Archive for Famine & Food Aid

How much do we still care about ag reform in North Korea?

If one mark of a good reporter is that you can’t tell how he really feels about his subject matter, then I haven’t much to say for Yonhap reporter Chang Jae-Soon, who cites a post at 38 North by Randall Ireson to declare that North Korean agricultural reforms are working. That’s a daring declaration for anyone to offer in the barren dead of January after so many more optimistic analyses have come to nothing, including those of Randall Ireson. That may be why Ireson doesn’t offer one this time–indeed, he climbs down gently from the more optimistic analysis he offered a year ago. Chang still seizes on Ireson’s piece, and wrings so much of the caution and balance out of it (or buries it) that it’s hardly a true reflection of the original. Here is what Ireson did say:

* North Korea has a “history of [ag reform] policies that have not been fully implemented” going all the way back to 2002. The background to them was the growth of North Korean markets despite regime efforts to limit them.

* Ag reforms announced in 2012 reduced the size of work units and (proportionally) their quotas. Farmers were allowed to sell the surplus (as they’d been doing for years, through pilferage). Ireson thinks these measures were “widely if perhaps not universally implemented during 2014,” although even this is a more optimistic assessment than most of the reports he cites in his footnotes.

* It’s not certain that the regime intends to continue in this same direction. Ireson concedes that key details of the reforms “are scarce” and that implementation at the local level appears to be spotty. With respect to the key element of the reforms–an enlightened concept they used to call “sharecropping” during the Reconstruction era–Ireson cites Radio Free Asia and Daily NK reports suggesting that “that not all local officials were willing to allow farmers to keep their full share.”

* The announced reforms coincide with reports of a better harvest in 2013, but Ireson admits that he can only infer a connection, and that the methodologies for measuring harvests are imprecise and contradictory in any event. The regime continued to import far less grain than its shortfall (to which I add—spent many times that amount importing other stuff you can’t eat, and also exported quite a bit of food, too).

Here is how Ireson closes:

But let’s not be overly ebullient: the actions to date do not constitute a Chinese- or Vietnamese-style economic reform, and the DPRK will remain food-insecure for the immediate future.  Rollbacks and opposition to other recent changes in farm policy argue for a wait-and-see approach. The 5.30 policies appear to implicitly accept the inevitability of a strong market for distributing foodstuffs, and the need for farmers to capture a much larger share of their production than has been allowed in the past. However, they do not eliminate production quotas or state supply of primary farming supplies. Changes in other sectors of the economy suggest that perhaps a gradual liberalization process is both foreseen and underway—with an emphasis on “gradual.” At the farm level, the coming year will be instructive, both in terms of whether the 6.28 and 5.30 policies are fully implemented, and whether farmers can take advantage of this new autonomy to increase production. We can be hopeful.

Ireson’s piece gains much credibility from its caution, but at the sacrifice of its persuasiveness that anything of significance is happening here. There isn’t much point in speculating; we’ll know by November, but for now, let’s just say the evidence is mixed–at best.

For a slightly less cautious view, you can always read what Andrei Lankov has been writing lately. Here’s the latest example of that, via The New York Times. We don’t have to wait quite so long to validate all of Andrei’s hypotheses, however, as he makes much of wage increases at coal mines near the Chinese border. By the time his op-ed went to print, a series of reports had already told us that North Korea had levied prison labor to keep its coal mines running, that its coal exports to China had “dropped off dramatically” due to raised air-quality standards in China, and that the Musan iron ore mine, which feeds the same steel mills as North Korea’s coal mines, had also stopped exporting to China. One report said that it had ground to a halt due to power shortages and was laying off 10,000 workers. Another said that a price dispute with China was to blame–understandable in light of Jang Song Thaek’s fate, and worth watching amid increasingly believable signs that Kim Jong Un may be trying to switch, in part, from China to Russia as his great-power sponsor. A step forward seems less significant in the context of three steps backward.

Lankov offers an important caution of his own, when he concedes that it’s unlikely that His Porcine Majesty “will allow economic liberalization to lead the way for political and social change.” That is the closest thing there is to unanimity in this mostly factless debate.

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Which raises the question that’s been on my mind recently: So what? There’s no hard evidence that these reforms are leading to lower food prices or greater food availability, given the concurrent crackdown on cross-border trade. They may not be reforms at all, so much as another case of regime policies catching up to what the people have been doing for years. If there are policy changes, it would be hard to distinguish their effects from those of spontaneous market-driven changes.

More importantly, to anyone who’s watching the bigger picture and has a sense of perspective, this whole discussion is being overtaken like a roller derby on a NASCAR track. Time will tell whether ag reform is for real this time, but what does seem apparent is that Kim Jong Un is determined to (1) miniaturize his nuclear weapons; (2) build ICBMs to carry them; (3) perfect the range and accuracy of his missiles and rocket artillery aimed at South Korea, Japan, and USFK; (4) run the world’s most oppressive, democidal system of government and lie to the whole world about it; (4) sell any weapon to any terrorist or terror-sponsor willing to pay the price; and (5) expand the reach of his thought control to your local cineplex.

I don’t know about you, but I find those differences to be existential ones. They all loom larger than grain production quotas in my calculation of whether Kim Jong Un is a man we can do business with. The debate about ag reform is interesting, but increasingly academic in light of Kim Jong Un’s other policies.

I realize that the faith of some people that North Korea is turning toward free-trade capitalism is as impervious to evidence, experience, and disappointment as faith in the Ghost Dance once was. (I’ve occasionally found that the people who believe this aren’t all that fond of free-trade capitalism to begin with.) But again, so what? Contrary to the popular theory that many people don’t bother to question, I’ve never accepted the premise that a capitalist (or fascist) North Korea would be less dangerous than a socialist one. Hitler and Mussolini were significantly more capitalist then Kim Jong Un. Would we prefer him to be more like them?* However belatedly, even Barack Obama seems to have concluded that this jar isn’t big enough for both scorpions.

But let’s assume, against our better judgment, that eventually, “reform” will lead to marginal improvements in North Korean living standards. That would be a good thing in some ways, but it wouldn’t mean that happy days are there again. Like Lankov and Ireson, I doubt that Pyongyang will ever allow its people any degree of economic freedom, and without economic freedom, there won’t be political freedom, a truly sufficient food supply, or real reform. The capitalism that will change North Korea isn’t being driven by Pyongyang; it’s being driven by people in the alleys and roadsides of the outer provinces. Want to change North Korea through engagement? Find a way to engage those people. Those are the people who have an interest in change. Their escape from squalor, and perhaps their lives, may depend on it.

