If North Korea can make fake Viagra for export, why can’t it make TB drugs for sick North Koreans?

Since the collapse of North Korea’s nominally free public health system, contagious diseases have spread widely, but only a lucky few North Koreans have been able to find medicine and medical care. Most of its people get by on whatever health care they can afford and whatever drugs they can find. A lucky few use retired doctors or doctors who moonlight after regular working hours. Some pay steep bribes to get access to care and medicine in state hospitals and clinics. Some buy medicine from market vendors, which may or may not be fake. The least fortunate rely on unlicensed healers, soothe their pain with methamphetamine or opium, or simply go without.

As the Washington Post recently discovered, however, if you’re a foreigner with hard currency, it’s not at all hard to buy medicine in Pyongyang. In May, a Post reporter visited the North Korean capital, possibly for the recent Workers’ Party congress, and “bought a box of the North ­Korean-produced medicine to treat erectile dysfunction.” He then “sent it to a Pfizer lab in Massachusetts to be tested.”

Surprisingly, each dose of Neo-Viagra — brown granules in a vial that looks like traditional Korean medicine — turned out to contain 50 milligrams of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. The little blue genuine Viagra pills come in 50- and 100-milligram doses.

“Lab analysis of the product known as ‘Neo-Viagra’ . . . did detect the presence of sildenafil,” said Yasar Yaman, Asia-Pacific director for Pfizer’s global security team. “Sildenafil is the active ingredient in Viagra, however this is a different formulation to the sildenafil found in authentic Pfizer tablets.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

This finding should not have been too “surprising,” given longstanding rumors that North Korea sells many counterfeit products, including Viagra, as Fifield notes later. This was my favorite line in the story, by the way:

Pfizer couldn’t say whether the medicine would actually work or was safe because it had not conducted any clinical trials, and the reporter was not successful in convincing any male acquaintances to try it.

Pfizer told the Post that it was “‘currently reviewing’ whether to take any action against the North Korean manufacturers for patent or copyright infringement.” Pfizer’s lawyers will find that it is possible to sue a foreign government that engages in “commercial activity;” but historically, the plaintiffs who’ve obtained large civil judgments against the North Korean government for its terrorist acts have found it difficult to find North Korean assets to attach. A more promising strategy may be to identify and sue the Chinese and Russian companies that are selling the North Korean viagra and try to attach their assets.

Websites based in China and Russia have been selling Kumdang; Neo-Viagra; Tetrodocain, which purports to treat an array of diseases including tuberculosis and HIV; and Chonghwal, which is said to do the same job as Viagra. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

There is, needless to say, no independent scientific evidence for the effectiveness of North Korea’s cure for HIV. There is evidence that other North Korean “medicine” is toxic or harmful. An investigation by Radio Free Asia found that North Korean doctors in Tanzania have prescribed “medications containing high percentages of lethal heavy metals to patients.” According to an anonymously sourced story published by Radio Free Asia, North Korea has at least two factories that make supplements to enhance the performance of athletes, and it reports that those drugs are in high demand among the elites in Pyongyang for “recreational” use. RFA did not test a sample, but South Korea’s Ministry for Food and Drug Safety did analyze samples of North Korean-made supplements for sale in Asian countries and found that some “exceeded the permitted levels of hazardous heavy metal substances,” including mercury, arsenic, and lead. Another, called Keum Dang No. 2, contained “[n]arcotic components.” Vietnamese authorities suspended sale of the supplements following the reports.

Much later in her story, Fifield alludes in passing to the greater harm done to the North Korean people.

Indeed, North Korea’s pharmaceutical factories have largely ground to a halt along with the rest of the industrial sector, and many pharmaceutical products are imported from China to be sold in the markets. Medicines for chronic outbreaks are donated by humanitarian organizations, such as the drugs to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis that are imported from South Korea.

I don’t want to move off this point just yet. Instead, I want to turn to another story by the same reporter from last March. Its tone is much darker than the quirky tale of the fake-but-effective Viagra and the plucky little regime that defies the world to sell boner pills to middle-aged guys with more money and libido than sense.

The lives of more than 1,500 North Korean tuberculosis patients are at risk, an American-run humanitarian foundation said Wednesday, because tough new sanctions are stopping medicine from getting to sick people.

After the United Nations imposed multilateral sanctions this month as punishment for North Korea’s recent nuclear test and missile launch, South Korea this week imposed direct sanctions of its own. But unlike the unilateral U.S. sanctions recently passed by Congress, the South Korean measures do not make a general exception for humanitarian aid.

That has hamstrung the ­Eugene Bell Foundation, which treats people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis inside North Korea but cannot get the export licenses it needs to ship medicine from the South to its treatment facilities in the North.

“Unless something is done quickly, our patients will fail treatment and die,” said Stephen W. Linton, chairman of the foundation. “Short of all-out war, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for the Korean people.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield, March 9, 2016]

Let’s stipulate that when South Korea temporarily blocked that shipment of tuberculosis drugs, it made a misstep. U.N. sanctions emphasize that sanctions should be administered to avoid adverse impact on humanitarian aid programs. Blocking humanitarian aid shipments does nothing to help enforce sanctions, and only plays into the hands of dishonest or ill-informed criticisms that sanctions only hurt the North Korean people. The Post’s headline for that story played into that narrative perfectly. It read, “North Korean tuberculosis patients at risk as sanctions hamper medicine shipments.” (Emphasis mine.)

The best I can say for this headline — reporters don’t necessarily write their own headlines — is that it isn’t entirely false. As narrowly applied to South Korea’s unilateral sanctions, it was true at that time. It’s also true that U.N. and U.S. sanctions have had indirect effects on humanitarian aid, but only for reasons that the North Korean government itself could easily avoid. Because North Korea co-mingles its proliferation-related transactions with the transactions it uses for other, non-sanctioned purposes, aid groups report that banks have also hesitated to process transactions related to aid shipments, too. That’s unfortunate.

It’s also unfortunate that the aid groups that operate in North Korea under the watchful eyes of state minders — and who must keep the recent examples of Regina Feindt and Sandra Suh in mind — use those delays as excuses to blame sanctions for the hardships of the North Korean people. What makes that criticism dishonest — even unethical — is those same groups’ consistent refusal to hold the North Korean government responsible for the deliberate policies and priorities that impoverish the North Korean people to begin with. You will often hear NGOs criticize U.S. or U.N. sanctions for hampering shipments of TB drugs, but you will never hear these same NGOs call on Kim Jong-un to produce TB drugs instead of Viagra, supplements, methamphetamine (see also), or narcotics to sell for a profit.

