Archive for Famine & Food Aid

Why does North Korea still need food aid? (Updated)

The UN aid agencies working in North Korea — the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Population Fund, UNICEF, the World Food Program, and WHO (writing collectively as Relief Web) — have published a new report. I draw three main conclusions from it. First, despite some reports of improved food production, the humanitarian situation is still bad. Second, aid agencies still aren’t being forthcoming about the most important reasons for that. Third, various UN entities are working at cross purposes, and don’t share a single coherent vision of how to balance providing for North Koreans in need with responding to the aggressive behavior of their government.

The Relief Web report finds that “[f]rom a population of 24.6 million, approximately 70 per cent (18 million) are food insecure and highly vulnerable to shortages in food production.” As a misery index, this is a lower estimate than in the December 2013 WFP and FAO study, which found that 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, a difference that’s probably attributable to slightly different questions and methodologies. (The 2013 study looked at consumption during the lean season, the Relief Web report focuses on dietary diversity.) The new report also finds that “[t]he chronic malnutrition (stunting) rate among under-five children is 27.9 per cent (about 540,000) while acutely malnourished (wasting) affects four per cent of children under-five (about 90,000).”

As always, one should accept such estimates with great caution. The regime is very practiced at skewing assessments like these by showing aid workers precisely what it wants them to see. For example, North Korea denied the UN assessment teams access to the entirety of Jagang Province, a remote mountainous area that, according to the same report, has one of North Korea’s highest rates of food insecurity. We also know that — despite the professed principle of “no access, no food,” North Korea has long denied the aid agencies access to its horrific prison camps. Marcus Noland often says that one should never trust a statistic from North Korea that includes a decimal point.

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So why, after 20 years of aid, can’t this fully industrialized state feed its people? Primarily, the UN finds that “[f]ood production is hampered by a lack of” things that money can buy from any number of commercial sources, including (most obviously) food, but also “agricultural inputs, such as soybean seeds, fertilizer and plastic sheets.” But as OFK readers know, lack of money isn’t an issue for Kim Jong Un.[1]

The report also repeatedly describes North Korea as “vulnerable” to “shocks” like natural disasters, but doesn’t explain how it is that North Korea (again, in contrast to all other industrialized societies) remains vulnerable to famine after two decades of food aid. The report cites “the fragility of the national emergency response capacities,” but that’s an essential government function that other governments prioritize. If you can assemble, equip, and train a million-man army with special forces and a mobile missile force, why not a disaster response agency or EMTs? North Korea is in a temperate zone, not the sahel, so it’s not uniquely vulnerable to extreme weather. When is the last time you heard about anyone going hungry because of extreme weather in South Korea, or for that matter, Mongolia?

The report also reminds us not to assume that increased food production, even if we’ve measured it accurately, translates to a better nutritional situation:

DPR Korea’s Crop Production and Food Security Assessment (CPFSA), carried out by the Government in November 2014, reported a modest increase of 48,700 MT in cereal production in 2014, despite a prolonged dry-spell from spring to autumn. However, production did not reach the targeted level, which was higher than previous years due to increases in consumption patterns, as well as the need to use cereals for seed and livestock feed. As a result the shortfall of cereal increased from 40,000 MT in 2013 to 891,508 MT in 2014. Soybean production also decreased to 160,364 MT in 2014; approximately 1.83 per cent lower than 2013 and the third consecutive year of decline. Crop rotations of soybeans are critical to improve nitrogen levels in the soil and also to provide dietary protein for a number of protein-rich products, such as soymilk, soy-sauce and soy-flour. The estimated level of vegetable production was 0.45 million MT against a requirement of 2.50 million MT, leaving a gap of 2 million MT. Despite improved harvests in some crops, the food security situation will remains similar to previous years with poor food consumption in most households. [Page 7]

Does “increases in consumption patterns” mean that people are eating more, that the UN is adjusting expectations to account for what a human being needs to eat, or is it just creative accounting? I can’t tell.