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* A reader points out that if Kim Jong Un became more like Mussolini, it would actually be an improvement. On reflection, it’s hard to argue with that, although I could probably find a few Ethiopians and Libyans who’d disagree.

Dear Professor Lankov: Shall we make it double or nothing?

As he did in 2012, Andrei Lankov has gone all-in supporting the latest rumors of economic and agricultural reforms in North Korea, calling them “revolutionary.” The Wall Street Journal’s excellent Alastair Gale describes Lankov’s prediction, notes the skepticism of the South Korean government, and notes that Lankov is “not often associated with very bullish views on North Korean reform.”

The plan, he says, citing recent visitors to the country, would give more freedom and land to the country’s farmers. North Korea plans to let farmers keep 60% of their total harvest, with the remainder going to the state, he writes. Factory managers will also get to decide who to fire and hire, as well as with whom they conduct business with and where to buy materials, he says. [WSJ, Korea Real Time]

With due respect to both men, however, Lankov was very bullish in 2012, and things didn’t work out as he predicted then, either. Lankov was so bullish about 2013’s above-average harvest that, contrary to overwhelming evidence, he came dangerously close to minimizing North Korea’s food crisis. This new U.N. FAO report adds to the body of evidence contradicting Lankov’s claim. (Lankov also recently argued that the U.N. should refrain from acting against North Korea’s crimes against humanity.)

Writing at NK News, Lankov goes further, seeing “little room for doubt” that this time, it’s the real deal. And here, via Steph Haggard, is what Lankov bases that conclusion on:

Lankov’s observations are based on several trips to the border area with China over the last year as well as a handful of scholars in the South—notably Kim Kwang Jin—who are now talking about the so-called “May 30 [2014] measures”; these follow on the pilot—or more likely aborted–“June 28 [2012] measures” that we analyzed in depth here and here based on the work of Park Hyeong-jung at the Korea Institute on National Unification (KINU). [Witness to Transformation]

I’d be willing to bet that my friend is wrong. I hope it’s not ungentlemanly of me to bring this up, but Andrei lost pretty much the same bet to me two years ago, the outcome of which was that I got a six pack of this, and it was lovely. A lot can be said about Andrei because of the originality of his views. Never deny in my presence that he’s a gentleman, a man of his word, or a man of excellent taste.

In this book, Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard noted the past tendency of North Korea to recognize by state policy the things that necessity had made commonplace in the streets and alleys. This may be such a case, or it may be a case where the policy won’t be implemented due to corruption and mutual mistrust between collectives and officials. Noland, who thinks Lankov’s “observations need to be taken seriously,” nonetheless calls our attention to a series of events suggesting that Pyongyang isn’t serious about major structural reforms.

As it was in 2012, a bad harvest also seems like an inauspicious time to launch an ambitious reform program. Noland and Haggard attribute the failure of the 2012 reforms (in part) to inflation, noting that “a relatively strong harvest—if it in fact materializes despite the drought—could provide the conditions for sticking to the plan.” That’s not where things seem to be headed, unfortunately:

This year, however, she noted that the devastatingly protracted drought, combined with a dearth of fertilizer, caused the crop yield per pyeong to plummet. Cooperative farms, instead of calibrating required allotments to reflect the changes, are demanding many of the production units to hand over 70% of the harvest, roughly 1.8t in the source’s region. If these units fall short of the target, they take on a debt to be rectified the following year.

Turning over 70% of the harvest in a year rife with natural disasters and lack of fertilizer has many of the residents involved overtaxed and without a viable solution. Many point out among themselves that this situation makes it implausible to work large plots of land when working even a small, individual plot proves burdensome. [Daily NK]

On top of this, recent reports tell us that the regime has already cut rations to a three-year low, which means that the state’s share seems unlikely to decline further. Given the many contradictions in the reports about North Korea’s harvest, we can’t have much confidence that we even know what the truth is. Let’s just say that neither past history nor current trends give me much confidence that this time will be different.

Now for the part where I get conspiratorial: In 2012, the last time this rumor was all the rage, North Korea spoon-fed the AP an agricultural reform story, just as other news services were reporting widespread starvation in South Hwanghae. Maybe it’s a complete coincidence that this year in North Korea, the harvest is failing again due to drought, the price of rice is near a five-year high, and fish prices are also beyond the means of most people because of high fuel costs, and because the regime is exporting the catch to China. (The Daily NK’s graph shows current rice prices way down from last summer’s high, while Rimjin-gang reports that the price of rice has soared recently.) In both 2012 and 2014, the state planted rumors of agricultural reform at a time when people were anxious about hunger.

My suspicion is that this is just another empty promise to mollify empty stomachs.

S. Korea to partner with WFP on N. Korea aid

For all my skepticism about the WFP, if Park Geun-Hye can commit South Korea to giving its humanitarian aid through the WFP, or at least in coordination with its need assessments and monitoring standards, that will be a major improvement over inter-Korean bilateral aid, for reasons Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard explained here long ago.

World Food Program won’t quit N. Korea, yet

“We are no longer in danger of closing our operations in DPRK at the end of this year,” [the WFP’s regional spokeswoman] said in an email late last week from her office in Bangkok. “We have received enough donations or promises of donations to enable us to reach the full caseload of 1.1 million women and children per month until the end of March 2015.” North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

She added, however, that the operation is only 40 percent funded and said “more funds are urgently needed to maintain the operation” after next March. [AP]

I wonder if they’ve asked Kim Jong Un to make a contribution, or would that be too forward?

Meanwhile, the regime that has begun to export rice and fish has just cut potato rations. So which is it—“the worst drought in years” (via Reuters) or “closer to the self-sufficiency level than [North Korea] has seen in years” (via the AP, reporting from a model collective farm)? It’s hard to believe that both statements could be true.

What else is Kim Jong Un buying instead of food? A new airport.

The new airport, which is now in its final stages, is the latest of North Korea’s “speed campaigns,” mass mobilizations of labor shock brigades aimed at finishing top-priority projects in record time. Dressed in hard hats and brown or olive green uniforms, impressive swarms of workers toil under huge signs calling on them to carry out their tasks with “Korea Speed.” From some corners of the site, patriotic music blares from loudspeakers to provide further motivation. [….]

But, in search of a badly needed source of foreign currency, North Korean officials have embarked on an ambitious campaign to significantly boost the country’s appeal to international tourists in the years ahead, which has made building a more impressive airport facility a top item on the government’s to-do list. [AP, Eric Talmadge]

Talmadge’s report then goes on to say that Pyongyang is building the new airport to gain “badly needed foreign currency.” It must not have occurred to Talmadge that if Pyongyang were really so short of foreign currency, it wouldn’t be able to afford a new airport.