The press also bears its share of blame for failing to raise legitimate questions about that narrative. One of those questions is why a regime that can afford yachts, jewelry, and luxury sedans can’t afford to import medicine. Another is why a regime that can make Viagra to raise cash can’t make TB drugs for its sick citizens. In that light, headlines that blame sanctions for denying the North Korean people medicine — medicine their own government has the means to make and provide, but has chosen not to — are misleading at best. 

I’m not a pharmaceutical expert, so the assumption I’m making is that it’s no more difficult to make anti-TB drugs than it is to make Viagra. I invite readers to question that assumption. What’s clear is that Pyongyang has the means to produce advanced pharmaceuticals when it smells a cash profit. Unfortunately, the welfare of the North Korean people is a lower priority than whatever priorities Kim Jong-un has in mind for the revenue he earns by exporting his country’s health care workers and drugs for sale to foreign buyers. 

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Are Kim Jong-un’s apologists in U.N. aid agencies doing North Koreans more harm than good?

With a government in control, it is impossible to reach those who are powerless without paying the powerful, and paying the President and the government will make them less interested in listening to their people. Instead of having to raise money through taxation and deliver services in return, they can instead use their people to extract money from donors. They can enrich themselves by keeping their population poor; such aid is an instrument of inequality. – Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton

In February 2015, the United Nations Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with the U.N.’s sanctions against North Korea released a report that should have made headlines around the world. Buried near the end of that lengthy report was a finding that North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, had placed two agents inside U.N. agencies — one in UNESCO, and one within the World Food Program’s Rome office. The RGB is the agency responsible for North Korea’s foreign intelligence and terrorism, and it has since been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council (Annex II, Item 11). But instead of attracting global outrage and audits, the report passed almost completely unmentioned by the international media. I’ve yet to see a single media report suggesting that the WFP or the U.N. conducted an audit to identify any other spies in its organizations, or that they took any remedial action to expel those who were identified.

If journalists overlooked this story out of sympathy for the WFP’s good intentions, that is understandable. But if they’d instead tried to serve the greater humanitarian good of the people of North Korea, they’d have given that story a thorough enough airing to stimulate a review of the U.N.’s humanitarian policies toward North Korea. Those policies have failed, are adrift, and increasingly work at cross purposed with the Security Council’s goal of addressing Pyongyang’s proliferation threat. After 20 years of humanitarian aid, North Korea is still in a chronic food crisis. That is unprecedented for an industrialized, literate society in a temperate zone — especially one that has more than enough cash to feed every last hungry North Korean. The time has come to question the reasons for this.

Why would North Korean spies make the WFP a priority target for foreign intelligence operations? Sadly, because aid agencies and NGOs have become effective shields for the North Korean regime against criticism, sanctions, and pressure to reform. Specifically, because stories like this one are inestimable propaganda gifts to Pyongyang in its race to reach nuclear breakout before sanctions can stop it:

A United Nations agency almost halved its budget for medical assistance and childcare projects in North Korea, a U.S. based media outlet reported Saturday.

According to the Voice of America (VOA), the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has earmarked a total of US$71 million for such projects during the 2017-2021 period, sharply cut from the $120 million set up for the 2011-2015 period.

The sharp reduction in the budget for North Korea-related humanitarian projects came as a result of international sanctions against the communist state.

Also, a food shortage, coupled with natural disasters, were cited as key reasons for the budget cut, the report said. [Yonhap]

Similarly, this Kyodo report generated the UPI headline, “North Korea sanctions hampering aid from U.N. agencies.” Unfortunately, there is no report on UNICEF’s web site that would allow me to parse any of this to say whether the headlines are exaggerated. Instead, what we appear to have is a politically motivated whispering campaign by anonymous aid workers. 

It’s hard to overstate the value that headlines like these hold for North Korean regime propaganda if they give ammunition to its apologists and persuade U.N. member states to relax their enforcement of international sanctions. Under Kim Jong-un’s byungjin policy, the regime is pursuing both nuclear weapons development and economic development at the same time. Sanctions are intended to disrupt nuclear development and force Kim Jong-un to choose nukes or economic development. Thus, the aid agencies’ complaints play directly into his hands by weakening member states’ will to enforce sanctions.

~   ~   ~

My first problem with UNICEF’s claims is that they almost certainly aren’t true. My second and greater problem is that the aid agencies, by mischaracterizing the actual causes of hunger, and by shielding Kim Jong-un from criticism over the very policies that cause hunger, may be doing the North Korean people more long-term harm than short-term good.

First, North Korea should not need food aid at all. Its annual spending on imported luxury goods alone is six times what the WFP spends to sustain its North Korea aid programs each year. Without the much higher cost of WFP labor and overhead, Pyongyang could meet the needs of its population for a relative pittance. As Marcus Noland has said, North Korea could close its food gap “for something in the order of $8-19m — less than 0.2% of national income or one per cent of the military budget.” This is also a small fraction of what Kim Jong-un spends on missiles, a new airport terminal, a futsal stadium, a waterpark, a ski resort, a 3-D cinema, or several yachts. The same could be said for North Korea’s spending on its military and vanity projects for its dictators, while millions starved in the 1990s. This, more than anything, may explain why aid donors have given up on North Korea. If the U.N. wants to make more money available for the North Korean people, it can require U.N. member states to freeze Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts and make that money available to buy food and medicine.

His Porcine Majesty

Second, North Koreans primarily rely on markets, not the rationing system or the U.N. aid that operates within that system. A new Reuters report reaffirms that markets have continued to provide for most North Koreans’ nutritional needs, and food prices have remained stable since sanctions were increased this year. Whatever the prices may be in the markets, the regime’s market policies only tell part of the story, because markets mean nothing if there’s no food to buy in them. There is evidence that the regime disrupted markets before the recent party congress. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, it has cracked down on cross-border smuggling and private agriculture, which are both essential parts of the gray market economy that feeds most North Koreans. Rather than carrying out promised agricultural reforms, it continues a broadly confiscatory agricultural policy by seizing most of what farmers grow.

