Category Archives: Famine & Food Aid

North Koreans need food & medicine, not Guus Hiddink’s “futsal” stadium

hiddinkSouth Koreans remember Dutch soccer coach Guus Hiddink as the man who led their team to a successful performance in the 2002 World Cup. But when the history of a united Korea is written, North Koreans are likely to remember him less fondly. Hiddink has just returned from Pyongyang, where he signed a deal to help Kim Jong-Un build yet another expensive leisure facility that falls low on the average North Korean’s hierarchy of needs — a new “futsal” stadium:

“It was a short but a good visit,” [Hiddink] told reporters at Gimpo International Airport in western Seoul. “We talked about installing a Dream Field. I was eager to do one or more even in the North. We signed an agreement that as soon as possible — hopefully before the summer — we’ll have the first Dream Field in Pyongyang.”

The Dutchman said he was already looking forward to his next visit to North Korea, possibly next summer.

“I challenged them to start building what we agreed,” he added. “We will supply, as soon as possible, the necessary equipment and then they can start. If you want something, you can do it very fast.” [Yonhap]

In case you were about to ask:

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The U.N. World Food Program’s 2015 needs assessment gives us a better idea of that hierarchy, for those North Koreans who are excluded from its leisure class:

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These figures, which rely on regime-supplied statistics, may overstate or understate the problem to some degree, and the results of various U.N. surveys vary, depending on how one measures North Koreans’ misery. For example, this 2013 U.N. survey found that 84% of North Koreans have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. Earlier this year, the U.N. reminded us that many of North Korea’s children will feel the effects of malnutrition for the rest of their lives.

More than a fourth of all North Korean children are stunted from chronic malnutrition, and two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, the United Nations said Friday.

The report illustrates a major domestic challenge for North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un.

A team from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reporting from North Korea, found that 2.8 million North Koreans “are in need of regular food assistance amidst worrying levels of chronic malnutrition and food insecurity.” It said 4 percent of North Korean children are acutely malnourished. [AP]

While North Korea’s mass casualty famine probably ended around 2000, there were reports of famine on a much smaller scale in 2012, and harvests are believed to have fallen again this year. It’s almost certain that at least some North Koreans who lose their state rations or the support of their families continue to starve to death, out of sight and out of mind, even now.

There is also the complete breakdown of North Korea’s health care system, to the extent that people who can’t afford to bribe doctors into treating them have turned to opium and methamphetamine as alternative medicines.

Guus Hiddink’s futsal stadium would join a long list of new leisure facilities for Pyongyang’s elite, including a dolphin aquarium, a 3-D cinema, a water park, and a floating buffet — amenities that are beyond the imagination of most North Koreans. In 2013, Kim Jong-Un reportedly spent $300 million on a leisure and sports facilities, including a ski resort filled with equipment imported in violation of U.N. sanctions. That same year, His Corpulency spent $644 million on luxury items like flat-screen TVs, sauna equipment from Germany, Swiss watches, and expensive booze. Also that same year, the World Food Program asked foreign donors to contribute $200 million toward a two-year program to feed 2.4 million North Korean women, children, and infants — just a fraction of those in need.

Given that the U.N. Security Council banned the export of luxury goods with after the passage of Resolution 1718 in 2006, can this possibly be legal? Due to the uneven and dilatory implementation of the resolution, it’s almost impossible to be sure. The UN’s tragically incomplete (but non-exclusive) list, still not filled out nine years later, specifically mentions only jewelry, yachts, luxury cars, and racing cars. The EU list prohibits “[a]rticles and equipment for skiing, golf, diving and water sports,” and “[a]rticles and equipment for billiard, automatic bowling, casino games and games operated by coins or banknotes,” but would theoretically allow a European supplier to sell Kim Jong-Un a curling rink, jet skis, or bobsleds. The U.S. Commerce Department’s list of luxury goods is the broadest, and includes any “[r]ecreational sports equipment.” Theoretically, then, Treasury could block any dollar payments to facilitate Hiddink’s project. (The North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act would cut this semantic Gordian Knot by adopting the U.S. Commerce Department list as its definition.)