Swiss sold N. Korea $180K in cigarette-making machinery as aid agencies begged for donations

The communist country’s imports of Swiss tobacco machinery components reached US$180,000 in the January-June period, far more than the $24,000 worth of imports recorded for all of 2013, according to the report by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA). [….]

The country imported $65.28 million of tobacco in 2013, about 77.8 times what the country sold overseas, the report showed. [Yonhap]

On the plus side, the trade statistics also show that during the first six months of this year, North Korea purchased no Swiss watches for the first time in recent history. That’s a welcome improvement, but if ski lift equipment is a luxury item that’s inappropriate to sell to North Korea, then how on earth can it be appropriate to sell it cigarette-making equipment?

That’s doubly so in light of long-standing suspicions of North Korea’s involvement in the counterfeiting of cigarettes. Trafficking in counterfeit cigarettes is a criminal offense under the U.S. Code, punishable by 10 years in prison and the forfeiture of any property involved in the offense. In that sense, the sales can be viewed similarly to Switzerland’s sale of intaglio presses and optically variable ink to North Korea — as another expression of irresponsible profiteering by a country whose export controls seldom seem to recognize law, common sense, or humanitarian responsibility.

Europe’s responsibility to the North Korean people will not end when China and Russia veto the EU-drafted resolution at the Security Council, as they surely will. European nations, both EU and non-EU, have a duty to stop helping Kim Jong Un misuse North Korea’s resources while another generation of North Koreans is starved and stunted by hunger. It must force Kim Jong Un to make better decisions about the use of North Korea’s resources by enforcing the spirit and letter of U.N. sanctions, by cracking down on luxury goods exports, and by restricting Pyongyang’s use of the slush funds that sit in European banks.

If Yoon Sang-Hyun’s information is correct, North Korea spends six times as much on luxury goods as on food for its hungry (corrected).

South Korean Saenuri Party lawmaker Yoon Sang-Hyun, citing Chinese Customs data and “studies on North Korean trade patterns” compiled by the National Intelligence Service South Korean government,* has leaked a report alleging that in 2013, Pyongyang imported $644 million in luxury goods. Yoon says this is enough to buy “more than 3.66 million tons of corn or 1.52 million tons of rice, far more than the country’s food shortage of 340,000 tons estimated by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program for the year 2013-2014.”

Now, to be completely fair to the North Koreans here, Pyongyang told the WFP that it was going to import 300,000 tons of that amount commercially. Still, North Korea’s spending on luxury goods again raises the question of why North Korea needs food aid at all, or why anyone there has to go hungry.

According to the World Food Program’s most recent published data, North Korea was expected to have a food deficit of 507,000 metric tons for the year between November 2012 to October 2013. In the year from November 2013 to October 2014, North Korea had a better harvest, and that deficit fell to just 340,000 tons. In each of these years, the North Korean government said it would import the same amount — 300,000 metric tons — leaving international donors to cover the remaining 207,000 metric tons (2013) and 40,000 tons (2014).

In 2012, perhaps projecting from that year’s leaner harvest, the World Food Program asked donor nations for $200 million for a two-year program to feed 2.4 million pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants, and children in North Korea.** The donors, however, have stayed away in droves, and if you put all of these import statistics into one chart, it goes far to explain why***:

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 9.02.25 AM

As the WFP explains, nearly a third of North Korean children are chronically malnourished or stunted, 20% of breastfeeding women are malnourished, “more than 82 percent of households do not have acceptable household food consumption during the lean season,” and many have “poor dietary diversity,” which means they survive on corn and other cheap carbohydrates, and maybe some vegetables.

The statistics on North Korea’s commercial food imports come from WFP/FAO assessments, here and here. Of course, those figures are what the North Koreans promised the WFP, and I don’t have to explain the value of a North Korean promise to you. The figures are for cereal imports only, and probably also exclude other, higher-end or luxury food imports. They are simply that percentage of North Korea’s unmet cereal needs that Pyongyang itself says it intends to fill.

While one should always be wary of Pyongyang’s manipulation of need assessments, plenty of reporting from inside North Korea confirms that for most people, the food situation is dire. Publicly, the WFP attributes this situation to a number of reasons, including a long series of droughts and floods that never caused anyone to starve in South Korea, and also on Pyongyang’s “scant foreign currency reserves to buy food on the international market.” It is this assertion that I intend to refute as conclusively and embarrassingly as possible, if only to prod the WFP to address it truthfully.

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[Yoon Sang-Hyun, Yonhap photo]

Yoon has made an annual event of releasing these data, as reliably as a [circle one: flood/drought] destroys North Korea’s entire corn crop, but not South Korea’s. In 2011, Yoon gave The Telegraph a year-on-year accounting of North Korea’s increasing luxury goods imports for the years 2008 to 2010, including $216 million for TVs, digital cameras, and other electronics, and $9 million in whiskey and other expensive liquor. In 2012, a report Yoon released, citing (in part) Chinese Customs data, claimed that North Korea imported $446 million in luxury goods in 2010 and $585 million in 2011:

Imports were especially pronounced for high-end cars, TVs, computers, liquor and watches. Inbound shipments of luxury cars and associated components almost doubled to 231.93 million dollars last year from 115.05 million dollars in 2009. [….] Artworks and antique imports reached 580,000 dollars last year, more than 10 times the figure of 50,000 dollars in 2009. Perfume, cosmetics and fur saw their inbound shipments double. Among items that saw sharp drops in imports were leather products and musical instruments. [Dong-A Ilbo]

Later that year, NPR reported on how the other four-fifths were getting by:

But all five North Koreans I met in China say that’s not the whole story. The markets are full of food, they agree, but most ordinary people can’t afford to buy it. State rations aren’t being distributed, and even some soldiers are going hungry. One man who gave his name as Mr. Kim described the drastic action one family he knew took.

“I saw one family, a couple with two kids, who committed suicide. Life was too hard, and they had nothing to sell in their house. They made rice porridge, and added rat poison,” he recalls. “White rice is very precious, so the kids ate a lot. They died after 30 minutes. Then the parents ate. The whole family died.” [….]

The U.N. report found that in Ryanggang province, where the situation is worst, almost half of the children are stunted from malnutrition. Even in the showcase capital, home to the elite, one in five kids is stunted.