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Third, as Reuters affirms, and as I’ve tracked carefully since the U.N. increased sanctions in March, the evidence does not support UNICEF’s alarmist claims that hunger has increased recently. The Daily NK reports only slight rises in commodity prices, consistent with yearly trends. See also this post from Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein. (Another report from UPI, that hunger is again widespread in South Hwanghae, also the origin of famine reports in 2012 and 2013, is an outlier. In any case, the report attributes hunger there to the use of agricultural “reforms” to justify crop seizures by the military). Yes, North Korea continues to have a long-term hunger problem that affects a majority of its people, but recently, food prices are relatively stable.

In fact, I can cite some evidence that sanctions have increased the availability of energy and food inside North Korea. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, they have caused North Korean traders to shift from sanctioned trade to the trade in food, which is not sanctioned. Other reports suggest that a private pork production industry has quietly flourished in North Korea; unfortunately, much of the pork is exported to China. Sanctions have also disrupted Pyongyang’s exports of coal and luxury foods, such as seafood, which it sells to China to raise hard currency. Yet even when the aid agencies cry out for donations, the government in Pyongyang cuts back on its food imports. Is it any wonder that, no matter what the weather does, North Korea always seems to be having a food crisis? We give Pyongyang far too little credit for the control it exercises over North Korea’s food supply.

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Fourth, the trade in food is not sanctioned. Both UNSCR 2270 and the U.S. sanctions law signed by President Obama in February are replete with exemptions to avoid impacting North Korea’s food supply. Perhaps some of that trade should be sanctioned — after all, why is a regime that accepts food aid exporting food for cash that it isn’t using to feed its population?

Azimut yacht

Fifth, although aid agencies claim that financial sanctions have affected aid agencies’ ability to send funds into North Korea by scaring away banks, the agencies have made this claim for years, and it’s also a problem of Pyongyang’s own making. That’s only a problem because Pyongyang makes aid agencies use the same banks — such as the Foreign Trade Bank, which “North Korea uses … to facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network” — to handle proliferation- and aid-related transactions. Congress offered a solution to this problem in section 208(d) of its new sanctions law, allowing a responsible foreign bank to be licensed to handle humanitarian transactions. In response to inquiries from the U.N., I’ve even pointed that provision out, along with the general licenses exempting humanitarian transactions, and urged the U.N. to work with Treasury to implement those exemptions.

watches3

My owb fear is closer to the opposite: I’m not convinced that banks in China and Russia have frozen the North Korean accounts that should be frozen. Despite some isolated reports suggesting that some accounts have been blocked, and that some regime agents are short of cash, there is no evidence yet to suggest that Pyongyang is experiencing a general liquidity crisis it should be feeling by now. Such a crisis might have secondary effects on food imports — if there are any — that we should be ready to mitigate with aid. But why do aid agencies need to engage in financial transactions with Pyongyang at all? For one thing, because Pyongyang forces U.N. aid agencies to use the same banks it uses for proliferation financing. For another, because Pyongyang charges U.N. agencies hard currency to pay for labor, storage, fuel, and transportation, almost certainly at inflated prices. In other words, a government that routinely mobilizes the military to build dams, ski resorts, and apartment complexes is unwilling to store, guard, and ship food for the North Korean people without being paid to do so in cash.

fat bastard

You won’t hear U.N. aid agencies calling for these things, or for the reforms North Korea really needs, because aid agencies are intimidated into selective silence by the fear of being expelled from North Korea, just like it recently expelled the country directors of Welthungerhilfe and Wheat Mission Ministries. That’s why it blames weather and sanctions for hunger that is caused by — and this is really beyond question after 20 years — the policies of the North Korean government itself, despite knowing full well where the blame should lie.

Want to end hunger in North Korea? It could be done in a few months with a few simple policy changes in Pyongyang. Tell Kim Jong-un to reallocate a measly 1% of his military budget to feed his people. Tell him to stop seizing private farm plots and the crops people grow on the. Tell him to ease his restrictions on cross-border trade, including by people who can’t afford to grease border guards and customs officials. Tell him to stop exporting food for cash instead of using it to feed the people Tell him to carry out the agricultural reforms it promised four years ago and never delivered. Better yet, tell it to carry out meaningful land reform — to give the land back to the people who till it, and let them sell what they grow. Tell him to stop using food as a weapon to keep the low-songbun classes under control. Tell him to stop using his own hungry people as human shields against sanctions.

I’ve yet to hear a single U.N. official say these things. Worse, I’ve yet to see a single journalist call the U.N. out for not saying them. Until they tell the truth about why North Koreans are really going hungry, U.N. aid programs will continue to fail to solve North Korea’s long-term food crisisThe wider the gap between U.N. aid policy and North Korea’s reality, the more donors will dismiss aid agency officials as well-meaning but useful idiots who are prolonging, rather than addressing, North Korea’s hunger problem. The important interests in assisting the North Korean people don’t have to conflict with the important interest in preventing Kim Jong-un from reaching nuclear breakout. The longer U.N. organs work at cross purposes, the more people will read “United Nations” as an oxymoron.

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A blanket trade embargo won’t help us disarm or reform North Korea

In Wednesday’s post, I wrote about Beyond Parallel’s imagery analysis pointing to a decline in cross-border trade between China and North Korea, along with the limitations of that analysis and its great potential if expanded and focused. But I also alluded to a broader policy concern about the error of equating trade volume with sanctions enforcement: that while China’s under-enforcement of sanctions has historically been the greatest impediment to our North Korea policy, sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. Recently, I’ve heard influential people — including recovering engagers, preaching with the zeal of converts — advocating what sounded like a total trade embargo. (To be clear, Beyond Parallel’s study did not advocate this.) This would be inhumane, misguided, and politically unsustainable. It would play right into the regime’s hands by validating its disinformation and strengthening the arguments of its apologists.

The greatest long-term danger to an effective multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy is a loss of political will by one or more key nations. Pyongyang’s overhead is lower than that of most states because it doesn’t provide for its people, so breaking even one key nation out of a multilateral coalition can allow Pyongyang to get by for a year or two while it cultivates its next divide-and-conquer ploy. In South Korea and Europe in particular, public support for strong enforcement is vulnerable to charges — almost always made of lies, half-truths, ignorance, and appeals to emotion — that sanctions harm only the ordinary people. (And in the case of, say, old-fashioned trade sanctions against Iraq, the charge was mostly true. Many people who still don’t understand financial sanctions and who don’t know they don’t understand are still stuck in this paradigm.)