What Relief Web doesn’t explain is that private, gray-market (sotoji) farming is another important component in North Korea’s food production story that UN survey statistics can’t measure. Andrei Lankov once wrote that in some areas, sotoji farming could account for “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” To some extent, and despite all of the renewed talk of agricultural reform, the state’s confiscatory policies toward sotoji agriculture may also be offsetting these nominal increases, but to an unknowable degree. The crackdown is manifested in two ways: increased fees for the use of the plots, and the confiscation of some plots in the name of reforestation. In the recent past, the regime has also exported “excess” production for hard currency. Stories like these cause me to wonder, at times, whether Pyongyang is deliberately limiting the food supply.[2]

According to the report, donor fatigue is a growing problem: “[F]unding for United Nations (UN) agencies decreased substantially over the past decade, from US$300 million in 2004 to less than $50 million in 2014.” It isn’t hard to think of any number of sound reasons for that, from the regime’s own culpably malignant priorities, to its interference with aid workers (see also Steph Haggard’s comment on this) by limiting access or expelling them, to the aid agencies’ own refusal to confront those problems frankly and directly. The UN agencies still appear to be relying on the state’s Public Distribution System, a system that experts will tell you barely functions at all.

Perhaps donors should still do more to meet UN’s requests for vaccination programs to prevent tuberculosis, malaria, and cervical cancer, and for the treatment of tuberculosis and pneumonia. Even medicine isn’t completely free of the risk of diversion, however, which means that monitoring is still important.

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Of course, what the report does not confront is the fact that North Korea shouldn’t need humanitarian aid at all. According to Marcus Noland, North Korea could close its food gap with “less than two-tenths of one percent of national income or one percent of [its] military budget.” Its known annual spending on luxury goods is six times the amount of the UN’s latest appeal for North Korea. Its gap between rich and poor is obscene and growing. Similarly, every North Korean who died in the Great Famine of the 1990s was a victim of Kim Jong Il’s priorities — not weather, not lack of resources, and not sanctions. And yet the report says this:

Recent political developments resulted in further international sanctions on DPR Korea, creating additional constraints in providing vital assistance. As a result of sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank imposed in March 2013, led to the significant issues and delays in transferring funding into DPRK throughout 2014. UN agencies put in place contingencies to continue programmes, with lifesaving activities prioritised. Measures to reduce in-country payments included maximizing off-shore payments and minimizing in-country operating expenses. The inability of UN agencies to use their regular banking routes created multiple operational obstacles and affected in-country procurement, monitoring visits, effective programme delivery, in-country capacity building programmes and general operating expenditures. [Page 15]

Now, here is what a UN Panel of Experts charged with monitoring the enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions just said about that same topic:

209. While the Panel has been made aware of allegations that sanctions are contributing to food shortages, its assessment has found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid. National legislative or procedural steps taken by Member States or private sector industry have been reported as prohibiting or delaying the passage of certain goods to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish these measures from United Nations sanctions. The Panel will continue to seek information on the issue. 210. Although the resolutions underline that the sanctions measures are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the country’s civilian population, there is no exemption mechanism in the resolutions under embargoes to that end. The Panel therefore recommends that the Committee propose to the Security Council exemptions under embargoes, provided that such items are confirmed to be solely for food, agricultural, medical or other humanitarian purposes. [U.N. Panel of Experts, Feb. 2015 report]

The latter recommendation, of course, is both humane and sensible. Sanctions resolutions and legislation should always contain flexible waiver and exemption provisions for purely humanitarian transactions. But agonizing dilemmas like these again point us to Pyongyang’s skill at using its own poor as human shields to divide the world’s response to its offenses and outrages.