“I saw five people who died of starvation right before I left this year,” says another interviewee, Mrs. Kim, who lives on the outskirts of Pyongyang and is not related to Mr. Kim. Talking to reporters is risky for North Koreans, so NPR is using only the surnames of the people interviewed for this story. “There was one father, who worked in the mines, but his job provided no rations. His two children died. Apart from that family, I know of one other woman and two men who starved to death.” [NPR, Louisa Lim]

In 2013, Yoon again provided data “gathered by South Korean agencies” to The Asahi Shimbun, which reported that Pyongyang imported pet dogs from Europe, sauna equipment from Germany, along with plenty of watches ($8.18 million) and expensive booze ($31.11 million). The imports totaled $323 million in 2009, $584 million in 2011, and $646 million in 2012, representing a doubling of known luxury imports in just two years. The Telegraph cited the same source and statistics in this report, noting that the Pyongyang also imported $37 million worth of electronics.

[The same year this video was taken, incidentally.]

In addition to doling out swag to the elite, the regime has recently used some of this to stock the shelves of elite department stores in Pyongyang, which presumably means that the regime expects to make a tidy profit. I’ll say this for state capitalism — it’s a more efficient way to separate the hoarders from their loot than old-fashioned confiscation.

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[They damn well better have my Emmental]

Had donors fully funded the WFP’s program, its one-year food cost would have been half of $137 million, or $68,500,000, just 10.6% of what North Korea spent on luxury goods in 2013. Put another way, what Pyongyang spends on luxury goods, according to the best available statistics, is 9.4 times higher than what the WFP pays to import food to feed pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children in North Korea.

And obviously, Pyongyang is also spending a lot of money on weapons on top of that.

One problem with taking these data too literally is the risk that the South Korean government is inflating them to disinform us. On the other hand, because luxury goods imports violate U.N. Security Council Sanctions, and also the national laws of the United States, the EU, and Japan (among others), many of the sellers have good reasons to conceal some of these imports. This means that there are risks of the data being overstated and understated. It may never be possible to authenticate precisely what North Korea spends on luxury goods, but it is possible to corroborate, based on other sources, that that spending is very substantial, and rising.

This report in The Chosun Ilbo, accompanied by photographs, show shops in Pyongyang selling the wares of “Chanel, Lancome, L’Oreal’s,” “expensive jewelry by Cartier and Swarovski,” and “luxury watches by Rolex and Omega, and clothes by Italian designers.” In 2011, South Korean government officials told The L.A. Times’s John Glionna that while North Korea continued to receive foreign food aid, Pyongyang’s appetite was for all things Gucci, Armani, and Rolex. It also imported $500,000 in high-grade beef, a description that can’t possibly include the Big Macs Kim Jong Un had flown in on Air Koryo. In 2013, Reuters reported that members of the North Korean elite jammed bags of luxury imports onto every flight from Beijing, right under the noses of Chinese Customs.

[Also that year]

Is there evidence to corroborate the dramatic rise in luxury imports that Yoon’s figures suggest? There is, to a degree. In January 2012, Wall Street Journal reporter Jeremy Page examined Chinese customs data and U.N. reports, and found that “Since 2007, North Korea’s imports of cars, laptops and air conditioners have each more than quadrupled, while imports of cellphones have risen by more than 4,200%.” Page’s report was rich in interesting detail:

The U.N. data show that China has replaced Japan as the biggest exporter of cars to North Korea since Tokyo added them to the luxury list in 2006, and that in 2010 China overtook Singapore as the biggest exporter to the North of tobacco products, which many countries consider luxury items under the sanctions. [….]

“The sanctions don’t work because as long as China allows the export of luxury goods, the North Korea elite will be paid with them to support the regime,” said Jiyoung Song, an associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, who has studied North Korea since 1999. [….]

Among the exports of liquor to North Korea from Hong Kong in 2010 were 839 bottles of unidentified spirits, worth an average of $159 each, and 17 bottles of “spirits obtained by distilling grape wine or grape marc” worth $145 each, according to the U.N. figures.

In 2010, North Korea also imported 14 color video screens from the Netherlands—worth an average $8,147 each—and about 50,000 bottles of wine from Chile, France, South Africa and other countries, as well as 3,559 sets of videogames from China, the U.N. data show. [….]

In 2010 alone, North Korea imported 3,191 cars, the vast majority from China—although one, valued at $59,976, placing it in the luxury category, came from Germany.

Page even produced this graphic:

WSJ graphic on NK luxury imports

[Wall Street Journal]

This trend is also both mirrored and amplified by a very visible increase in spending on leisure and sports facilities. The ROK National Intelligence Service, estimates that North Korea spent $300 million on those facilities in recent years. It’s not clear whether Yoon’s figures include those costs, or how much of them.

Much of the luxury goods trade in China is done openly, at shops near the North Korean Embassy in Beijing that cater to an elite clientele. After China, Europe was the second-worst offender. An Austrian man was implicated for selling North Korea luxury sedans, and attempting to sell them Italian yachts. Despite Italy’s success on this occasion, North Korea directly imported jet skis from Italy, and also “imported sauna equipment from Finland and Germany.”

It’s also possible to search the U.N. Comtrade database for some corroboration. I ran a quick search, which revealed multiple exports of alcoholic beverages and electronics by China and various European countries in 2013. Perhaps in the coming months or years, I’ll try to aggregate some of these data myself to look for patterns, and to identify countries whose enforcement of the Security Council resolutions is particularly suspect.

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* Oops. Forgot the strikethrough when I posted this.

** Of the requested $200 million, just $137 million would be for food costs (page 1). The rest probably consists of salaries of shipping and support costs, some of which will be paid to Pyongyang for the costs of storage, transportation, fuel, and labor — costs whose accounting the WFP Inspector General questioned recently. (See Annex A-I).

*** Correction 17 Oct 2014: I took a second look at my math and realize that I either used the wrong figure for 2012 and 2013 or made an error in calculating cereal prices. Although I can’t find where the WFP reports a dollar cost of the cereals Pyongyang said it imported, one can arrive at a reasonable estimate by calculating the commercial price from the data in Annex A-1 (42 million divided by 115,000) and multiplying that price by 300,000. The WFP data tell us that food prices and Pyongyang’s commercial cereal imports were both relatively constant for both years (page 8). That works out to a higher figure of $110 million, about a sixth of what Yoon’s ROK government figures say Pyongyang imported in luxury goods. Note that this is consistent with the 2010 figure (the 2011 figure is probably a partial-year figure, so don’t put too much stock in it). I regret the error and have corrected the chart accordingly.

The Guardian also wonders why North Korea is exporting rice.

Their story cites this post, and gives me the last word.

Why is North Korea exporting food while its people go hungry?

North Korean food exports to China have increased by more than 35 percent compared to the same period last year, and are at their highest levels in at least four years, according to Chinese customs data. [….]