To maintain political support for such a multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy long enough for that strategy to work, policymakers must answer those charges, because people who are either sympathetic to the regime or myopically focused on aiding a tiny minority of its people are certain to lodge it, and shallow thinkers in the press are certain to echo it.

Thus, policymakers need more than just a sanctions strategy. They need to understand how sanctions complement other tools within a broader policy, and how all of those tools combine to achieve a plausible outcome. And to sustain any of it, they need an information strategy for answering these predictable arguments.

First, they must keep pointing out exactly how many North Koreans Kim Jong-un could feed with what he has instead chosen to spend on nukes, missiles, weapons, yachts, palaces, ski resorts, armored limousines, flat screen TVs, and … I could go on.

Second, they must emphasize their principled insistence that sanctions must only be targeted against the income sources the regime uses to buy all of these things instead of food. They must avoid unforced errors like this one at all costs. They should move quickly to identify and correct adverse and unwanted impacts from sanctions. Both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and U.S. sanctions law have provisions and general licenses for that purpose.

Third, they should point to what Pyongyang itself is doing, for the sake of its own internal control, to inhibit private agriculture, domestic market trading, and cross-border consumer-level trade. Those activities probably keep most North Koreans alive today. What almost no one is saying — and more people should be saying — is that Pyongyang’s sanctions against its own people are causing far more harm than international sanctions against Pyongyang itself. The latest example of that is this report that His Supreme Corpulency has ordered the planting of trees on private farm plots that probably grow a substantial portion of North Koreans’ food supply.

After Kim’s declaration, the government started to enforce laws against slash-and-burn farming all over North Korea. However, this is a matter of life and death for ordinary people. Consequently, last year, as long as trees were not cut down, in return for bribe, agriculture officials looked away if a person was cultivating short crops. Since then, the writer of this article confirmed that many farmers have given up slash-and-cut agriculture, though tree replantation is yet to take hold. [….]

“They wouldn’t allow us to go near our fields in the mountains. If we planted something, they’d pull it out of the ground. I recently planted potatoes, and they pulled them out. It was growing well…….” [Rimjin-gang]

Fourth, leaders should say more about how quickly and easily Pyongyang could end its quarter-century-long, man-made food crisis with a few bold policy decisions. For one thing, it could stop exporting so much of its food production for cash. This practice has even yielded some evidence that sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s food supply, by barring the exports of mushrooms, seafood, and other delicacies for cash, and forcing trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. (My suggestion for the next round of U.N. sanctions? A ban on food exports.) North Korea could solve its short-term hunger problem in 30 days by halting food exports, and by choosing to import more food and less swag. Sanctions would do nothing to interfere with any of that. It could end its long-term hunger problem in less than a year with land reform that redistributes land to the tillers, and by ending the confiscation of private farms.

Finally, they should quietly pressure U.N. aid agencies to reassess well-meaning but flawed aid policies that haven’t addressed North Korea’s food crisis and may be prolonging it. Aid will never help more than a tiny percentage of North Korea’s population as long as the regime continues to inhibit aid workers’ access to the hungry. What North Korea needs is fundamental land reform and a change in its government’s priorities.

A strategy for enforcing sanctions, then, must be both coordinated and calibrated to hurt the right people and not the wrong ones. China’s role is obviously critical here. No one should want China to impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, because a blanket trade embargo will affect commerce that fills the markets and sustains the majority of North Koreans, and this will erode the political and diplomatic unity of a sanctions enforcement coalition. In the long-term, starving the North Korean people will discredit the use of sanctions to starve the regime.

On the contrary, it would be far better to open the taps on street-level jangmadang trade and hinder only the trade that exclusively funds the regime. Over time, the effect of this would be to deny the military and security forces a steady income and force them to turn to corruption to survive. This would catalyze more smuggling and more defections. It would mean more copies of “Descendants of the Sun” on sale in the markets. The good news is that the early signs suggest that since sanctions have taken effect, corruption has increased among the internal security forces and railroad police, and that the flow of refugees into South Korea has increased, although there still isn’t enough evidence to identify a pattern in these reports or assign a cause to them.

Still, these reports suggest how cutting the regime’s funds and blocking its accounts would preferentially impact the elites and break down their cohesion to the regime, starting with its financially critical overseas workers and trade agents, and progressing to those who maintain the system of internal security. It would force the regime to launch ever more mass mobilizations and confiscatory demands for “loyalty” payments that sap Kim Jong-un’s domestic political support among the poor.

Collectively and gradually, these trends would accelerate an ongoing shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power downward in North Korea’s songbun system, from generals to donju, from border guards to smugglers, from party members to non-members, from soldiers to sotoji farmers, from police to market traders, in every village, factory, and neighborhood. Only when Pyongyang realizes this will it realize that time is not on its side. And only when Pyongyang realizes that time is against it will diplomacy stand any chance of lasting success. If it doesn’t, and consequently drowns in the tide of history, that would be far from the worst possible outcome.

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U.N. aid isn’t solving North Korea’s hunger problem

Two years ago, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry cited estimates that North Korea’s Great Famine of 1993 to 1999 killed up to 2 million people.* All of those deaths were needless — the regime spent those years wasting more than enough money to feed everyone who starved. By 1995, when Kim Jong-il finally let U.N. aid agencies in, hundreds of thousands (or more) had already died. The aid agencies, most prominently the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), never left, and have now been operating in North Korea for 21 years.

No other industrialized country in a temperate zone has “needed” international food aid for so long. Yet last year, U.N. aid agencies estimated that more than 80 percent of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption, and last month, the WFP estimated that one in four North Korean children at the nurseries it funds are malnourished. I don’t doubt that many of North Korea’s children are malnourished, but to project that figure onto the broader population, you have to believe that the WFP has enough access to the population to do a credible needs assessment. For reasons I explained here, I don’t believe that.

I believe that many North Koreans really are hungry and/or malnourished, but beyond this fundamental truth, it gets harder to know what to believe. North Korea blames its hunger on droughts and floods, but no one starved in South Korea during this same period. Pyongyang’s apologists blame sanctions, of course, but there are no U.N. or U.S. sanctions on food, only on the weapons and luxury goods Pyongyang buys instead of food. The apologists also overlook the sanctions the North Korean government imposes on its own people, by preventing them from growing, importing, and selling food on their own.

