Category Archives: Famine & Food Aid

U.N. must confront the political causes of North Korea’s food crisis

In North Korea, the land of suspended disbelief, an almost unbroken twenty-year series of meteorological miracles has bounded droughts and floods within the blighted land between the DMZ and the Yalu River each year, without having once caused a famine or food crisis in South Korea. For a few months this year, a serious drought threatened to be the worst-ever again, until rains came and eased conditions in most parts of the country.

North Koreans can still look forward to a hard year (see here and here), but not a disastrous one. For this, many North Koreans may owe their lives to the sotoji farmers, who spent the drought tending their crops and covering them with plastic sheeting to hold the soil’s moisture. Although sotoji farmers grow their crops in backyards, cleared plots in the hills, and marginal land the state did not bother to collectivize, they provide “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. The state has fought them every step of the way, by confiscating plots, limiting their size, hiking land use fees, or planting trees on them.

Clearly, then, the causes of North Korea’s food crisis are not primarily meteorological. The same must be said of the solutions.

If anything good came of the drought, it is that it briefly revived the debate about aid policy, to which Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein makes an important contribution at The Diplomat. Silberstein takes aid agencies to task for enabling the regime’s avoidance of fundamental reforms that are essential to address the root causes of North Korea’s long-term nutritional crisis.

Sadly, in trying to counter North Korea’s suffering, the international community may ironically be contributing to its prolonging. The United Nations and other donors are enabling the North Korean regime to continue its disastrous policies when they act as cushions whenever the country runs out of food.

Foreign aid has been an integral part of North Korea’s food supply planning since the mid-1990s. This year is no exception, and the international community may have to allocate additional funds to North Korean food aid in order to prevent widespread malnutrition. But aid won’t change anything in the long run. North Korea will continue to be highly vulnerable to simple weather changes, unless its most basic economic policies are completely overhauled. [Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, The Diplomat]

He also raises an obvious question that aid agencies consistently avoid — that North Korea could import enough food to close its food gap, yet chooses not to.

The North Korean regime often emphasizes that the country consists mostly of mountainous regions not suitable for farming. That is clearly true, but the logical response to such a challenge would be to seek to import agricultural goods and export those that the country can produce in greater abundance to a cheaper price than others. Instead, the regime continues to uphold economic and political self-reliance as its overarching goal.

The first duty of a government is to either provide for its people or let them provide for themselves. States that fail this most basic obligation forfeit their sovereign right to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on flat screen TVs, jewelry, and expensive liquor; to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building ski resorts and water parks; and to spend a billion-and-change on missiles each year. All of these expenditures ($644M, $300M, $1.3B, respectively) dwarf what aid agencies are asking foreign donors to give to food aid programs ($111M). Even without subtracting out the aid agencies’ substantial overhead costs, this means that North Korea has more than enough cash on hand to feed its own people.

Silberstein concludes:

Like most disasters often termed as “natural,” the consequences of North Korea’s drought are first and foremost failures of policy, not of nature. By agreeing to supply North Korea’s shortfall in food production, year after year, even as the regime refuses to make any fundamental changes to the system that keeps on failing, the international community acts as an enabler for the regime’s continuing mismanagement. Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.

When two decades* of international aid fail to pull an industrialized society in a temperate zone out of a state of widespread, multi-generational, chronic malnutrition, aid agencies incur an obligation to identify and confront the real causes of hunger in North Korea. In North Korea, that begins with talking about an undeniable and criminally culpable misallocation of resources, but does not end there. The fact that North Korean spies have infiltrated the World Food Program (and UNESCO, for good measure) may not be the only reason why aid agencies haven’t met this duty, but until they do, donors will continue to stay away in droves.

Silberstein devotes much of his article to the state of agricultural reform in North Korea, which he views as “nothing more than tweaking the edges of a failed system.” Even this may give Pyongyang too much credit, as the regime’s unsteady policies make every gain uncertain. Last month, for example, I wrote that the regime’s tolerance of markets was one clear bright spot in the economic picture. Since then, it has banned men under 60 from trading. To angry North Korean traders who are protesting to security forces, brawling with them, or jumping off buildings in angry desperation, the state’s liberalization hasn’t gone far enough. To them, when the state fails to provide, it is their right to provide for themselves:

Not only that, on the same day, an additional source in the same province reported a recent riot targeting MPS agents at Chongjin’s Sunam Market. The skirmish ignited when an agent arbitrarily targeted a male merchant in his 60s for the old middle-school textbooks mixed in with the secondhand books he was hawking at his stall.

When the books were confiscated he shouted, “What does the state give us? We don’t get rations or wages. If I got even one of those two things I wouldn’t be here doing this!” according to the source.