To the extent sanctions have complicated aid delivery, the UN Relief Web report attributes that to “recent political developments” — that is, Kim Jong Un’s decision to test a nuclear weapon in February 2013 — and then says that this “resulted in further international sanctions” by the UN Security Council. The U.S. Treasury Department is obligated to enforce UN sanctions, so when Treasury concluded that North Korea was using its Foreign Trade Bank “to facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network,” it blocked that bank out of the dollar system. It’s unfortunate that North Korea also forced humanitarian groups to use the same bank, but thankfully, according to Ghulam Isaczai, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea, UN aid agencies have “been able to work around” those complications “and still bring in humanitarian aid to support the population.”

On close reading, the “complications” the aid agencies cite are related to “local procurement.” Those complications only exist because Pyongyang is demanding payment for that local procurement in U.S. dollars. In plain English, it looks like Pyongyang is charging UN aid agencies for fuel and labor in hard currency, leaving the aid agencies to feed poor North Koreans, while Pyongyang spends its own cash on ski resorts, limousines, private jets, and flat screen TVs.

Despite all of this, the aid agencies and NGOs choose to reserve all of their public criticism for the U.S., because they know the U.S. can’t expel them from North Korea, and actually cares if North Koreans starve. But that selective criticism only does more harm to their credibility and fuels more donor fatigue. Last month, in a supreme irony, Pyongyang expelled the Country Director of one of the NGOs that complained when Treasury blocked the Foreign Trade Bank.

And of course, the latest UN Panel of Experts report also contains this explosive allegation:

202. On 30 January 2014, the French Ministry of Economy and Finance ordered the freezing of assets held by two Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals affiliated with the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Mr. Kim Yong Nam and Mr. Kim Su Gwang, and one affiliated with the Korean United Development Bank, Ms. Kim Su Gyong, on the grounds that they were likely to engage in activities prohibited by the resolutions (Table 11).

203. At the time of the freeze order, Mr. Kim Yong Nam was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a contract as an employee at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and Mr. Kim Su Gwang was a Reconnaissance General Bureau officer operating under the cover of a position as an international civil servant at the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome. Ms. Kim Su Gyong works at the Korean United Development Bank in Pyongyang and was engaged in financial activities under false pretences in order to conceal the involvement of her country. The three are related and have all provided support to Reconnaissance General Bureau officers abroad. Additional information obtained by the Panel regarding these individuals is summarized in annex 49.

One can only speculate as to how that infiltration has affected the WFP’s internal integrity or external messaging. The very fact that the WFP hired a North Korean government official into its headquarters in Rome is disturbing, much less a spy. After all, the WFP’s own Inspector General reports give the WFP ample notice of the risk of manipulation and diversion. I’ve yet to hear a single report that the WFP has begun an investigation, or fired the spy.

Let’s make no mistake here — sanctions are not the reason North Koreans are going hungry. UN aid agencies have an obligation to be honest about the greater causes, including North Korea’s inequality, military spending, and its restrictions on aid workers. If the aid agencies don’t protect their candor and integrity, the donor fatigue problem will only worsen.

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It’s the same story in other parts of the UN bureaucracy, where a whistleblower scandal is arising from the export of computers to North Korea:

At the center of the debate is the World Intellectual Property Organization, whose mandate includes helping governments create patent systems, allowing it to send technical equipment to sanctioned countries such as North Korea and Iran. Critics including former Justice Department official John Yoo argued that the computers could be used to develop nuclear weapons.

When three WIPO officials raised concerns over the shipments with member states in 2012, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee began an investigation. WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry blocked two of them from testifying before the committee and later fired one before he was due to publicly criticize the agency’s leadership, according to the three whistle-blowers, James Pooley, Miranda Brown and Moncef Kateb. [Swissinfo]

As The Daily NK noted when this story first broke in 2012, this isn’t just about a few loose MacBooks; it involves “advanced computer technology and data-storage servers.” How advanced? It would be nice to know a little more about just what that technology was. It may turn out that obstructing the whistleblowers’ testimony was a greater sin than the sanctions violation.