The obscenity of a nominally socialist state, which monopolizes most of the nation’s resources, squandering the meals of starving kids on luxuries for a tiny elite is the reason why the U.N. adopted the luxury goods ban. I’ll take that argument a step further: it’s a crime against humanity — specifically, what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has described as “the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” By knowingly helping Kim Jong-Un to misallocate resources that belong to the North Korean people, and which should be used to fulfill their rights to food and medical care, Hiddink makes himself an accessory to this crime, and places himself before the judgment of history, and perhaps, one day, of the law itself.

If the UN can’t define “luxury goods,” if the EU can’t interpret the UN resolution’s plain language to address the evil it was meant to remedy, and if the U.S. won’t enforce its own regulations, then the good people of Europe and the Netherlands must condemn and ostracize Hiddink for his appalling ethical misadventure.

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How one wafer-thin mint could reform North Korea

I’ll put it this way: if you were Kim Jong Un’s doctor, would you tell him to cut back on the $300-a-bottle champagne, Kobe beef, and shark’s fin soup? If you were his cook, would you want to tell him he can’t have his midnight snack? Would you want to be the one to notice that he’s gained some weight? I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gained around 30 kg over the last five years and now weighs apparently close to 130 kg. A government official said Friday, “By analyzing Kim Jong-un’s body shape and gait, we estimated he weighed less than 100 kg when he first appeared in public in September of 2010 but then rapidly put on weight.”

He said the clearest signs are his belly and double chin. “When he’s standing while holding his hands behind his back, you can see his abdomen protruding, and his chin folds when he is spotted giving orders.” [Chosun Ilbo]

Some observers express concern — as if this were a bad thing — that if Kim’s health deteriorates noticeably, it could set off a power struggle and destabilize his rule. And by “deteriorate noticeably,” I suppose I have in mind something like this:

[Go on, Your Majesty. It’s only wafer thin.]

The Chosun quotes one source who speculates that His Porcine Majesty has been overeating and drinking heavily due to stress, following his purge of Jang Song-Thaek in December 2013. Another suggests that Kim gained weight deliberately — for image reasons — because nothing projects noblesse oblige to one’s famished subjects like that portrait of your triple chin that hangs in every classroom in your kingdom, so that the stunted, stick-armed little waifs can stare up at it in mute gratitude that they’ve been shielded from their own life-long struggles with obesity.

The North Korean government has made a request to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for food aid, an official with that UN agency stated.

A decrease in early season crops prompted North Korea in July to make the request, the Voice of America quoted Cristina Coslet, FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System officer in charge of Far East Asia as saying in a Sept. 15 report.

“We are currently exploring the possibility to get additional funds to provide agriculture input for the restoration of agriculture production system,” Coslet stated.

Drought has also negatively impacted North Korea’s crop harvests in 2015, reports indicated.

Grains demand in North Korea for the current season (October-November) is likely to be about 5.49 million tonnes, of which 421,000 tonnes is to be an import, Ukrainian consulting agency UkrAgroConsult stated in a Sept. 15 report that cited FAO figures.

The country plans to import only 300,000 tonnes of grain, however, leaving a deficit of 121,000 tonnes, the UkrAgroConsult report warned.

Reports also noted that the current food distribution situation within North Korea has become “dangerous,” having fallen to 250 gramms per day, which less than half the FAO-recommended minimum. [NK News]

I see that Marcus also agrees that Kim has never looked more corpulent.

I am not among the North Korea watchers who is anxious about this, not that it would matter if I was. From a young North Korean’s perspective, the best hope for a life worth living is that His Corpulency is a 285-pound chain smoker whose idea of a snack is a wheel of Emmental cheese. From my perspective, the world might well become a safer place with one less high school dropout with an affinity for bondage porn and torturing small animals, and a small nuclear arsenal.