The conclusion that becomes harder to escape each year is that North Korea’s food crisis is man-made, and man-made problems demand man-made solutions. Year after year, aid agencies have failed to confront (and at times, have actually misrepresented) the real causes of hunger in North Korea. Thus, despite the good international aid undoubtedly does for a lucky few, it may be doing more harm than good for the broader North Korean population. 

The aid agencies can’t get their stories straight.

What inspired me to write this long rant? The last straw came when I read these two Yonhap headlines:

June 4: “N. Korea’s rice production to rise in 2016: U.N. report

June 11: “N. Korea’s 2016 food shortage may reach worst level since 2011: report

The first story cites a report in Radio Free Asia, which in turn cites a South Korean expert’s conclusion based on favorable weather, and supplies of water and fertilizer, “after quoting a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.” It cites the FAO as saying that the North Korean government will import 100,000 tons of rice commercially, will have a total rice supply of 1.6 million tons, and will produce 2.5 million tons of corn. Although Yonhap’s headline hypes the FAO’s conclusions, the FAO is upbeat about North Korea’s overall food situation:

Early prospects for 2016 main season food crops favourable

Planting of the 2016 main season food crops, including rice, maize, soybeans and potatoes, normally starts in April and continues until mid-June. Normal to above-normal rainfall since April over central and southern ‘’food-basket’’ provinces of the country, coupled with improved supplies of irrigation water, benefitted planting operations and early crop development. Assuming favourable precipitation for the remainder of the season, the 2016 main season cereal output is expected to recover from the drought?affected harvest of 2015.

Production of 2016 early season crops expected to recover from last year’s sharply reduced level

Latest official production forecasts from the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) put the 2016 early season potatoes, wheat and barley crops, currently being harvested, at 363 000 tonnes (cereal equivalent), 21 percent higher than the sharply reduced 2015 level. The expected production gain is the result of favourable weather during the cropping season and improved water availability in the main reservoirs that boosted yield prospects. Early season potato production in 2016 is forecast by FAO at 297 000 tonnes, 27 percent above the previous year’s level, while the combined production of wheat and barley is expected to almost double from last year’s level and reach 66 000 tonnes. [U.N. FAO]

The second Yonhap story also quotes an estimate by the FAO. It says the government will import 300,000 tons of food — not just rice — but will still have a shortage of 394,000 tons, because last year’s rice harvest fell by 26 percent to 1.95 million tons, and its corn harvest fell to 2.3 million tons, representing a 9 percent decline in total grain harvest. Yonhap’s story then cites the very same South Korean expert as the first story, but this time, the expert says that North Korea “may have given up rice production, which requires a large quantity of water, and instead planted other crops amid a water shortage.” Although Yonhap’s headline arguably hypes the FAO’s conclusions, the FAO is downbeat about North Korea’s overall food situation:

North Korea’s total  food production – including cereals, soybeans and potatoes in cereal equivalent – is estimated to have fallen in 2015, the first drop since 2010, and is expected to worsen food security in the country, according to a FAO update issued today. [….]

Given the tight food supplies in 2015/16, the country’s food security situation is expected to deteriorate from the previous year when most households were already estimated to have poor or borderline food consumption levels.

Besides severely affecting the rice crop, the dry conditions during the 2015 main season, coupled with low irrigation water availability following recurrent dry spells since July 2014, also impacted negatively on the production of maize, the country’s second most important cereal crop. Despite an expansion in plantings, maize output is estimated to have decreased by 3 percent to 2.29 million tonnes in 2015. [U.N. FAO]

If you can find any consistency in those reports, enroll in law school. At times like this, I wonder whether the WFP and FAO have a clue what’s going on in North Korea. Again, the overwhelming evidence from refugees, clandestine reporting, and aid workers all aligns to support the contention that there really is a serious, chronic food crisis in North Korea. Yet U.N. agencies — which have been frustrated at every turn by the North Korean government — focus on short-term “emergencies,” perhaps because they, too, find it hard to escape the conclusion that Pyongyang’s policies are the cause of the long-term crisis, and because in the end, they aren’t willing to challenge those policies. 

Aid agencies’ claims aren’t always supported by the evidence.

A less generous interpretation, which Marcus Noland has raised here, is that aid agencies are deliberately hyping North Korea’s food supply problems. Aid workers — who are compassionate, well-meaning people — need more funding to keep their programs going. This creates the understandable temptation to exaggerate the crisis and misrepresent each new crisis as transitory, but only at the cost of their long-term credibility. The U.N.’s donors are staying away in droves, maybe because they’ve come to the same realizations I have, and maybe because they just think their money can feed more people elsewhere. 

So how much of what the FAO says is really true? There’s reliable evidence that last year was a dry year in North Korea, yet despite alarmist headlines earlier in the year, there was no drought, and food prices stayed relatively stable. Evidently, there will be better weather this year, which we can predict because it’s late enough to see how global weather patterns are shaping up. Because last year was dry, the FAO may suspect that leftover food stocks are diminished, which could have a domino effect on this year’s food supply. Unless it won’t, of course.

First, the actual reported numbers aren’t that alarming in historical context. For 2016, FAO expects North Korea to produce around 4.8 million tonnes of cereals (requirements of 5.49 million minus a shortfall of 694,000). By comparison, North Korea’s 2010 harvest was either 4.3 or 4.5 million tonnes (not tons) of cereals. The figure for 2009 was 4.1 million tonnes; in 2008, 4.21 million tonnes; in 2007, 3 million tonnes; in 2006, 4 million tonnes; in 2005, 4.5 million tonnes in 2005; and in 2004, 4.24 million tonnes. Et cetera. All of these were lean years to be sure, and certainly featured terrible, preventable malnutrition for millions of North Koreans, but they were also years when North Korea was recovering from famine. If we believe these figures — and I stress that they rely on the North Korean government’s official food production statistics — they represent a slow-but-steady recovery in food production.

As it happens, I don’t believe anything based on North Korean government statistics and neither should you. Still, the bigger trend (slow-but-steady recovery) is consistent with a source that I’m more inclined to believe. The Daily NK’s reporting tells us that food prices stayed stable throughout this year’s “barley hump” (North Korea’s traditional spring lean season) and sanctions scares.