Moreover, “Passersby and merchants alike near the scene quickly stepped up to take the old man’s side, wasting no time in berating the MPS officials by shouting, ‘What’s wrong with what he said? Of course we’ve taken to market life–we’re hungry! We have to make ends meet! Why would be put ourselves through arduous work like this if we could be full and rich like you. Those who are full can’t grasp the hunger of others,” he explained.

Others at the scene chimed in, shouting, “Not even being able sell things without worrying–that’s too suffocating a reality,” according to the source, who added that this micro incident is directly reflective of a macro issue of citizens’ frustration regarding the authorities.

The agent, visibly overwhelmed by the outcries, tried to defend himself, shouting, “It’s not my fault that the state is not giving you rations. Go take your complaints to the district office,” according to the source, who said that he fled directly thereafter, during which citizens yelled after him, “ You’re all the same–living off the money of those struggling to get by!”

He added, “The MPS agent took off in a flash before the altercation could escalate further. Still, the tension hung heavy in the air long after his departure and a lot of the residents on the scene said that it helped them get [suppressed feelings] off their chests.” [Daily NK]

Today, street stalls are springing up everywhere, but what about tomorrow? Further complicating this picture is the fact that it can be difficult to determine, based on unconfirmed and isolated reports, whether reported incidents suggest a top-down policy change or bottom-up corruption. What matters in the end is what’s inflicted on the traders in the markets, and on the consumers who rely on them.

On the contrary, North Korea is not only refusing to change its economic structures to make them more resilient to events like the current drought. The state also continues to suppress those economic mechanisms that could help counter the effects of natural disasters. Even though private legal markets are now part of the formal economy to a large extent, imports and exports are still heavily restricted and largely rely on the willingness of border guards to accept bribes.

While Kim Jong-un has implemented measures that carry the shape of economic liberalization with one hand, his other hand has been used to tighten controls on border trade and smuggling. The government would only need to cease some of its control of the markets to alleviate the food shortages that will likely follow the current drought, a virtually costless measure. So far, it has done nothing of this sort. [Silberstein]

The regime now confronts a political paradox — small relaxations of control only beget demands for greater relaxations of control. As more people enter the market system and deepen their investments in it, their demands also become more aggressive. For North Korea’s poor, the market system is the new normal, even a new right. Year by year, that right becomes more unalienable. Unlike the generation that preceded them, most of North Korea’s untermenschen do not sit listlessly at the verge of starvation; they are merely poor, on the wrong side of a widening gap between rich and poor, and increasingly angry about it. Far better for the regime, then, to simply accept the inevitable change that it seems less able to resist each year.

North Korea needs fundamental, structural policy reforms at every stage of its nutritional cycle. First, it must prioritize providing food and medical care for its people, instead of luxury items and weapons. Second, it must fundamentally liberalize its markets and let its people provide for themselves. Third, North Korea needs real land reform — not sharecropping, or any other marginal reforms that people in Washington love to predict, and people in Chongjin never see and no longer believe in. To end North Korea’s food crisis, Pyongyang must give the land back to the tillers, let the market provide food to those who can provide for themselves, and build a functioning social welfare system for those who cannot.

Donor nations must recognize that the change North Korea needs is a fundamental transition to a market-based system, including land redistribution, and make clear that the world is ready to help the North Korean government implement that change by providing seed, fertilizer, environmentally safe pesticides, and training to farmers. Until then, they should unite to block the offshore funds that Pyongyang is wasting, and make those funds available for humanitarian purposes only.

~   ~   ~

* Originally said “a decade.”

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“The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 8.02.27 AMNational Geographic recounts the story of Eunsun Kim, who survived the Great Famine and a dangerous journey from North Korea to the South:

Many people died because of malnutrition, including my grandparents. In 1997, my father passed away too. My mom sold or bartered everything from our apartment until we had nothing left. So she decided to go to the city to search for food. She left me at home, but took my older sister who’s two-years-older than me. She said she would be back in three days, but if she got food earlier she would be back sooner. She gave me 15 North Korean chon—enough to buy just one piece of tofu—and left.

Three days passed, then four, then five. I was waiting for her to come home but on the sixth day I had no energy left and thought maybe today is my last day. I wasn’t afraid of death. I had seen so many people dying during that time. What made me sad was that I felt my mom didn’t want me. She took my other sister but didn’t come back for me. So I decided to write a will, at 11 years old.

I wanted to say I would miss my mom, that even if she came home after I died, I wanted her to know what I had felt while waiting for her. But on the sixth day she came back. I was happy even though she arrived empty-handed. But she didn’t give up. She didn’t leave me alone. The first words she said were, ‘let’s die together.’ But I was still happy.

As I’ve argued before, every one of those deaths was needless — the result of deliberate decisions by the regime, and disproportionately inflicted on those at the bottom of North Korea’s political caste system.