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There is, of course, a fourth U.N. report that no one is even talking about here — the Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights. It would do much to inform the other reports, especially Relief Web’s. Unfortunately, there is no UN bureaucracy whose job it is to represent the interests of that report’s subjects, or to implement its recommendations.

More broadly, all four reports point to a widening divide between different UN bodies, their interests, and their influences. It’s clear that North Korea has succeeded in wedging those divides to pit concerns for the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people against the interests of the Security Council in enforcing sanctions meant to disarm North Korea, thus exploiting the former and weakening the latter. No one in the UN is mediating and adjudicating these conflicting interests, even where (as with humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions) sensible compromises are within easy reach. Consequently, “United Nations” is again proven to be an oxymoron.

The obvious conclusion one draws is of a leadership vacuum in the higher reaches of the UN. But perhaps strong leadership that stifles free debate and disclosure would be even worse. That’s especially so when one considers that the leader is Ban Ki-moon.

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Updates, 15 April 2015:

[1] More about North Korea’s financial means, and how it chooses to spend it: North Korea increased its military spending by 16 percent over the last five years, to $10.2 billion (with a “b”) last year. That’s nearly 100 times the $111 million (with an “million) UN is asking for.

[2] Today, the Daily NK published another fascinating report on private farming, and it makes me wonder if we’re missing the real ag-reform story. To North Korean farmers, June 28th is so 2012:

While the North Korean authorities continue to push the bunjo [cooperative farm production unit] system, residents, on the other hand, are largely focusing on cultivating individual plots. According to sources within the country, this is because after failing to see the increased allotment of production under the nascent  system, discontent with the state’s hollow promises has spread rapidly among the population.

“As preparations for spring cultivation are in full swing, people feel that individual farming is far more of a priority than collective farming. It’s a major shift from last year,” a source from Yangkang Province reported to Daily NK on April 13th. “With spring upon us, more households are facing decreased food supplies, so groups of residents have been gathering together to commiserate and mull over the matter together.”

North Korea stipulated in its “June 28th Measures,” announced in 2012, plans for the state to establish a “new economic management system in its own style.” Under the new system, production units on cooperative farms shrank from groups of 10 to 25, to smaller factions [pojeon] of 4 to 6 members. The state receives 70% of the target production, with farmers taking 30% and any surplus if targets are exceeded. [Daily NK]

According to the report, farmers have been cheated so many times now that they distrust the state to keep its share-cropping promises. Instead, they’re doing what they can to slip outside the state’s system and grow food privately. The story even causes me to wonder whether the June 28th measures were nothing more than a way to pacify farmers whose sotoji farms were being confiscated, or whose crops were being cut down.

Would Christine Ahn please ask Pyongyang to stop deporting the nice aid workers? For the children?

North Korea has deported U.S. citizen Sandra Suh, a humanitarian aid worker and founder of the L.A.-based NGO Wheat Mission Ministries, who had been working in North Korea since 1998. Pyongyang accused Suh of “plot-breeding and propaganda” — specifically, by showing “propaganda abroad with photos and videos” that she “secretly produced and directed, out of inveterate repugnancy” toward the North, “under the pretense of ‘humanitarianism.'”

The North Korean news agency said Suh had “admitted her acts … seriously insulted the absolute trust” North Koreans place in their leader, Kim Jong Un, and constituted “indelible crimes that infringed on its sovereignty in violation of its law.” It added that she had “apologized for her crimes and earnestly begged for pardon” and that authorities decided to expel her “taking into full consideration her old age.” [L.A. Times]

Judging by its nicely designed web site, Wheat Mission Ministries appears to be run by Korean-Americans, and to work exclusively in North Korea. It has a page on monitoring, where it acknowledges “that 100% accountability is a difficult thing to achieve in DPRK.” Interestingly enough, WMM’s web page also has a page for “photos and videos,” which now says this:

WM is going through a revision process to include pictures and videos. Because of the sensitive nature of providing videos, WM is careful to post videos that are neutral in their content. This will be available soon.