Do aid agencies really know what the food supply is?

One of the biggest problems with WFP and FAO estimates is that the North Korean government has impeded their access to the population so much that it’s difficult to do credible needs assessments. That leaves WFP and FAO dependent on North Korean government statistics, which are prone to manipulation. The fact that North Korea placed a spy inside WFP’s Rome office certainly suggests it has an interest in manipulating the narrative.

An even greater problem with WFP/FAO assessments is that they can’t possibly assess the growing role of private agriculture in supplying the markets on which nearly all North Koreans rely for their daily sustenance. Private agriculture operates in that penumbra between tolerance and illegality, a space that is often filled by bribery of, and extortion by, state officials. North Koreans are understandably reticent about telling foreigners about how much they grow in their private gardens and farms. If you’re estimating caloric intake based on North Korean state statistics about the latest cut in rations, you’re not only vulnerable to manipulation, you’re only telling part of the story. The quiet, steady rise of private agriculture is the untold “good news” story about North Korea’s food supply.

The aid agencies blame the weather (wrong).

I’ve argued before that U.N. agencies working in North Korea act as if they’re afraid of losing access if they blame Pyongyang’s policies for causing food shortages. Instead, FAO blames the weather, as if we’re supposed to believe that by some meteorological miracle, 23 consecutive years of drought or flood have caused food shortages in North Korea, but not South Korea.

Aid agencies blame sanctions (also wrong).

Rural North Koreans, who don’t understand sanctions any better than most Washington academics or journalists, don’t know that the trade in food isn’t sanctioned. They’re understandably worried that China will impose a trade embargo and that they’ll go hungry. 

In fact, U.S. and U.N. sanctions have humanitarian exemptions allowing them to adjust their targeting to avoid adverse impacts on the food supply. The U.N. resolutions stress that the sanctions “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population” of North Korea. Unlike the aid agencies, the Security Council has called on Pyongyang to “respond to other security and humanitarian concerns of the international community.”

People who don’t understand this, including plenty of journalists, see all cross-border trade as evidence that sanctions are failing. Scholars who should know better fan the same fears outside North Korea. (Naturally, so does the know-nothing rabble-rouser Doug Bandow, citing as “evidence” a Russian diplomat, a Chinese scholar, and Andrei Lankov, who knows many things about North Korea, but is no sanctions expert. Bandow might just be the most easily disinformed person in this town.)

For now, however, there’s more evidence that sanctions have improved North Korea’s aggregate food supply than harmed it. One dynamic we’ve seen is that because the North Korean government can’t export luxury food products like seafood for cash, it temporarily dumped it on the local markets (later, it just idled much of the fishing fleet). Another is that trading companies that have found more difficulty trading in sanctioned goods have shifted to the profitable business of importing food, because the trade in food isn’t sanctioned.

The continuation of a healthy trade in food and consumer goods means that for now, the targeting and the exemptions are working as intended. That’s important, because if sanctions really do impact the food supply, political support for sanctions enforcement would suffer. One concern we should keep watching closely for is whether recent banking cutoffs and asset freezes have spillover effects on cross-border trade. And of course, the North Korean government will hype any food supply problems to use its poor as human shields. That’s a key flaw in the FAO’s methodology, which relies on statistics from the North Korean government to arrive at its estimates.

And still, the World Health Organization — you will recall that its head, the incompetent global laughingstock Margaret Chan, has praised North Korea’s health care system and the lack of obesity there — still feeds us bullshit like this:

“International sanctions have also indirectly contributed to resistance among donors to provide funds to DPRK. Factors such as disruptions to fund transfers, as well as lengthy procurement processes and slow delivery of equipment and supplies has influenced donor?s attitudes and decisions on the allocation of funding,” the report read. [NK News, Hamish MacDonald]

U.N. sanctions do discourage giving Pyongyang cash that it will certainly misuse, but there’s nothing in them that discourages donations of in-kind aid. Is there no one in the U.N. who can resolve this non-existent inconsistency between the Security Council and the aid agencies?

Pyongyang could feed its own people, but chooses not to.

The most fundamental question about hunger in North Korea is why North Korea needs food aid at all, when it could afford to feed all of its hungry. This may be the most succint and damning summary of the problem:

When the country finally admitted in 1995 that it was facing famine, the international community responded with considerable generosity, at one point feeding roughly a third of the population. But the North Korean government has never accepted the international norms in the provision of aid, impeding normal assessment, monitoring, and evaluation functions of the relief organisations.

Critically, with assistance ramping up, the government cut commercial grain imports – in essence using humanitarian aid as a form of balance of payments support, freeing up resources to finance the importation of advanced military weaponry.

Even at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close the gap were modest, in the order of $100-$200m, or about five to 20% of revenues from exported goods and services, or one to two per cent of contemporaneous national income.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does

Today, the gap could be closed for something in the order of $8-19m — less than 0.2% of national income or one per cent of the military budget. [Marcus Noland, The Guardian]

Not once have I heard a U.N. aid agency or agency official say anything like this. As I’ve pointed out in the New York Times and repeatedly on this blog, North Korea has more than enough money to meet its food gap by spending less on big screen TVs, watches, yachts, ski resorts, and missiles. The latest evidence of those skewed priorities is an estimate that Pyongyang spent $200 million on its recent party congress. That seems like a pretty low estimate to me, but just consider that $200 million is enough to fully fund World Food Program operations in North Korea for two years.

Even more troubling is the fact that Pyongyang sometimes reduces food imports even as aid agencies make emergency appeals. There’s some evidence that the North Korean government reduced spending on food imports again, earlier this year. Why? Noland thinks Pyongyang prefers to let the aid agencies buy its food so that it can spend its hard currency on other priorities.

You can’t solve a problem if you aren’t willing to name it.

What discourages in-kind aid is the grim reality that 21 years of U.N. aid haven’t solved North Korea’s food crisis, and the other grim fact — that U.N. agencies are still overlooking the real causes of the crisis and blaming weather and sanctions, just as Pyongyang demands of it. And if the aid agencies are so cowed by Pyongyang that they’re willing to lie to the world, what other compromises have they made with the truth?