[I]n the first eight months of the year, North Korea exported more food than it received in food aid in the whole of 2011 according to a recent World Food Program (WFP) report. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

And this, shortly after the regime just cut rations to their lowest level in three years in at least one region, citing the effects of a drought. The obvious question this raises is whether North Korea has food to spare when aid workers are pleading with other governments to contribute aid for North Korea’s hungry. The best available evidence tells us that it does not.

First, aid workers continue to speak of numerous stunted children with impaired mental functioning, and U.N. surveys tell us that the vast majority of North Koreans were barely getting enough to eat last year, after one of North Korea’s best harvests in years.

Second, The Daily NK’s tracking of rice prices shows that they rose alarmingly over the summer and have reached an unseasonably high level, even as North Korea enters the harvest season:

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Note that prices are always highest in remote Hyesan, where people are poorest, and lowest in Pyongyang, where people are richest. A careful reader will note that these data are at variance from Byrne’s statement that the price of rice has been relatively constant all year. Byrne is a first-rate reporter has done some exceptional reporting on sanctions violations, but in this case, the data contradict one of his assertions.

You could still excuse Pyongyang for exporting high-value foods, like ginseng and shiitake mushrooms, to earn revenue to buy larger quantities of cheaper foods rice, corn, and soy. Yet last spring, trade statistics told us that North Korea had reduced its food imports from China, despite the fact that this is ordinarily the hungriest season of the year, when winter stocks have run low. Byne notes that North Korea’s recent exports “even included a small rice export in July,” as market prices began to rise, and that North Korea exported seafood, traditionally an important source of needed protein in the Korean diet, including squid. No one who has ever entered a movie theater in South Korea could fail to notice the ubiquity of squid as a cheap snack food there.

In search of explanations, Byrne cites Andrei Lankov, who speculates that North Korea is actually having a good harvest and that North Koreans are eating well. I’ve often cited and been influenced by Lankov’s research in the past, but there are several problems with this argument.

First, even if you disregard the earlier reports of a drought, a good harvest wouldn’t necessarily mean that everyone is eating well if the regime is seizing the crops, as it was also reported to be doing in South Hwanghae in 2012, and then exporting whatever the favored classes and the military don’t consume.

Second, the U.N. and its aid workers, who have much more evidence on their side, continue to tell us that the people are barely surviving.

Third, Lankov’s argument finds little support from evidence of a better nutritional situation or lower food prices, and only unsourced anecdotes to support his claims of agricultural reform. The latter claim conflicts with reports of seizures of collective crops, the confiscation and destruction of private crops, the seizure of private plotscrackdowns on remittances, and intensified efforts to seal the border — evidence that Kim Jong Un’s agricultural policies are actually more statist than his father’s. Lankov’s previous claim, of a 30% rise in food production last year, also conflicts with stronger evidence of a production increase of just 5%, although all of these estimates should be treated with suspicion.

So which is it? Either (a) the U.N. data and aid workers’ anecdotes are the product Pyongyang’s manipulations, (b) the trade statistics are incomplete or manipulated, or (c) Pyongyang is willfully starving its own people. Option (c) is the only theory that doesn’t require me to ignore evidence. Each of these explanations is its own argument that aid isn’t helping North Korea’s hungry, and won’t unless aid agencies are willing to speak hard truths about hunger, access, and monitoring. So is the fact that we still aren’t sure which lie Pyongyang is telling us.

U.N. should fund its aid programs from Kim Jong Un’s Swiss accounts.

The Wall Street Journal updates us on the dire financial state of the U.N. World Food Program’s operations in North Korea.

The United Nations aid program for malnourished North Koreans may close after raising only a fraction of the money it needs to operate in the country, a senior U.N. official said in a call for donations.

“We may need to scale down or think about closing altogether,” Dierk Stegen, the Pyongyang-based North Korea head for the U.N. World Food Program, said in an interview.

The agency, which has operated in North Korea since 1995, could shut early next year if there is no indication it will be able to raise needed funds by the end of October, he said. One complication is that North Korea’s humanitarian crisis has been overshadowed by the conflict in Syria and Ebola outbreak, he said. [Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Cheng]

Whatever your views on aid policy and what the U.N. should do, the situation is profoundly tragic for the North Korean people, who are starving because of their government’s deliberate policy choices. If this regime were overthrown tomorrow, the direct effects of this would still last for a generation:

“For many of the children of North Korea, it’s already too late,” said John Aylieff, the WFP’s deputy regional director for Asia. “They’ve been dealt a life sentence of impaired mental functioning and impaired physical development.”

The decline in foreign aid coincides with ration reductions by the regime, and more ominously, crackdowns on private food smuggling, growing, market distribution and finance, which have become the most important source of food to most North Koreans.

The Wall Street Journal article embeds a video in which I’m interviewed. It also a features graphic showing that Switzerland is now by far the largest donor to the WFP, at $6.7 million a year (think of it as a customer loyalty rebate). The next-highest donor, Russia, gives just $3 million a year. Although China is listed as contributing $1 million, it’s probable that other bilateral donations from China and South Korea are not counted in that graphic.

Of course, as I pointed out the other day, the Swiss may well have enough North Korean money laying around in their banks to fund the WFP’s operations for years. This isn’t just idle snark. After his death, assets of the Qaddafi family were confiscated from foreign accounts and returned to the new Libyan government. There is even a U.N. convention on point, as noted by an attorney from the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering Section in a recent paper:

The UN Convention against Corruption (“UNCAC”), signed in Merida, Mexico, in December 2003, provides an entirely different, and mandatory, scheme for the recovery and return of corruption proceeds. In further discussing the G8 and global initiative against grand corruption, this paper will cover these provisions in greater detail in a subsequent section. The UNCAC took effect in 2005, and has been ratified by over 137 States Parties.

Section 104(b)(1)(F) of the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act authorizes the blocking — but not the confiscation — of funds derived from kleptocracy. Other provisions require the blocking of property of persons who knowingly contribute to money laundering, weapons trafficking, proliferation, censorship, and human rights abuses.

Blocked property remains the legal property of its owner, but can’t be moved or spent. Confiscated property is transferred from one owner to another by a government with the power to control it. For now, practically speaking, it’s a distinction without a difference, because food won’t reach the North Korean people unless the regime allows it to. There is plenty of precedent for blocking the assets of sitting dictators; the Treasury regulations are filled with examples of this. Until now, the confiscation of a kleptrocrat’s assets generally had to wait for the kleptrocrat to be overthrown, killed, or both.

Either way, how unfortunate it would be for the world to sit idle while action could still force real reforms and save lives. If and when the U.N. Security Council takes up the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report, it should consider authorizing either the blocking or confiscation of North Korean slush funds, which would then draw interest until North Korea allows them to be spent on food, medicine, and other humanitarian uses.

North Korea’s food rations fall to three-year low.

