincoln). Most infamously, he is said to have spent $720,000 a year in Hennessy cognac. Before his death, his son and successor was spotted wearing a Swiss watch worth $78,000.
Another NGO that was quoted by Reuters criticizing the effect of the sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank was German NGO Welthungerhilfe, whose annual report for 2012 indicates that it spent 3,235,607 Euros, or approximately $4,300,000, on feeding North Koreans last year. What North Korea tried to spend on yachts in 2010 could have covered Welthungerhilfe’s budget for a year. What North Korea tried to spend on ski lift equipment could have covered Welthungerhilfe’s 2012 budget for nearly two years. Welthungerhilfe’s specific complaint involved delays in a series of cash transfers that were collectively worth less than the cost of one of Kim Jong Il’s Mercedes-Benz limousines.
To be fair, North Korea’s palace procurers undoubtedly purchased some of these luxuries in China without the direct knowledge of the European suppliers, but in other cases, the North Koreans purchased the goods directly. North Korea’s preference for European goods is also financially convenient; it’s a way to use trade to move (read: launder) the billions of dollars that North Korea’s rulers have stashed away in Europe’s banks, and then ship it home through Chinese ports, where customs inspections are notoriously lax.
North Korea is sometimes referred to as a “starving nation,” this isn’t really true, of course. North Korea is a nation with many starving people, but its government has more than enough cash to feed every one of them. It chooses not to feed them. It even reduces its commercial imports of food when it receives foreign food aid. The inescapable inference is that North Korea chooses to feed the people it deems useful, and chooses not to feed–or let anyone else feed–the expendable ones, who survive largely on food that is pilfered from collectives or government stocks, grown on hidden plots, or smuggled into North Korea and sold in a spreading network of markets that the regime sometimes tolerates. If some foreigners help to feed the non-expendables, that just leaves more money to buy nukes and swag from other foreigners.
Why does North Korea make these choices? Some of the answers are only knowable to psychopaths–even an abject moral imbecile can’t defend them and won’t try–but one of them is “because it can.” North Korea can make these horrible choices in part because European governments–democracies whose regulatory bureaucracies are influenced by public opinion and the words of influential NGOs–have been far too lax, for far too long, in limiting North Korea’s access to European bank accounts and European luxuries. Neither Switzerland nor the E.U. nations can immunize themselves against charges of abetting North Korea’s misery by contributing humanitarian aid that is, when compared to this tragic squandering of wealth, infinitesimal. A principled enforcement of U.N. sanctions would do the North Korean people far more good than feel-good gestures and unspoken truths.
[Correction: A previous version of this post referred to "Switzerland and other EU nations," incorrectly implying that Switzerland is an EU member state. It is not. Thanks to Marc for calling my attention to the error.]
The most superficial things you’ve probably heard about Kim Jong Un are the closely related ideas that he is, or must be, a latent reformer because he (a) appreciates aspects of Western culture, (b) has a fashionable wife, and (c) had a Swiss education. As examples, I’ll cite this report by Jean Lee, this and this from Joohee Cho of ABC, and this exercise in straw-grasping by John DeLury. The problem with this theory is that it isn’t supported by any evidence that the regime has become less brutal, menacing, controlling, or confiscatory in the last year.
Historically, the exposure of dictators’ sons to foreign culture has not moderated them; it was just another place for them to be everything they were at home except above the law and shielded from our sight. Because little tyrants eventually become big tyrants, what they became was self-indulgent, impulsive sociopaths. Nicu Ceausescu, Uday Hussein, and Hannibal Qaddafi never lacked for access to Europe’s fleshpots. Nicu and Uday (both of whom were serial rapists at home) are rumored to have palled around together in Switzerland, and both Uday and Hannibal share the distinction of being expelled from it for violent assaults (so enraging the elder Qaddafi that he demanded that the entire country of Switzerland be abolished; Hannibal later got in trouble in Denmark and the U.K. for other assaults). Like his peers before him, Kim Jong Un was privileged enough to be whisked off to a bacchanalian playground. Unlike his peers, he spent his time there torturing animals and masturbating to bondage porn alone in his room. But he loves Disney characters! Yes, and so did Hitler. It’s at least as plausible to theorize that Jong Un combines the self-restraint of Nicu and Uday with the poisonous inadequacy of Goebbels and Hitler.
I’ve already drawn the comparison between how Lee and Cho covered Ri Sol Ju’s fashions to how Vogue covered Asma Assad’s. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Don’t the first ladies of most impoverished banana republics love high fashion? I’ll say this much for Asma — the long list of her husband’s crimes doesn’t include starving his people while telling the world he can’t afford corn.