Forget the Sunshine Policy. Forget six-party talks, engagement strategies, and exchange programs. Forget the overanalyzed New Year speeches, and those agricultural reforms that never quite materialize. The real agents of North Korean reform will be cigarettes, vodka, samgyeopsal, and heavy cream sauces.

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Kim Jong-Un’s party yachts aren’t just a joke. They’re a crime.

Starting at Paragraph 493 of its landmark report, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry extensively documented Pyongyang’s denial of the right of its citizens to food, both during and since the Great Famine killed at least hundreds of thousands of people, and possibly millions, in the 1990s. Although there have been reports of microfamines in North Korea as recently as 2012, for the most part, the story of North Korea’s food crisis for the last decade and a half has been one of gross inequality and widespread hunger, but not mass casualty famine. A small elite lives in luxury in Pyongyang, between 70 and 84 percent of the people barely scrape by, and most people who still starve to death do so out of sight and out of mind.

Surveying the current state of North Korea’s chronic hunger problem, Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland find that although this year’s drought did not plunge North Korea back into famine as some predicted, harvests are sharply down. They conclude that “the food situation may be trending back to the North Korean normal of low-level shortages,” and that “chronic, low-level shortages and unequal distribution generating nutritional deficits among the vulnerable, even as Pyongyang thrives.” Currently, a two-year, $200 million U.N. food aid program targeting 2.4 million vulnerable women and children is nearing its end. Two weeks ago, Pyongyang asked the U.N. for more food aid, but the donors are staying away in droves. The crisis in Syria explains this in part. This may be another partial explanation:

North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un toured a recently completed luxury river cruiser in Pyongyang and named it “Mujigae” (rainbow), state media said on Monday.

The multi-floor vessel, spotted under construction by NK News in September last year, contains restaurants, bars, a coffee shop, roof deck and even sushi-conveyor belt-style dining area, pictures published in Monday’s Rodong Sinmun showed.

Kim Jong Un “appreciated the installation of a peculiar round lift and the construction of round stairs, adding that the revolving restaurant on the third floor looks spectacular and it is fantastic to command a bird’s-eye view of Pyongyang from it,” the KCNA said about his visit.

The vessel, which KCNA said could serve up to 1,230 guests in facilities distributed over four stories, was ordered by Kim Jong Un to start service before October 10.

October 10 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) and is expected to be a major celebration. [NK News]

Pyongyang also posted this video of His Porcine Majesty touring the new floating restaurant.

And of course, this isn’t his only party yacht. Dennis Rodman offered this remembrance a few years ago:

“It’s like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he’s the only one that lives there,” Rodman said. “He likes people to be happy around him.

“He’s got 50 to 60 around him all the time – just normal people, drinking cocktails and laughing the whole time.

“If you drink a bottle of tequila, it’s the best tequila,” he added. “Everything you want, he has the best.”

Kim’s 200-foot yacht is a “cross between a ferry and a Disney boat,” Rodman said. [The Telegraph]

In 2010, the Italian manufacturer Azimut-Benetti reported to the authorities a suspicious attempt to purchase two yachts, which turned out to have been on North Korea’s behalf, and almost certainly for the use of Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un. Undeterred, Kim Jong-Un successfully purchased two yachts from the British manufacturer Princess, at a reported cost of $7 million each. Earlier this year, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with sanctions on North Korea, which prohibit it from importing luxury items, reported on the purchase as a possible violation of the luxury goods ban (pages 42-43). The panel’s report stated that it could not advance its investigation due to a lack of cooperation from Princess Yachts (and presumably, the U.K. government).

It is typical of online accounts to treat Kim Jong-Un’s extravagances like a big joke, occasionally tinged with racism. On a certain level, satire is an effective way to criticize absurd and inhumane policies — if it goes beyond pointing and tittering. Most of those accounts refer, if obliquely, to the stunting and stultifying poverty and hunger of millions beyond the sight of the lens. Almost none of them also call this what it is — a crime.