Apparently, 2014 will be the 21st consecutive year in which a drought or a flood will have devastated crops and caused food shortages in only the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Simply uncanny how that keeps happening like that.

North Korea’s food distribution to ordinary citizens tumbled to a three-year low in August, hit by a drought in the spring, a U.S. report said Wednesday.

The North’s daily food ration per capita reached 250 grams last month, far lower than a target of 573g, the Washington-based Voice of America (VOA) said, citing a report from the World Food Programme.

The daily amount marks the smallest food provision since those posted in 2011, the report said, adding that the July figure was about the same size. [Yonhap]

How this affects individual North Koreans will vary widely. First, I’d be astonished if anecdotes about one region — or political class — were equally applicable to rations in other regions and classes. Second, most North Koreans have become so dependent on the markets, and so used to being excluded from the rationing system, that many of them will be able to find other ways to cope. It’s North Korea’s most vulnerable people — likely those in state institutions like hospitals and orphanages — who will be most affected by this.

The Daily NK updates us on the status of North Korea’s homeless orphans …

known as kkotjaebi.

Another good discussion of North Korea, food aid, and donor fatigue

There are compelling arguments from defectors that suggest it’s time to cut loose, no matter how Machiavellian that may seem. The growing suspicion is that food aid inhibits the population’s ability for self-determinism and profligates the regime’s control. In other words, while we pump $200,000,000 of food aid into the country, Kim Jong-un can spend the national budget on 4-D cinemas, water parks and, you guessed it, nuclear armament (though, that, too, is unfounded hearsay—the kind of scaremongering required to get people to take notice).

The detractors of aid argue that North Korea does not suffer from a lack of food because it can’t afford to import enough, rather, that it does so due to a systematic governmental plan of expenditure that excludes food. The government needs to adjust its own budgets before aid will be invigorated. This is almost certainly correct.

Worse still, the population suffers from dual mismanagement, first from the government and second by the WFP, whose hands are tied by the latter. There isn’t compelling evidence to suggest the aid even breaks the surface of the population. Due to the lack of transparency by the North Korean government, the vast majority of the money donated, for all we know, may have been thrown into a gigantic suitcase under Kim Jong-un’s bed. [David Whelan, Vice]

Kim Jong Un’s ostentatious, sybaritic budget priorities have changed the conversation about food aid in a way that Kim Jong Il’s budget priorities should have but didn’t. Cutting aid would break Kim Jong Un’s use of the World Food Program and its supposed recipients as hostages, but it obviously won’t fill the bellies of the hungry. Only changes in Pyongyang’s policies can do that, and those policies will only change if Pyongyang is forced to change them.

If the WFP must go, it mustn’t go quietly. Nor should the world, which ought to make Kim Jong Un pay a severe price for depriving his subjects.

An excellent panel discussion on food aid to North Korea …

here, via the snaggletoothed, rheumy-eyed old Trotskyites at The Guardian.

I’m not sure how representative the sample is, but it’s a much more skeptical sample than we’d have seen even five years ago. At some point, you have to question why, after a decade of aid, more than 80% of the citizens of an industrialized nation with plenty of cash laying around can still be living hand-to-mouth. Clearly, the U.N. isn’t addressing the root cause of hunger in North Korea — the choices and policies of the regime itself.

HT: Dr. Mark P. Barry

To address hunger in North Korea, the World Food Program must first tell the truth.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the World Food Program may soon suspend operations in North Korea due to a lack of funding. The program’s internal reports claim that as of late 2013, it was feeding just 1.45 million North Koreans, compared to 2.4 million intended recipients, mostly pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. Most of what is distributed now consists of materiel like high-energy biscuits, which (thankfully) are not easily digested by healthy people and thus not easily diverted.

But as the U.N. has also told us, 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, and there are about 23 million people in North Korea today. Clearly, the WFP’s current operations barely dent North Korea’s broader hunger problem. As recently as 2005, the WFP was feeding 6.5 million North Koreans, but Pyongyang forced the WFP to scale that program back dramatically. It has been shrinking steadily ever since.

Unfortunately, as I’ll explain below, the WFP’s compromises with Pyongyang — and consequently, with the truth — are perpetuating and contributing to the regime policies at the root of North Korea’s hunger. That likely means that as configured, the WFP’s work in North Korea does some good, and also, far more harm. The WFP has been operating in North Korea since the Great Famine in 1995, which must make North Korea the only industrialized society on earth to experience such a prolonged famine. Why? The WFP’s answer is almost the same as North Korea’s:

With a population of 24.5 million, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been excluded from globalization and economic development for various reasons. Floods, torrential rains, typhoons and droughts threaten lives and livelihoods every year and cause soil erosion, landslides and damage to infrastructure.

The country does not produce enough food, and it has limited emergency food stocks and scant foreign currency reserves to buy food on the international market. [WFP]

Rather than rebut each of these falsehoods point-by-point, I’ll refer you to the Congressional Research Service, which elaborates on how North Korea has excluded its own people from globalization and economic development by resisting economic reform, and quotes the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that Pyongyang’s “decisions, actions, and omissions,” including the obstruction and diversion of food aid, “knowingly causing prolonged starvation” and “the death of at least hundreds of thousands of people.”

Another under-examined cause of hunger is the extent to which the regime seizes crops from poor regions, cracks down on smuggling and markets that make food available to the poor, and destroys crops cultivated quasi-legally, on unused public land.

And if you really believe that North Korea is starving because of 19 consecutive years of floods or droughts, just ask yourself why South Korea isn’t.

But to say, as the WFP so very incredibly does, that North Korea has “scant foreign currency reserves to buy food on the international market” is simply an obscene and outrageous lie:

No wonder no one trusts the WFP’s assurances about how it delivers food aid to those who need it. It isn’t just me questioning that — the WFP’s own inspector general’s own findings tell us that the WFP has outsourced the transportation, distribution, and guarding of the food to the regime. Because the regime’s workers have access to the WFP’s computer records system, the WFP has no sure way of auditing the distribution of the food.

Remarkably for a program on such a wide geographical scale, the WFP only staffs one facility in Pyongyang, and is only able to visit its own regional offices in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung. The WFP’s monitoring and distribution are frequently obstructed by the regime for extended periods, when the regime would claim that roads and bridges were washed out, preventing access. (Yet Kim Jong Un can always find a helicopter to fly Dennis Rodman to his yacht at Wonsan.)

Although the WFP claims that “the DPRK government covers all manpower and running costs, while WFP provides the food commodities, spare parts and packaging materials,” it’s apparent from the IG report that the WFP is paying the regime for the fuel, logistical services, and labor. This suggests that the WFP has become another source of hard currency for Pyongyang. That explains why Pyongyang allows the WFP to operate at all, but it’s further reason to question how the WFP’s donations are spent.