And so it goes. I’m sure WMM’s staff are lovely people with compassionate intentions, but who changed who again? Once again, the price of “engagement” with Pyongyang is not only to compromise the very principle that brought you there, but to submit to the extraterritoriality of its censorship forever. In the end, Suh’s family is just thankful that she didn’t end up a hostage like Kenneth Bae.

Suh is the second humanitarian aid worker deported by Pyongyang in a month, perhaps because Pyongyang is now making enough money commercially that aid inputs threaten to create a destabilizing condition: an adequate supply of food for its “wavering” and “hostile” classes. Thankfully for Pyongyang, that condition has not yet been achieved:

The United Nations has launched an appeal for $111 million to help a vast portion of North Korea’s population now facing a food crisis.

U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for North Korea Ghulam Isaczai told VOA the funding will help five U.N. aid agencies working on the ground to continue providing North Koreans with food, clean water and other basics in 2015.

“We are appealing for more aid and support to keep the U.N. operation going. And if we don’t provide the support, the gains we have made over the years will be reversed,” Isaczai said Wednesday.

The United Nations says 70 percent of the population, or 18 million North Koreans, are food insecure and lack nutritional diversity.

But Isaczai said of those, nearly 2 million, mostly children, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly, are in dire need of food assistance, and another 350,000 women and children need vaccines and health supplies.

Malnutrition rates are high, with 27.9 percent of children under five suffering from chronic malnutrition, according to a 2012 national nutrition survey quoted by the U.N. [VOA]

Yes, curse those damn sanctions for starving North Korean babies.

The lifestyle of roughly 200,000 to 300,000 elites, Park said, rivals those of well-heeled residents of Manhattan or the residents of Little Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Their average net worth is $50,000 and they typically own Samsung televisions and household pets imported from China.

Elites also have access to lavish dining options in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The restaurants in question charge $70 for Korean barbecue, $8 for Korean bibimbap, or rice mixed with meat and vegetables, though prices cited were for foreign tourists and not locals, reported South Korea’s Kyunghyang Sinmun.

Luxury vehicles are highly coveted within this population, according to Park.

He estimates there are currently 5,000 BMWs, 1,500 used Nissans parked around the areas where the elites lead their enviable lifestyles.

Park and other experts have said the resulting economic and social inequality is beyond comparison to pre-unification East Germany or even to contemporary China. Jung Eun-yi, a researcher at Kyungsang National University in South Korea said luxury apartments valued at $200,000 have begun to emerge in Pyongyang, according to South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh. [UPI, Elizabeth Shim]

The Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, by the way, wasn’t able to provide any further information about the reason for the deportations, other than to quote a KCNA statement. But it did report the fascinating fact that “[a]uthorities in Pyongyang have also in the past staged news conferences, during which foreign detainees appeared before the media and made statements that they then recanted after their releases.” Really? Pyongyang stages news conferences that feature people who are under duress? And this is news to the AP?

Suh’s deportation comes just as CNN and others are wondering how Christine Ahn could possibly believe that Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il are blameless (or nearly so) for all the hunger, famine, and suffering that the people of North Korea have endured for the last two decades of dynastic misrule.

What a perfect opportunity for Ahn to preempt a growing consensus that she “has long been uncritical of North Korea, a country that has some committed some of the worst human rights abuses on record,” and for Gloria Steinem to answer critics who accuse her of being “mum” about crimes like “executions, rape, forced starvation, and enslavement.” Perhaps these women are willing to speak truth to power after all, and to call on Pyongyang to let Suh and Feindt return, get on with their work, and resume regular monitoring visits.

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C’mon, Christine. Do it for the children. Show us how much you really care about them.