Human rights law is agnostic about what kind of economic system a state must adopt, but regardless of the kind of system it chooses, every state has an obligation to give its people basic nutritional security. The Commission of Inquiry cited North Korea’s failures of both omission and commission. By the 1990s, it had become clear to North Korea’s leaders that their food production and distribution system couldn’t provide for the people, yet it has failed to reform the system, institute land reform, or broadly open the economy to trade and investment. It has willfully obstructed the delivery of aid and confiscated food supplies and aid from those who needed it most. In other cases, it has tolerated the theft of food supplies by hungry soldiers. It has punished those to tried to flee to neighboring provinces, or across international borders, to find food. It has inhibited the people from adopting effective coping strategies, such as private agriculture and trade in the markets.

Its most obscene offense against the right of food, however, may be what the Commission calls the “non-utilization of maximum available resources” — that is, squandering the nation’s wealth on luxuries and weapons instead of the food necessary to save millions from a prolonged and agonizing death:

637. Article 2 (1) of the ICESCR states that “each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures” (emphasis added).

638. The concept of “progressive realization” describes a central aspect of states’ obligations in connection with economic, social and cultural rights under international human rights treaties. At its core is the obligation to take appropriate measures towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum of a state’s available resources. The reference to “available resources” reflects a recognition that the realization of these rights can be hampered by a lack of resources and can be achieved only over a period of time. Equally, it means that a state’s compliance with its obligation to take appropriate measures is assessed in light of the resources, financial and otherwise, available to it.  However, the concept of progressive realization must not be misinterpreted as discharging the state from any obligations until they have sufficient resources. On the contrary, the treaties impose an immediate obligation to take appropriate steps towards the full realization of economic, social and cultural rights. A lack of resources cannot justify inaction or indefinite postponement of measures to implement these rights. Irrespective of the resources available to it, a state should, as a matter of priority, seek to ensure that everyone has access to, at the very least, a minimum level of rights, and target programmes to protect the poor, the marginalized and the disadvantaged. A state cannot plead resource constraints to justify its failure to ensure minimum essential levels of socio-economic well being, including freedom from hunger, unless it can demonstrate that it has used all the resources at its disposal to give priority to essential economic and social needs.

639. Based on the body of testimony and submissions received, the Commission finds that the allocation of resources by the DPRK has grossly failed to prioritize the objective of freeing people from hunger and chronic malnutrition, in particular in times of mass starvation. The state has neither prioritized the purchase of the food necessary for the survival of many in the DPRK, nor investment in agriculture, infrastructure and other ways of improving the availability and accessibility of food in the country. FAO and WFP note that the continuous inability to achieve the official Government target of 573 grams of cereal equivalent per person per day in any given year points not only to issues of food availability, but also to broader supply chain constraints such as storage, transport and commodity tracking. 

640. Testimony and other information received by the Commission show that the DPRK continues to allocate disproportional amounts of resources on its military, on the personality cult of the Supreme Leader, related glorification events and the purchase of luxury goods for the elites.

Professor Lee and I wrote about Pyongyang’s willful refusal to feed its people and its criminal responsibility for the Great Famine here, in The New York Times. So when Pyongyang’s diplomatsand its apologists here — blame sanctions for hindering North Korea’s development, or claim that they are a cause of hunger in North Korea, understand this for the lie that it is. The U.N.’s sanctions resolutions have broad exclusions for food and humanitarian supplies, and require sanctions to be administered so as to avoid adverse humanitarian impact. As recently as 2015, the U.N. Panel of Experts had “found no incidents where bans imposed by the resolutions directly resulted in shortages of foodstuffs or other humanitarian aid.” Current U.S. sanctions are narrowly targeted at approximately 80 North Korean entities involved in arms trafficking and weapons of mass destruction development. To the extent that they’ve had any ancillary effect on humanitarian operations, that’s only because Pyongyang requires aid agencies to use the same banks it uses for its prohibited arms trade. The apparent intent is to use its hungry as human shields for its weapons programs.

Even so, Pyongyang is free to import all the food — and for that matter, flat-screen TVs and jewelry, and missile carriers — it wishes to, from China. It simply chooses not to:

North Korean food imports from China continued to decrease in July, with figures remaining below their 2014 equivalents, according to the most recent trade figures from Chinese customs.