Kim’s book is “A Thousand Miles to Freedom.”

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Markets, food, and trade: steps forward, leaps backward (Pts. 1, 2 & 3)

~   Part 1   ~

Do you still remember March, when the “May 30 measures” were the next wave of “drastic” perestroika that would change North Korea? Those measures were supposed to “give[] autonomy management of all institutions, companies, and stores,” including “control over production distribution and trade from the state to factories and businesses,” and thus awaken “the inner potential of the country.” But today, Andrei Lankov, who has been one of the most forward-leaning predictors of economic reform in recent years, tells us that the regime is backing away from the reform proposal:

The ‘May 30th Measures’ envisioned that the new system would be expanded to include all North Korean enterprises, but this is not what has happened. Reports emanating from North Korea in the last two months leave little doubt that the expected transformation has at best been postponed, at worst, cancelled entirely. Right now, only a minority of North Korean industrial enterprises have been allowed to implement the new model.

What happened? Frankly, it is unlikely we will receive a definite answer to this question any time soon. Of course, it is quite possible that Kim Jong Un suddenly changed his mind and decided to stop reformist activities that he found to be politically dangerous and ideologically suspicious. It is also possible that the reforms faced determined opposition from conservative members of the bureaucracy and military. Last, but not least, it is also possible that North Korean leaders have come to understand the problems that such reforms would face without prior and proper changes to the financial system.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the North Korean government has decided to slow down the reform process. At the same time, there has as yet been no reversal. [Andrei Lankov]

I’m still not convinced that either the reforms or the retreat are real, but I won’t let that stop me from suggesting two more alternative theories. For example, Lankov cites the example of the Musan Iron Mine, which was paying its workers 300,000 to 400,000 won per month, “exorbitant wages by North Korean standards.” But in the case of Musan, power shortages and the squeeze on exports to China have led to reports of mass layoffs. The regime may have decided that it couldn’t afford either the higher wages or the risk of creating a pool of angry, unemployed workers. Or, the entire program may have been disinformation all along, meant to mollify workers at a time when state-run industry is demoralized, and when workers seeking steady pay vastly prefer scarce jobs at foreign currency-earning enterprises.

Either way, reform rumors often seem to cause more excitement on Massachusetts Avenue and the Yonsei campus than in Chongjin or Hamheung:

“A lot of top officials in North Korea are not sure which direction Kim Jong Un is taking them in,” says Park. “He doesn’t know how to be a leader. He doesn’t know politics, economy, culture or diplomacy.”

Initial plans for a more open market economy modeled on China was soon dumped, says Park, once it became clear opening up could jeopardize Kim’s iron grip on power.

“People are struggling to survive and are trading on the black market so the official economy is barely functioning.” Park adds “a lot of people are trading foreign currency and running small businesses but the power of the state to control that money is weakening.” [CNN]

One can observe this same gap in expectations with the so-called “6.28 measures,” which would let farmers keep a greater share of what they grow. The 6.28 measures also generated much optimism here, in Lankov especially, but failed to materialize in 2012, 2013, and 2014. North Koreans have heard these promises enough to stop believing them. From their perspective, “nothing has changed.” In Ryanggang Province last year, their shares of the harvest were actually about half of what the state promised. They’ve lost faith in the state, its collectives, and its excuses:

“As the state fails year after year to distribute a fare share to the workers, motivation among collective farmers continues to decline,” he explained, adding that the high hopes the bunjo system once instilled in people have largely fizzled out, only to be replaced with more misgivings.

He went on to say that the state’s failures have given way to a population that “no longer believes in state policies,” and is fully aware that the state “simply hides behind excuses of ‘aid to the military, shortfalls of production targets, and purchasing seeds for the next harvest'” to explain away its broken promises. “We’re not going to be fooled again this year,” the source noted. [Daily NK]

As Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard have argued, what foreigners are tempted to describe as “reform” in North Korea often amounts to state policies catching up to what citizens have already established as a fact of life, legally or otherwise. Even if the 6.28 measures are real, unanswered questions about how they will be implemented will determine how much of a difference they will really make in the availability and production of food. Perhaps 2015 will be the year when the regime finally implements the 6.28 measures, but the reform North Korean farmers really want — and the change they’re making a fact of life now — is private, individual, for-profit agriculture, sometimes called sotoji farming.

~   Part 2   ~

For obvious reasons, no one knows for certain how much of North Korea’s food is grown on sotoji plots, but Lankov has estimated “as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market” in some areas. U.N. food and crop estimates say little about private agriculture, but it’s probably one important part of the reason why the state’s border crackdowns haven’t caused a return of famine. The practice is common enough that “[p]eople in farming areas are busy cultivating small individual plots during this season, constantly moving around hilly areas and the banks of the river from dawn to dusk,” and complicating efforts to catch border-crossers. Because the state has monopolized the best land for the collectives, sotoji farmers have cleared plots in the mountains. This, along with the clearing of trees for firewood, has contributed to the North’s deforestation problem.