Welthungerhilfe should tell us why N. Korea expelled its country director

North Korea has expelled Regina Feindt, the Country Director for the German humanitarian NGO Welthungerhilfe, which has operated in North Korea since 1997, “[w]ithout warning or saying why.” Reuters describes Welthungerhilfe as “one of the few foreign aid groups to operate in the isolated country.” Welthungerhilfe is not simply accepting this result quietly:

Feindt’s colleague Karl Fall, who had worked in the country for 12 years, left of his own volition the next month, it said.

“Welthungerhilfe does not see anything in Mrs Feindt’s behaviour that would have justified an expulsion,” it said in the statement.

It said Feindt left North Korea on Feb 26 and that Fall left on March 19. Feindt and Fall were not available to comment, Welthungerhilfe said.

The abrupt departures came as a surprise to members of the small foreign community in Pyongyang, according to a regular visitor to the North Korean capital who wished to remain anonymous, citing the sensitive nature of working there. [Reuters, James Pearson]

So what led to Feindt’s expulsion? Welthungerhilfe wouldn’t comment and claims not to know, and a separate report from Der Spiegel is similarly silent. That seems rather unlikely. Welthungerhilfe must know, but is probably afraid of saying for fear that the North Koreans will retaliate by expelling its remaining workers.

Indeed, despite the departures of Feindt and Fall, Welthungerhilfe “still has a skeleton presence in North Korea,” working on projects “to improve water and sewage systems in cities were unaffected.” Those projects are said to be unaffected so far, but Welthungerhilfe was also involved in a crop-substitution program to teach North Koreans to grow potatoes. Welthungerhilfe says it is “in discussions with the North Korean authorities to secure a basis for continuing our development work” there, which suggests that the NGO’s future activities are in jeopardy.

There are some indications on Welthungerhilfe’s own web site that it had clashed with Pyongyang over monitoring. At this page, for example, Welthungerhilfe says, “In April there were no visits and travel to Welthungerhilfe project regions because of conflicts and provocations,” but it does not elaborate further on what those conflicts and provocations are. In the apparent pursuit of equivalence, it also blames both “sanctions” and “controls” — apparently sanctions imposed by foreign countries and controls imposed by the regime — for affecting “the time schedule and organisation of the project work.”

That Welthungerhilfe was insufficiently compliant for Pyongyang is saying something. The NGOs that still remain in North Korea today tend to be the most compliant ones. (The less compliant ones left over complaints about diversion and manipulation years ago.) For example, Welthungerhilfe blames North Korea’s food crisis — the longest ever experienced by an industrialized society — as “due to the cold winters, dry soils, drought periods alternating with heavy rainfall,” but not on North Korea’s restrictions on private agriculture, imports, and markets, or on the fact that instead of importing more food, North Korea squanders many times what it receives in food aid on weapons and luxury goods.

Welthungerhilfe was among the NGOs that criticized the Treasury Department for blocking North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank from the financial system for handling transactions related to proliferation. North Korea required foreign NGOs to use the FTB, and consequently, at least for a time, the blocking had collateral consequences for those NGOs.

If disputes about monitoring, transparency, and distribution led to the departures of Feindt and Fall, that’s a matter of great public interest to donors and governments everywhere. For the reasons I’ve explained here, Welthungerhilfe should tell us what those reasons were.

UN POE Report: North Korean spies infiltrated UNESCO, World Food Program

I’ll just let you read what the POE’s draft report says for yourself:

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.45.07 AM Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.45.30 AMWell, that might explain a few things. For those who don’t know, the Reconnaissance General Bureau handles most of North Korea’s clandestine foreign intelligence work. It is sanctioned by the Treasury Department. It is suspected of being behind the Rangoon Bombing in 1983, KAL 858 bombing in 1987, a series of attempted and completed assassinations of activists and defectors, and the Sony hack and threats. RGB agents may have also crewed the vessel that sank the Cheonan.

I wonder if this can also be linked to the diversion of U.N. emergency aid to North Korea, or the U.N. Development Programme scandal from a few years ago. Or, this angry email I received from a WFP official in Rome a few months ago:

I’ve been reading you for some months, but am stopping now because this is not aimed at helping the people of North Korea. It’s all sadly about you.