We know very little about Kim Jong Un’s personality; in fact, we don’t even know how important it is to know about it. All we can judge is the regime’s performance on matters of substance since his coronation. Maybe one day, the regime will make some pragmatic or humane reforms, although there’s scant evidence for that now. Last fall, for example, there was a lot of excitement outside North Korea when the regime announced agricultural reforms that would have allowed collectives to keep more of their crops. Never mind that the move was accompanied by the seizure of privately cultivated land, which had become a major source of food and income for less-privileged North Koreans. The reforms were quickly forgotten as the harvest came in.
Politically, the regime has cracked down on information flows and defections. The area around Camp 22 is a particular target for warnings to citizens against telling what they’ve witnessed inside North Korea. Judging by new statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the crackdown is working.
Although the crackdown began during Kim Jong Il’s rule, it has been redoubled since his death.
Under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, human rights activists and South Korean officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to smuggle refugees out of the country, contributing to a sharp drop in the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea in the past year. [NYT]
Notwithstanding the explanation by the Times that this decline is the result of a crackdown, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves if there might be other reasons for this decreased flow. Foreign observers are seeing more cars, cell phones, and luxury goods in the elite reservation of Pyongyang, but are most North Koreans better off now than they were in 2009? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s economic recovery from the Great Famine of 1993 to 2000 appears to have peaked around 2005, when it was reversed by a series of confiscatory measures. As recently as last year, there were reports of microfamines in Hwanghae, the rice bowl of North Korea, as a direct consequence of crop seizures. Unfortunately for the people of Hwanghae, it is all but impossible for most of them to make it all the way across North Korea to the Chinese border, to say nothing of crossing the border and evading Chinese police. (I suppose these things are especially hard to do while starving.)
The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currency revaluation that I like to call The Great Confiscation. This action not only caused tremendous financial hardship for many North Koreans, it did lasting damage to North Korea’s black-market economy and unprecedented public disturbances, even resulting in an apology by North Korea’s third-highest official and, so it is rumored, the execution of at least one scapegoat. I’ve stopped hearing reports that the regime is closing down markets or banning the sale of foreign goods, as it had been in 2009, but the existence of these markets, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival, remains tenuous.
In other words, economic conditions in North Korea probably got worse for most North Koreans during the period between 2008 and 2011 (I don’t have enough information to extend that trend through 2012). North Korea looks like an even more miserable place when compared to South Korea’s rapid GDP growth:
The Wall Street Journal‘s Kwanwoo Jun Evan Ramstad actually asked the question of whether improved economic conditions might explain the drop in defections. He gets an answer, and two more plausible explanations:
Few in Seoul see the latest data as a sign of North Korea turning into a better place to live in under Kim Jong Eun, the new leader who took power after his father Kim Jong Il died in late December 2011.
“That falling number doesn’t mean that economic conditions are getting better in North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “A number of people, who could no longer bear the hardship up in the North, have already fled the country, and those who have stayed behind are probably immune to the difficulties or able to find a way to survive the ordeal.” [Korea Real Time]
Ramstad also points to China’s crackdown on the other side of the border, and notes that North Koreans who had intended to defect to South Korea (or perhaps return with money or goods to North Korea) may be stranded in China.
One dynamic that intrigues me is the tendency of defections to ventilate political pressures by allowing the most discontented and ambitious dissenters to escape. Now that only the very rich can hope to escape North Korea, what alternative stands between the discontented and lives lived in misery?
Correction: I mistakenly attributed the Korea Real Time post to Evan Ramstad. I apologize for the error.
As a vibrant market economy arises from an underdeveloped one, it does not lift all boats as a rising tide would. Some get very rich fast, and some stay very poor. Such periods of rapid development are politically risky times, as uneducated masses are drawn away from their hardscrabble farm lives and packed into factory dormitories, slums, and shanty towns in the cities. Those places become hothouses of envy and radicalism that can bring down the political systems in which wealth and poverty coexist uneasily. It’s no coincidence that Marxist ideas rose as societies industrialized, and waned as most of the world entered a post-industrial phase. Marxism is an ideology built around an emotion — envy. To survive the political turbulence of industrialization, a strong state must have the means and the will to suppress lawlessness, but it must also inspire enough faith in The System that the masses harbor real hope that their lives will continue to improve under it.