And finally, as I noted here, the WFP has almost certainly been dishonest about where it is allowed access. The WFP’s own access maps of North Korea include some of North Korea’s largest concentration camps, places that no foreigner is ever allowed to go near. In a 2011 interview for this blog, a WFP spokesman refused to even respond to my questions about its ability to assess hunger in the camps or feed the prisoners there. The WFP can’t admit that it willingly provides the regime with food when the hungriest, most vulnerable people in North Korea are denied their basic needs, because the WFP claims to operate on the principle of “no access, no food.” Food isn’t supposed to be denied to starving men, women, and children, even if they are political prisoners. If the WFP feeds prisoners in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Ivory Coast, why not North Korea?

The answer, I suppose, is the same one that we so often see whenever foreigners enter North Korea with the best of intentions. Through ruthless bargaining, skillful manipulation, and shameless mendacity, North Korea sorts those who are willing to play by its rules and be useful to it from those who aren’t, and who simply aren’t let in again. Thus, North Korea exempts itself from the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and this happens … millions of times:

A serious response to hunger in North Korea will require, first, an end to this “North Korean exceptionalism.” That will require a closer partnership between U.N. bodies with each other, and with the governments of U.N. member states:

1. The WFP must adhere strictly to the principle of “no access, no food.” It should expect North Korea to allow just as many monitoring visits per capita as it would make in, say, Darfur. It should have access to every hungry North Korean, including its political prisoners. It should insist on posting its own non-North Korean staff in the cities and towns where the hungry people are, along with its own non-North Korean translators. It should insist on random, unannounced nutritional surveys that measure the arm circumference of children and adults who are supposed to be receiving the aid. And failing that, it should offer only that much food that it is confident that North Korea cannot divert (meaning high-energy biscuits and other, similar in-kind aid). The current, small-scale program the WFP operates may well meet that low threshold, but let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that it’s solving the bigger problem, or that it’s feeding North Korea’s most vulnerable people.

2. The WFP should end its reliance on North Korea’s corrupt and discriminatory Public Distribution System and support market-based approaches to food production and distribution. For most North Koreans, the PDS is a relic of another age; 80% of them already rely on markets for their food supply. It should actively support the privatization of agriculture, the private cultivation of public land, and unofficial commercial imports of food. It should begin programs to educate private farmers on better agricultural methods, and supply the private farmers with high-yield seed, fertilizer, and pesticides. It should criticize actions by the regime that interfere with markets and private agriculture.

3. The WFP must use its voice to influence Kim Jong Un to make better decisions about North Korea’s wealth. It must speak out about the waste of resources on luxury goods and weapons, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It must speak out about unreasonable restrictions on its monitoring and distribution of food, to increase the pressure on Pyongyang to allow transparency and fairness in the distribution of food. If that causes the regime to expel the WFP, then perhaps the WFP’s resources are better used to feed people in other places, where it can adhere to the “no access, no food” principle and feed those whose need is the greatest.

4. Donor states and U.N. member states must help the WFP enforce those restrictions by blocking North Korean government banks, accounts, and income streams, beginning with those that are used to purchase luxury goods. Those states should make clear to the North Korean government that those funds are available to provide food and other humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea, and that funds will be available for other, non-prohibited purposes after the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people have been met first.

5. Because the transparent distribution of North Korea’s resources is the most plausible path toward greater transparency in North Korea as a whole, member states should prioritize combining their diplomatic influence to extract greater transparency in the delivery of food aid. Greater transparency is the sine qua non to resolving every other crisis involving North Korea, including its nuclear program, other WMD programs, human rights violations, and threats against its neighbors. Ultimately, that will also require financial transparency, too. North Korea isn’t going to accept that on its own. Other states must use their regulatory powers over banks and businesses to demand it.

To help the silent, suffering majority of North Koreans, the WFP must make a far broader impact on North Korea’s food supply. To do that, the WFP must also impact Pyongyang’s own restrictions on the supply and distribution of food, because Pyongyang’s own policies are the cause of the hunger. By avoiding — or by affirmatively concealing — that greater truth, the WFP is perpetuating hunger and starvation among the millions of North Koreans that it can’t reach.

~   ~   ~

Update: Similar thoughts from Patrick Cronin.

Starving Bulawayo to feed Pyongyang?

When I traveled in Zimbabwe a quarter-century ago, it was one of the region’s strongest economies and a net exporter of food. In is a miracle of 21st Century government incompetence, President-for-life Robert Mugabe threw Zimbabwe, with some of the world’s best farm land, into a food crisis a decade ago. Zimbabwe must now rely on aid from the World Food Program.

So what business does one starving nation have selling off, or renting out, precious farm land to … North Korea? And how likely do you suppose it is that that food will at least reach the North Koreans who need it most? I suspect that WFP monitors have better access in Zimbabwe than they do in North Korea, where the WFP is so lacking in donations that it may soon end its operations. But in any event, let no one say that North Korea can’t afford to grow food abroad, or import it commercially, if it makes doing so a priority.

Peter Hahn speaks out about China freezing his accounts and investigating him …

for his humanitarian activities. Hahn says, “We feed 22,000 children every day,” including the most pitiful children of all, the kkotjaebi. While I’m generally skeptical of claims that food aid can reach the intended recipients inside North Korea, Hahn tells a sympathetic and compelling story. Read and decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if Hahn is doing as much good as he thinks he is, but I am sure that China and Kim Jong Un are the villains of this story. How ironic (and typical) that China won’t freeze the assets of North Korea proliferators and money launderers, but does freeze the assets of people who are trying to feed North Korean orphans.

Those who believe that China is ready to abandon His Porcine Majesty, and those who still see any glimmer of hope that Kim Jong Un wants to open North Korean society, should read this story carefully.

North Korea Perestroika Watch: Crackdowns on food, information, borders intensify

OFK readers likely have offered a diverse spectrum of adjectives to describe the views expressed on this site, but one that most of them would probably affirm is “contrarian.” After Kim Jong Un’s coronation, it was briefly fashionable to perceive him as a reformer. I argued that little substantive evidence supported this theory, and cited evidence that His Porcine Majesty was closing down the border, statistical evidence that refugee flows to the South had fallen dramatically as a result, and that his regime was also cracking down on information flows.

The optimistic view of Kim Jong Un became less fashionable after last December’s purge of Jang Song Thaek, although I suspect that much of the reason for this was due to a misplaced belief that Jang himself was a reformer. A better reason would have been evidence of an intensified border-control crackdown following the purge. A new report co-written by recent defector Seongmin Lee tells us that this crackdown continues to intensify, and that the regime is now clearing a 200-meter wide control strip along the Tumen River.