Imports of nearly all foods, as classified by trade groupings, appeared lower in July 2015 than in the same period last year.


The news comes despite a long period of drought in North Korea that likely damaged harvest yields. The long running water shortage caused concern among the DPRK’s neighbors and numerous international aid agencies.

Russia, Iran and the World Food Program all upped their donations to North Korea to help mitigate the drought’s effects. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

I’ve argued that North Korea should not need food aid at all, and that it has more than enough resources to feed its people, but simply hasn’t chosen to do so. In 2013, for example, Chinese customs data showed that North Korea spent $644 million on luxury imports, including “high-end cars, TVs, computers, liquor and watches,” enough money to fund the World Food Program’s operations in North Korea for six years. This probably does not include the $300 million His Porcine Majesty spent on “leisure and sports facilities, including [a] ski resort.” In 2012 alone, it spent $1.3 billion on its ballistic missile program. As the Commission of Inquiry noted, it would cost Pyongyang next to nothing, in relative terms, to close that food gap.

644. Expert analysis presented to the Commission shows that a marginal redistribution of state military expenditure towards the purchase of food could have saved the population from starvation and malnutrition. According to economist Marcus Noland, based on the last FAO/WFP Crop assessment, the DPRK has an uncovered grain deficit of 40,000 metric tons. According to the International Monetary Fund, in September 2013, the price of rice was approximately USD 470 per metric ton and the price of corn was around USD 207 per ton.  Basing his analysis on United Nations data, Mr Noland estimates that the size of the DPRK economy was $12.4 billion in 2011.  He states that the reallocation of resources required to close the grain gap is therefore less than 0.02 per cent of national income. If the estimation that 25 per cent of national income is being used for the military is correct, then the grain shortfall could be addressed by cutting the military budget by less than 1 per cent. 

645. Marcus Noland further estimates that even at the height of mass starvation, the amount of resources needed to close the food gap was only in the order of USD 100 million to USD 200 million. This represented the value of about 5 to 20 per cent of revenue from exported goods and services or 1 to 2 per cent of contemporaneous national income. At the Washington Public Hearing, he stated,

“[W]hile the amount of grain needed to close the gap [during the 1990s famine] was much larger, the price of grain in the 1990s was much lower than it is now. So at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close that gap were only on the order of a hundred to two hundred million dollars depending on how you analysed data. Even during the famine period, the North Korean government had resources at its disposal if it had chosen to use them, to maintain imports and avoid that calamity.”

This is just one of a whole range of deliberate policy choices that have — for decades — diverted resources away from importing food, inhibited the private growing of and trading in food, and hobbled foreign aid workers, most recently by expelling two of them. The grim conclusion seems inescapable that Pyongyang is willfully enforcing hunger. Kim Jong-Un’s yachts may be the most garish example of this, but they’re an indication of a much broader and more ruthless policy that won’t change until either the world or the North Korean people focus intense political pressure on the regime’s starvation of its people.

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Famine, food policy, and the lost lessons of history

A drought, exacerbated by disastrous agricultural policies, causes widespread famine. A divided Congress, unsure about feeding an enemy, reluctantly agrees to send aid. A paranoid, totalitarian government obstructs the delivery of the aid, infiltrates and spies on aid organizations, and diverts food from starving children to a loyal elite. Desperate victims resort to cannibalism.

Back in America, politics continues to intrude — the hard right wants to starve a Marxist-Leninist government into submission, while the hard left sympathizes with the regime and accuses aid workers of blaming it unfairly to undermine it. It’s not North Korea in the 1990s, or today. It’s Russia in 1921, and the hero of this tragedy is Herbert Hoover, who headed a humanitarian relief agency before his presidency.

The analogy holds up brilliantly until, at the 30 minute mark, Hoover’s deputy confronted undeniable evidence of diversion and obstructionism. He sent Hoover a cable, knowing that the Cheka would intercept and read it, recommending that no more aid be delivered unless the obstructionism ended immediately. The Soviets, knowing what Hoover was made of, backed down. The aid flowed again, and Russia’s famine ended — for a while, at least — when the next harvest came in.