On the surface, the coexistence of wealth and poverty in North Korea can resemble what we see in developing societies. But in what sense can it be said that North Korea, a place where the government wraps an iron fist around most commerce and predetermines the potential of its citizens before they’re even born, is “developing?” Are we really seeing the rise of a capitalist class in Pyongyang, or is the same old elite-class hoarding just becoming more ostentatious? The great irony of North Korea is that its most destabilizing force today is the same kind of class envy that propelled most of the Marxist revolutions of the last century. Two excellent news stories this week contrast the superficial trappings of wealth in Pyongyang with an exacerbation of poverty and continued starvation everywhere else. While the elite in Pyongyang have never had it so good, children continue to starve and die in the markets of other North Korean cities.
Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.
“People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed,” said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.
A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.
“I would have given them food if I had any,” she said, looking away with shame. [N.Y. Times, Andrew Jacobs]
This is some of the best journalism the Times has produced about North Korea in my memory. I hope we’ll see more of Mr. Jacobs’s work. Another giant, Barbara Demick, writes:
Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularized by the chic wife of North Korea’s not-yet 30-year-old leader. Brand new high-rise apartment buildings, which she’s heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into cellphones stuck to their ears.
All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice.
“Of course, they’re showing off with their cellphones. Who wouldn’t?” she snapped.
“There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder,” said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.
“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.
At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.
As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Both articles are absolute must-reads. Also not to be missed, and on the same theme: this piece in The Atlantic, and this one by Laura Ling, although five points shall be deducted from Slitheren for all references to “Kangnam Style.”
Separately, other reports are claiming that North Korea’s food situation is as bad as it’s been at any time since the Great Famine. I’m a committed agnostic about any statement that claims to represent the true food situation in North Korea, given the restrictions on access to reliable data and the substantial variations that probably exist from region to region. It’s clear, however, that North Koreans don’t think their lives have improved during the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth or since the coronation of Kim Jong Un. The perception of declining living standards is bad news for any ruling regime, but it’s fatal when it’s so easily contrasted to the rising and conspicuous wealth of a privileged few. As a consequence, class envy in North Korea is almost certainly both deep and wide, and it’s turning North Korea into a Brechtian dystopia where the masses live by the laws of Erst kommt das Fressen and Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf.
Hat tips to several readers.
UPDATE: But then, the Kim Dynasty has become less Marxist with each generation, and more an expression of Emmanuel Goldstein’s oligarchical collectivism (I’m not the first one to be astonished by how much Goldstein’s criticism of Oceania sounds exactly like North Korea, but don’t take my word for it). That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that even the
statues portraits of Marx and Lenin have been removed from Kim Il Sung Square.
We don’t know how extensive North Korea’s agricultural reforms are meant to be, but we do know that North Korea wants us to think that it’s instituting big reforms in its agricultural sector, because it took the AP’s Jean Lee on a show tour of a collective where the “farmers” were primed to tell her it was so. Is it too cynical of me to tend to disbelieve any fact that North Korea wants me to believe is true? Props to Lee for her hard work at getting this sentence past her “colleagues” at KCNA:
North Korea has a per capita GDP of $1,800 per year, according to the U.S. State Department, far below that of its neighbors in Northeast Asia, and its rocky, mountainous terrain and history of natural disasters has long challenged the Kim regime to provide enough food.
Yes, that is all! Nineteen consecutive years of drought-slash-flood that for some reason target all parts of North Korea, exclusively, but which never seem to impede the flow of rice or Omega watches to Pyongyang! I love officially approved news, don’t you?
Meanwhile, we are reminded again why we ought to be skeptical of all that optimistic speculation, like this example from The New York Times. And then, a day later, Yonhap reports, “North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament closed its session Tuesday, the country’s state media announced without making reference to economic reforms widely expected to come from the unexpected meeting of legislators.” So there’s that. Not that there’s a particularly strong causal link between legislation and policy in North Korea, but given how rare it is for North Korea to put on this puppet show twice in a year, does the absence of any major legislative initiatives suggest that some of the strings have become tangled?
Meanwhile, on the more tangible side of North Korean economic policy, fewer things have changed than some would have us think:
After nearly two years of interrogations while imprisoned in the inhumane Yodok camp, also called simply “No. 15,” Jang became aware he was there because he had earned so much foreign currency, the defector recalled in a meeting in Seoul of North Korean survivors of the country’s political prison camps.
Jang said hundreds of other hard-working foreign-currency earners were sent to the political prison for the same reason.
While North Korean authorities assigned an annual foreign currency target of more than US$1 million to each foreign income unit, completing the assignment drew suspicion from the government because they assumed that achieving the ambitious goal must involve irregularities, Jang explained in a package of written recollections released at the meeting. [Korea Times]
Lest you wonder if I’m the only one asking for stronger evidence to support this wildly optimistic speculation, there more here, from Luke Herman.