The regime’s response to sotoji farming has been similar to its treatment of the markets a decade ago — tolerate but squeeze. In previous years, it has confiscated plots, or limited their size to 30, and later, 100 square meters in the immediate vicinity of the grower’s home. This year, the regime is trying to tax the plots to death, raising land use fees by 50% and requiring farmers to pay in produce. Many farmers can’t afford this higher rate and call the decision “absurd” when the regime still can’t provide survival rations. The regime has responded with threats of outright confiscation. In some areas, officials have prohibited the clearing of trees, or ordered residents to plant trees on existing farm plots:

Another source reported that people have expressed frustration about the fact that food security is seen as less of a priority than reforestation. “If trees are planted on hillside plots or strips of land near the roads, there will be less for people to eat. If the state doesn’t guarantee food, people will just move elsewhere and keep cultivating whatever land they can, decimating other forest areas,” he concluded. [Daily NK]

So far, squeezing the sotoji has not caused hardship for most of the people. Food prices were largely stable and well below their usual seasonal levels during the lean season in March and April. The reports credited various reasons for the improved food supply, including aid from Russia, trade with China, and paradoxically, “a program of encouraging people to cultivate smaller plots of land” within the collectives. (Note well: when I argue that the regime itself could and should ease the food crisis through land reform and imports rather than asking foreign donors to fill the void, this is what I mean.)

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most North Korean still suffer from food shortages, and one in six North Korean kids still suffers from chronic malnutrition. Worse, North Korea is facing a serious drought that could worsen the food crisis next year. Pyongyang could close its food gap easily with a small reallocation and redistribution of the resources it squanders on its military and its oligarchy.

But not all of the news is bad. One area where there is clear evidence of improvement is the jangmadang, or markets. The Daily NK reports that the regime has eased up on market trading, including by dispensing with a widely disobeyed prohibition on women under 50 selling in the markets. This has created significant opportunities for those who make their living by selling on the people’s economy. As a result, the number of market stalls in North Korean cities has increased rapidly in the last three years. One incentive for this is that the “stall fees” officials collect from merchants are increasingly lucrative, which enlists local officials in the growth of the market system. For now, business is good, and vendors pay high prices (RMB 4,500) to officials for market stalls. In addition to this, there has been a proliferation of small fast-food restaurants and coffee shops in the provincial towns.

There are still limits, of course: vendors caught selling South Korean goods risk losing their stalls. But there is evidence that this is a nationwide trend, suggesting a top-down decision to relax the rules. Can it last? A review of the history tells us that markets have waxed and waned as the regime vacillated between cracking down and easing up. North Korean women share this concern:

[M]ost women are perplexed, if cautiously elated, by the leniency shown by a system that has wielded such stringent power and regulation over them for so long. “The shift in sanctions feels like hell has frozen over,” many have remarked, adding that they “finally have the opportunity to make ends meet.” Still, many are wary, noting that “you never know when the authorities will abruptly declare a new policy or revert to stringent clampdowns.” [Daily NK]

~   Part 3   ~

There is also good news on the transportation front. Well-connected merchants called donju have gone into the business of moving goods and people, pressing government-owned trains, trams, and boats into commercial service by renting them from the Ministry of Railways and Fisheries, or by importing old trucks and buses from China and kicking up a cut to officials in exchange for permission to operate. (The donju were also buying electricity from corrupt state officials, paying illegal “electricity taxes” in exchange for a more reliable power supply — up to 10 hours a day for 20 days.) Donju are also starting taxi services in the cities.

The establishment of an alternative transport system would be good news. It would help break down the regime’s internal controls on the movements of people and information. More efficient transportation of goods would also erode the inequalities between regions (particularly between Pyongyang and other places).

But as North Korea watchers have learned, for every few small steps forward, there is eventually a Great Leap Backward. So can it last? To answer that question, we have to know whether the positive changes are happening because of Pyongyang, or in spite of it. If the latter is more true than the former, it may be that the regime is concentrating on enforcing border and information control at the expense of other internal controls. It certainly isn’t talking about reform and opening, and if there’s general agreement among Korea watchers about anything, it’s that the regime regime remains firmly opposed political reform or change. Pyongyang is clearly determined to seal up the cracks in the information blockade by restricting cross-border travel and snuffing out cross-border communications. That crackdown is backed by the full power and resources of the state, and almost certainly comes from the very top.

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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.

~   ~   ~

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.

~   ~   ~

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.55.49 AM

[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:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.32.09 AM

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

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.31.43 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.31.30 AM

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 6.15.36 PM

[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).

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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.

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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.

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