There is no guarantee that Kim Jong-Il would have responded to a similar challenge the way Lenin did, although we’ve seen recently that North Korea is sensitive to public criticism of its treatment of its people. But the question is a counterfactual; no one of Herbert Hoover’s stature and character came to help the people of North Korea, although Andrew Natsios might have been that man had the U.N. not been in overall control. The fact that the U.N. does not produce men like Herbert Hoover and Andrew Natsios, and that the U.S. government only seldom does, goes far to explain why North Korea is still in a food crisis today.

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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. In April, the regime deployed even more inspection teams to the border, to catch both border-crossers and users of illegal cell phones.

This crackdown is stifling consumer trade. It is making it difficult for traders to cross the border with China, and to obtain merchandise from China. These restrictions have significantly reduced the volume of consumer imports. Traders are also worried about politicized prosecutions of cross-border traders as spies, and inspections designed to root out ”impure members hidden in society;” “narcotics, human trafficking, illegal phone calls, and defections;” and “vibes from capitalist delinquents and punks” entering from China. Throughout much of 2014, Rimjingang received reports of “a series of purges and firing squad executions of Party cadres” in Pyongyang. One official was executed for leaking word of the arrival of a South Korean aid shipment in Nampo. Another, a Chinese resident, was said to be executed for “spying, narcotic trafficking, selling of impure recordings.” According to one Rimjingang source in Pyongyang, the authorities announced the sentence by posting a notice at the Chinese resident association office, possibly “to set an example and to intimidate and warn Chinese residents who often travel to China.” Chinese traders report that they are only allowed to use their mobiles in designated areas — probably so that the state can monitor their conversations — and levies heavy fines on those caught using their phones anywhere else. It’s clear, then, that whatever the economic trends, the political trends are regressive and reactionary.

Can we make any sense at all of this contradictory information? It’s possible that there’s no real pattern here at all, just scattered pixels of uncoordinated and arbitrary decisions and indecisions by officials at every level and in every province. Indeed, some of the information is simply contradictory; some reports say fuel prices have eased, while other say they’re skyrocketed. Most of the positive developments in the preceding paragraphs may well have resulted from local or low-level official abstaining from enforcing the rules, possibly due to corruption or a profit motive. To some extent, a rebound in markets probably represents their recovery from The Great Confiscation five years ago. One must also wonder how long a revival the markets can last when the regime is making it harder to import food and consumer goods from China, and when it’s making it harder for people to grow much of the food that’s sold there. What use is an empty market? One of the best times for North Korea’s jangmadang was 2009, right before The Great Confiscation wiped out the savings of a nascent middle class who had gained a degree of wealth — and critically, financial independence — from the markets. If the state sees that the people are gaining financial independence, it may feel threatened.

I do see two constants in all of this. First, there is the desperation and inexhaustible resourcefulness of the North Korean people. Second, there is the Inner Party’s determination to contain them. There is also a third, dynamic trend — the Outer Party’s growing corruption, which allows the people’s economy to survive, and to fill new voids left behind by the state’s failure.

Every commentary about the economic transition of North Korea can only be a snapshot, or a most a few frames, of a moving picture. Whether you perceive that the small steps forward are outpacing the great leaps backward, or how, depends on when you take the snapshot, and which part of the frame you focus on. It also depends on whether you’re willing to accept reform rumors as true, and to assume they’ll ever come to anything. More often than not, however, behind each of the regime’s reform measures is a much more consequential, latent, market-driven trend that the regime is simply trying to catch up to.

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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. Ms. Kim Su Gyong works at the Korean United Development Bank in Pyongyang and was engaged in financial activities under false pretences in order to conceal the involvement of her country. The three are related and have all provided support to Reconnaissance General Bureau officers abroad. Additional information obtained by the Panel regarding these individuals is summarized in annex 49.

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

Updates, 15 April 2015:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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