According to South Korean media reports, North Korean authorities are planning to demolish all structures within 200 meters along a 270-kilometer stretch of the border with China. The initiative specifically targets Ryanggang Province and the provincial capital, Hyesan, which has served as a major defection route in recent years. Ostensibly, buildings will be leveled and homes destroyed to make way for a new road, though many believe the true intention is an intensified border crackdown aimed at preventing defections, smuggling and a growing influx of information from the outside world. [The Diplomat]

No word on where the residents of the destroyed homes will be sent. Rimjin-gang also publishes photographs taken from the Chinese side, showing vacant factories within the control zone and new fencing under construction.

The Reporting Team has confirmed significant changes since our April report, including the installation of border guard watch-houses and a wire fence under way in the area, along the North Korean side of the Amrok-gang. In the center of the border city, Hyesan in particular, sections of the fence have already been completed. [….]

The city of Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, located in the up-stream area of the Amrok-gang, has been subject to the most intensive tightening of security. Adding to the fact that the river is narrow enough to allow relatively easy illegal border crossing, the area has a large ethnic Korean population and has been a central junction of defection and smuggling for nearly 20 years. [Rimjin-gang]

In the April report referred to above, intact houses within the control zone also sit vacant.

From the Chinese side of the river, a number of houses can be seen in villages on the North Korean side. However, the chimneystacks of these houses emit no smoke, even at six o’clock on a bitter winter evening. The silent village covered with snow looked as if it was in the grips of a deep freeze. [Rimjin-gang]

The Daily NK reports that in the interior, authorities continue their efforts to crack down on prohibited information, particularly among the children of the elites:

A male in his 40s from South Hwanghae Province explained, “Kids of 15 and 16 have these things on memory sticks. They watch them, copy them, pass them on, and that is how South Korean media spreads among the young. Of course they are taught not to do it, but kids are inquisitive and so they find a way to do it regardless. Being told not to watch South Chosun films makes some do it all the more.”

The informant went on to claim that the spread of cellular phones is also spurring the greater spread of foreign music. [….]

According to the woman, a USB stick capable of holding a small volume of data (roughly three episodes of a South Korean television drama, each of which is ordinarily one hour in length) currently costs 70,000 North Korean won, while larger ones come in at between 100,000 and 150,000 won. “It costs 10,000 won to get hold of a popular movie, and about 5,000 for ordinary films,” she added.

As Daily NK reported on June 2nd, and as the informants universally agreed, regulation of access to external information such as movies, music and drama has been stepped up under the rule of Kim Jong Eun, and in particular since the conviction and execution of former Vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission Jang Sung Taek in December last year.

Severity of punishment varies both by region and whether the place in question is rural or urban. In some of the worst cases, evidence trickling out of North Korea reveals that executions have taken place, though this is much rarer than labor reeducation.

“The regulation has gotten much worse since Jang Sung Taek was executed,” a 40-something source from Hwanghae agreed. “At times like these, watching South Chosun media means trouble,” a male source from North Pyongan Province concurred. A woman from Sinuiju confirmed that ordinary people there generally do not go near South Korean media now, either. [Daily NK]

As previously noted here, the regime increasingly relies on levies of students to enforce the crackdown. One wonders if this means that the regime lacks for funds to pay enough dedicated security forces officers. On the other hand, the report suggests that the students are harder to bribe than full-time officers.

In addition to “109” and “927” groups, which are tasked with regulating matters concerning South Korean media, sources also revealed that Pyongyang recently saw task forces formed from graduating senior middle school (in effect, high school) students.

“109 Group means a specialist team made up of people from the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), the Party, and the administration that looks for, in particular, discs of South Korean films, dramas, and music,” a male in his 40s from Hwanghae told Daily NK. “Getting caught by them is no fun.” A so-called “927 Group” keeps a lid on anti-socialist activities including the sale of such materials.

“Last year this ‘task force’ was organized under the district MPS,” a male in his 50s from Pyongyang recalled. “Those guys were 18 or 19-year old graduates from senior middle school. They did it all by the book, which made it even more difficult to deal with.”

The crackdown even extends to North Korea’s extra-governmental food supply, which enters North Korea through smuggling, and through so-called sotoji farms, where perhaps 25% of North Korea’s food is grown quasi-legally in cleared plots of land. In the past, the regime had often confiscated this land and its crops, or limited the size of the plots. Now, it is ordering the destruction of the crops:

The Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party has recently issued an order that all privately grown crops must be destroyed.

North Korea has a cooperative farming system where individuals are, in principle, banned from owning farms or smallholdings. Nevertheless, many individuals cultivate their own crops, and this is done quite openly.

But there have been serious differences in production success this year, according to sources; it has been a good year for privately owned plots, particularly in the regions of Hamgyong, Chagang and Yanggang provinces; but famine conditions have been witnessed on state-run cooperatives.

State security agents are said to have reported to the Central Committee that ‘private agriculture is becoming dangerously widespread.’ In response, the instructions given by the Committee has been to destroy all crops on private fields. Labour and student groups have now been mobilised to cut down privately grown crops, as these have been grown on the ‘private gardens of capitalism.’

Even recently, Kim Jong-un is seen to have expressed worry about the food situation. But with this latest move, which again prioritises the enforcement of the Party’s political control mechanisms over providing duty of care, public sentiments regarding the leadership is said to have taken a hit.

Sources report that even in group situations, North Korean individuals are heard asking questions such as, ‘How can [Kim Jong-un’s] belly be so round when he is reduced to eating potatoes out of concern for his people?’ [New Focus International]

To put this report into context, consider the recent U.N. finding that 84% of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption, the World Food Program’s decision to cut feeding programs due to a lack of funding, and other evidence that the regime prioritized food below luxury imports and military expenditures. It certainly doesn’t suggest that this government wants its people to eat well.

Worse, the reports suggest that Kim Jong Un intends to reverse the trends that ended North Korea’s Great Famine — the erosion of border controls and the rise of private agriculture and markets. He can undertake these initiatives and still maintain his own extravagant lifestyle and weapons development programs because he can afford to. Conventional wisdom about North Korea holds that aid and trade will eventually drive reforms in North Korean society, but these reports suggest that the money Kim Jong Un gains from abroad are being used to suppress the trends that are driving reform.

They also suggest that the opposite may be closer to the truth — if we cut off Kim Jong Un’s access to cash, border controls will break down again, and North Korea will see a new influx of free information and a freer distribution of food. It suggests, again, that sanctions can be a tool of reform by helping break down the repression that impedes it.