At what point does it become inescapable that the North Korean government’s own policy decisions are to blame? I can certainly point to a number of those policy decisions, including the refusal to carry out broad reforms in how land or crops are distributed, the refusal to fundamentally open North Korea’s economy, the prioritization of weapons over development and trade, arbitrary restrictions on humanitarian aid workers, the diversion of aid, and the diversion of national resources into palaces, yachts, and nukes instead of food. The point that I’ve flogged here again and again is that what North Korea spends on missiles or luxury goods is many times what it would cost to feed every hungry North Korean. Until the U.N. abandons its fear of expulsion and confronts that, we aren’t going to solve the greater problem.

What’s needed is a top-to-bottom review of international aid policy, and why that policy has failed to solve North Korea’s food crisis, despite the best of intentions. It might begin with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, finding that aid can actually encourage the policies that cause poverty and hunger. It should then take a harder look at private agriculture, and whether pushing for market-based solutions — including land reform that gives land back to the tillers — are better solutions than those that prop up on a broken system of collectives and rations. Above all, aid agencies should raise international pressure on the North Korean government to take more responsibility for feeding its own people.

~   ~   ~

* Previously said that the report estimated that the famine killed up to 2.4 million people; since corrected. The report also cites higher estimates, but allows that some of the “missing” population in these estimates may be due to migration.

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Pyongyang’s sanctions are the ones that hurt the North Korean people the most.

Last month, I wrote about one slightly surprising consequence of sanctions against North Korea — sanctions have prevented Kim Jong-un from selling off and exporting resources needed by the North Korean people, which has flooded North Korean markets with cheap coal and seafood.

Now, we’re starting to see something like the converse of this, in which restrictions on what North Korea’s donju and purchasing agents can import is forcing them to find other ways to kick up steep “loyalty payments” to their overlords in Pyongyang. What’s a donju to do? Find something to send back to North Korea that isn’t covered by sanctions — like apples. The result has been to flood North Korean markets with cheap apples during North Korea’s lean season — called the “barley hump” — when winter food stocks have run out and home-grown crops haven’t been harvested yet.

For this reason, many trading companies have increased their import of daily goods and food products, neither of which are subject to the harsh round of unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed on North Korea in early March in response to its fourth nuclear test and rocket launch. In particular, fruit such as apples are not included on the list of sanctioned items, so these trading companies can reliably earn foreign currency by buying and selling them. [Daily NK]

Making more food available during the lean season could also have a secondary and beneficial effect, by reducing the incidence of “pre-harvesting” of North Korean crops, which reduces the aggregate food supply.

“Right now the market is so flooded with Chinese apples that vendors are even selling one apiece to customers who don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “It seems like imported fruits are going to dominate the markets until North Korea’s first fruits of the year become available around July.” [Daily NK]

Radio Free Asia even publishes this image of apple boxes stacked up at the customs checkpoint at Dandong.

apples

[via AFP]

It also informs us that there might be more than apples in some of those boxes. 

“It has become impossible to send so-called ‘apple rice’ to North Korea now,” said a trader in Dandong, a border town in northeastern China, in a reference to rice that China sends to North Korea packed in apple boxes rather than regular rice sacks.

But in this instance the source used “apple rice” to describe goods shipped between China and North Korea that are falsely identified on their outer packaging to conceal their true contents, such as materials used to manufacture narcotics in North Korea.

The fact that Chinese traders are no longer able to send “apple rice” to North Korea means that Chinese customs authorities are performing more thorough inspections at the border, the source said.

If such goods are discovered during the inspections, the traders will be fined, and all their freight will be confiscated, he said.

“The trading companies whose ‘apple rice’ is found through random inspections will be in big trouble and have to pay a large fine,” said the source, adding that the customs inspections process has become stricter for goods entering China from North Korea. [RFA]

Why do traders hide rice in apple boxes? Beats me, but it’s not because of sanctions; maybe China has a rule against exporting rice. Either way, increased cargo inspections at the land borders compared to last month are good news, because Pyongyang has taken advantage of lax inspections to smuggle bulk cash and other contraband across the border. They’re also bad news, because smuggling brings food and information into North Korea.

Overall, however, it’s good news that the trade in food and consumer trade continues, because it means that sanctions’ impact on the North Korean people is being minimized, even if it can’t be eliminated completely. The critics who were (and still are) eager to complain that sanctions would starve poor North Koreans won’t find much evidence to support support their arguments. Despite this being the lean season, food prices have remained stable since sanctions were imposed. Motor fuel prices have risen in Pyongyang, although the reasons for this aren’t clear. U.N. sanctions ban the export of jet fuel to North Korea, but they don’t impose an oil embargo. It may be that North Koreans are hoarding, and it may be that the regime itself is, perhaps for political parades or military needs. Fuel prices do have the potential to affect food prices indirectly, so this bears close watching.

The only report I’ve seen of food shortages caused by sanctions is this report, unconfirmed by any others, that a member of the state security forces had begged a defector for money because he’d stopped receiving wages. That’s hardly a tear-jerking tale of woe, if true. Reports that China had cut flour exports to North Korea were likely a measure to alleviate flour shortages in China, and had no evident impact on food prices in North Korea.

But this is not to deny that sanctions have had some adverse impact on workers in state industries targeted by sanctions:

Signs of anxiety have been observed in certain areas near iron and steel mills as well as coal mines following strong international sanctions implemented against North Korea. These come as mine workers seek to secure their finances by moving to smaller and more affordable housing in anticipation of a prolonged period of stalled wages and tighter budgets at home.

“I haven’t seen any panic buying in response to the sanctions, but an increasing number of people living in coal mining areas like Hyesan and Musan are trying to sell their homes,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday. “In one particular neighborhood, there was news that ten households are making efforts to sell their homes.” [Daily NK]

That’s unfortunate, but not that different from what we might see in other countries, including this one, where industries take sudden downturns. Indeed, China had already slowed its imports of North Korean coal a year and a half ago, and the effect of sanctions has been to impose an “abrupt halt on what had already been intermittent” wage payments. There are no reports of malnutrition or starvation among the miners, just reports that they’re retrenching their finances, cutting back on consumer purchases, and hoarding foreign currency. There is also the question of causation. There’s little question that sanctions have indeed hit the North Korean coal and steel industries hard, but it’s also possible that sectoral sanctions on the North Korean coal industry have only accelerated a decline in an industry that had already begun, and was likely to deepen for unrelated structural reasons. Recent reports tell us that China is cutting its own miners’ working hours because of a coal glut, which is probably a function of China’s own economic slowdown.