This, children, is what’s known as “projection.” I’m not going to name the official, but by googling his name, I was able to identify his position and location. There’s little doubt that this person and Kim Su Gwang were well acquainted. It’s Oil-For-Food all over again.

Kudos to the POE for having the courage to tell us this. Now, let the Inspectors General get to work.

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Update: Remember, this is a draft. The final still hasn’t been released yet.

More food for hungry North Koreans is not “bad news” for sanctions proponents.

I don’t always agree with Scott Snyder’s views, but I’ve always enjoyed reading his work. In almost every case, I’ve found it to be well-researched and objective. In a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations, Snyder cautiously concludes that North’s cereal production is “stable and improving” — from 5.93 million tons last year to 5.94 million tons this year, a more generous characterization than the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report he cites, which calls North Korea’s food production “stagnant.” My own characterization would be “suspiciously constant.”

The UN FAO estimates that this year’s deficit will be 407,000 tons. That’s still low by historical North Korean standards, but hardly a sign that happy days are here again. The FAO also tells us that the impoverished government of North Korea only intends to import 300,000 tons, leaving an “uncovered deficit” of 107,000 tons. Here is Mercy Corps’s cue to tell us all how desperately North Korea needs food aid.

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[Above: An actual sanctions target, riding aboard another sanctions target.]

At least the World Food Program shouldn’t have to worry about any lack of transport to do monitoring and assessment visits. Maybe His Porcine Majesty can even give Christine Ahn a ride in it, the next time she’s in Pyongyang to complain about how U.S. sanctions are starving North Korean babies.

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Snyder is honest enough to admit some weaknesses in his conclusion. For one, the UN FAO estimate he cites relies on Pyongyang’s own food production statistics, because this year (glasnost alert!), Pyongyang wouldn’t let the FAO do an on-the-ground food security assessment. But that’s no cause for alarm; after all, North Korea wouldn’t try to falsify information about its food supply or manipulate aid agencies, would it?

Snyder also admits that North Korea’s winter crops are falling well short of forecasts, a point that caused aid groups to warn of another food crisis recently:

“We’re concerned about seed scarcity and the low level rain and snowfall,” John Aylieff, deputy Asia director at the U.N.’s World Food Program, said from Pyongyang. “All of these things are raising concerns about the winter harvest this year.”

Winter crops — including wheat and barley — should be growing now, but after an exceptionally dry year in 2014, rainfall around the country has been markedly lower than usual so far this year, particularly in the “cereal bowl” provinces of Pyongan in the west and Hwanghae in the south.

Although the winter harvest makes up only 5 percent of North Korea’s domestic food supply, it is a critical time because the crops see the country through the lean season known locally as the barley hump — the period between May and August before rice and corn crops are harvested.

“If there is a big gap, this could prolong the lean season and it could prove a ‘flash point’ for malnutrition,” Aylieff said.  [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

Take this with a grain of salt, too. I’ve often suspected that some aid groups exaggerate conditions in North Korea, whether to influence policy debates here or to rake in more donations. You can’t even blame them for it. If they don’t know where the trends are heading, they almost have to raise the alarm prematurely to be able to respond to a catastrophe in time.

Snyder also cites Andrei Lankov’s recent writings, which, as I’ve argued here and here, don’t look very well sourced to me, and haven’t held up well against better-sourced evidence. As a friend said about Andrei today, he’s always interesting, and often brilliant, even when he’s wrong. It still looks like wishful thinking to me — evidence that’s mostly apocryphal, ephemeral, or parochial, or a misattribution of market trends unrelated to regime policies.

We’ll know better by November. Meanwhile, obsessing over North Korean agricultural policies is like watching the paint dry on the side of a burning house. Hardly anyone still argues that Pyongyang is interested in broad, serious, structural reforms to its agricultural, economic, or political systems. No one believes they’ll cede their nuclear weapons. I doubt that anyone really knows what the true food situation is, including in Pyongyang. How could it be otherwise in a country where those who do not hoard, starve?

This bring us to another problem. Even if North Korea is growing more food, that doesn’t mean the people are eating more of it. It’s no good to produce more food if regime officials simply seize what they consider to be “surplus” crops for export. And as Snyder concedes, “growing income inequality in North Korea has resulted in continuing malnutrition among some sectors of the population, especially in rural areas.”

Two other interesting points in Snyder’s post reinforce this suspicion: first, North Korea has cut way back on its commercial food imports since the famine years. Second, it raised them again to adjust for a decline in external food aid. In other words, Pyongyang seems to be using commercial imports to calibrate the domestic food supply to a level that, according to the best evidence we have, is a pretty marginal one for 84% of North Koreans. That’s why I call the North’s food supply statistics “suspiciously constant.” We’ll pick that point up again in a moment.

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My main issue with Snyder’s post, however, is his conclusion:

North Korea’s apparent economic progress is bad news for those who expect increased sanctions to be decisive in driving North Korea to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons. So far, the effects of increased sanctions have been far from generating sufficient economic pressure to induce North Korea to make such a choice. Under current circumstances, there is nothing to stop North Korea from having its cake and its yellowcake, too.

Well, where does one begin with that? First, here again is the urban legend that our sanctions against North Korea have been strong, and thus properly tested as a tool of policy. For those who haven’t yet read it, I’ve refuted that argument here. It’s certainly true that sanctions have been enforced poorly by just about everyone — from the Chinese, to the South Koreans, to the Obama Administration, and most recently, the Russians. Private jets don’t import themselves, after all.

My real problem with Snyder’s argument, however, is its implication that sanctions would target North Korea’s food supply. I don’t know a single sanctions proponent who wants to target North Korea’s food supply or starve innocent people. Let’s have a look at the care H.R. 757, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, takes to avoid that, starting with Section 207(a)(2), which provides exemptions for imports of food and medicine:

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There’s also a catch-all waiver provision at Section 207(b)(3) in the event a particular sanction has unintended humanitarian consequences:

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We even wrote a provision at Section 207(d) that would allow the Treasury Department to license a responsible foreign bank to handle transactions to bring food and other humanitarian supplies into North Korea:

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Of course, some banks could adopt excessively cautious interpretations of the law. The answer to that problem is for the Treasury Department to publish guidance and general licenses to give the banks peace of mind that transactions in food and aid don’t violate the law — promptly. As in, Treasury should start drafting that guidance now.

I’ll take this a step further: those of us who advocate for Kim Jong Un’s Götterdämmerung, and for policies that are just as content to catalyze that outcome as to extract change diplomatically, want the North Korean people to have more food, not less. Not only would that be far better for the North Korean people, it might hasten the regime’s overthrow. I’ve long argued that the regime uses hunger as a tool of control: it seeks to keep its people too weak and too exhausted to think of anything but survival. Historically, starving people do not overthrow their oppressors. People who overthrow their oppressors have enough to survive, and to seethe against the ruling class. It is the envy of oligarchs, not famine, that causes revolutions. An ample food supply would not preempt North Korea’s class war, but it would do much to free those on the lower regions of the songbun ladder to contemplate the differences between existence and life.

In short, there would be no “bad news” for any sanctions proponent in a rise in North Korea’s food supply. Pending sanctions legislation takes extreme pain to avoid reducing it. It is wrong to suggest that so many proponents of targeted sanctions legislation — chief among them, longstanding human rights advocates — are so callous about human life and suffering as to intentionally attack the food supply of Kim Jong Un’s victims. It’s an offense that could easily have been avoided by taking the time to read and understand the sanctions before implying as much.

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

* 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***:

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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.

~   ~   ~

* 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:

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 8.21.37 AM

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.