On the other side of this, critics who don’t understand what sanctions do or are intended to do, like CNN’s Will Ripley, see all evidence of cross-border trade as proof that sanctions aren’t working. But sanctions do not impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, for the very reason that the drafters of sanctions want food and other necessities to keep flowing into North Korea. If hunger in North Korea was a deterrent to Kim Jong-un, he wouldn’t be doing so much to enforce it.

The case of the Chinese apples suggests one way in which sanctions can be targeted and enforced to increase North Korea’s aggregate food supply, by shifting state resources back into the markets. Banning North Korea’s food exports might be another way. But those who depend on state industries and wages will invariably continue to lose their paychecks, and will become increasingly dependent on the markets.

The issue of the sanctions’ impact on the people bears close watching over the next year, as nations continue to implement them. On one hand, I think Sokeel Park is right that the (quasi-legal) privatization of agriculture and the food supply means that another famine in North Korea is unlikely. On the other hand, it’s unrealistic to believe that sanctions won’t affect the wrong people at all, in part because the regime will do everything in can to transfer their effects, and already is. This report did a particularly good job of covering this moral dilemma in an honest and balanced way.

But there is no question that times are much harder for North Koreans today than they were a year ago, and it’s not because of sanctions imposed by the U.N. or the U.S., but because of sanctions imposed by the North Korean government on its own people. Specifically, the North Korean government — with substantial help from China — continues to crack down on cross-border trade, smuggling, communications, and remittances, which are essential to the livelihoods of millions of poor North Koreans. It is cracking down on market trading and mobilizing people for exhausting make-work forced labor, denying them the time and the energy to pursue their livelihoods. Those are stories that bear careful watching, too, and which some sanctions critics consistently choose to overlook.

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So far, sanctions are cutting off Pyongyang’s cash while sparing North Korea’s poor.

A month after the President signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act and two weeks after the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, enough information has emerged from North Korea to allow for a preliminary assessment of how the sanctions are affecting those they are meant to target, and those they are meant to spare. 

Sanctions have begun to hit their intended targets. The Daily NK reports that the donju, the well-connected traders who help finance Pyongyang’s priorities through trade with China, initially refused to believe (or plan for) the possibility that China would cooperate with sanctions or cut off the coal trade.

Donju are the fulcrum of North Korea’s coal industry, their massive dollar investments propping up foreign-currency earning enterprises tasked with production and export of a product providing North Korea with much-needed cash from a resource-strapped China.

Now, they’re panicking. Those who are “connected to the export of minerals are reeling after hearing that trucks bound for export have been stopped at the customs office in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province.” 

“On news that coal exports have come to a halt, donju, the chief actors in the country’s coal distribution industry, have stopped investing,” a source from South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on Tuesday. “Some had been thinking of completely giving up their coal handling and storage facilities, but with the new rumors surfacing about exports resuming in a few months, they’re now mulling over whether to reinvest.  [Daily NK]

The regime is worried that “a prolonged strangle on donju investment could eventually challenge the operation of the mines themselves, and by extension stymie a robust source of funds buttressing the leadership.” This could have long-term consequences for the regime’s financial stability. To maintain the confidence of the donju and keep their money flowing, the regime is spreading rumors that the mineral export ban won’t last for long.

At first, market traders also panicked about the sanctions, fearing that they could lose access to their Chinese sources of merchandise. Some citizens also reacted angrily, according to the Daily NK, saying, ‘‘Those cadres don’t care if us normal people starve,” and, “This is what happens when the authorities pursue useless things [nuclear weapons, missiles] and go around bragging about it.”

All true, and actions by the regime may have been greater immediate causes of hardship. In the build-up to the party congress I prefer to call the Ides of May, the state has cracked down on street stalls, restricted the opening hours for markets, and mobilized people for forced labor (as always, exemptions can be had for a price). At first, some traders hoarded food, but the markets have been resilient, and food prices have stabilized:

“There had been concern we would see fewer goods in the market because of UN sanctions, but in reality, there hasn’t been much difference,” a source from North Pyongan Province told Daily NK in a telephone conversation on Sunday. [….]

Further confirming trends previously reported by Daily NK last week, an additional source in North Hamgyong Province reported yesterday that some people had stocked up food worried about sanctions from the UN, but that this hasn’t led to a violent gyration in prices. “Actually, in some regions, we’re seeing prices of certain products drop,” he noted. [Daily NK]

One of the more interesting effects of the sanctions is that in some ways, they’ve actually increased the supply of fuel and food. Prohibitions on coal exports have diverted more coal into the markets, so despite the cold weather in Korea, coal and firewood are cheap. Incredibly for a country that depends on international food aid and has a massive malnutrition problem, North Korea earns hard currency by exporting food, such as seafood and pine mushrooms. Recently, however, China has halted or sharply curtailed maritime traffic from North Korea, so state-controlled trading companies have dumped their wares on the markets, where ordinary North Koreans can buy them.  

“These days items that were previously hard to find because they were earmarked for export are suddenly emerging at the markets,” a source from North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Thursday. “The price haven’t gone down enough yet, so you don’t see too many people actually buying them. But you do see flocks of curious people coming out to the markets to see all the delicacies for sale.”

She added, “High-end marine goods like roe, sea urchin eggs, hairy crab, and jumbo shrimp and produce like pine nuts, bracken, and salted pine mushrooms were once considered to be strictly for export, but now they’re easy to find. The number of such products, referred to as ‘sent back goods,’ at Sunam Market and other markets around Chongjin is growing by the day.”

Additional sources in both North and South Hwanghae Provinces reported the same developments in those regions. [….]

Unlike in the past, when they had to pick out the high-end fisheries goods only to hand over to state foreign-currency earning enterprises, now they can sell the entire load to wholesale merchants.

“People are getting their hopes up, saying they might be able to eat some of the highest quality fish for a cheap price, if the UN sanctions continue to carry weight until the summer,” she explained. “They’re actually welcoming the sanctions now saying that for average people they’re bringing good fortune since the number of goods they can get their hands on are continually on the rise.” [Daily NK]

Why would Chinese ports reject these shipments? As immoral as it may be for a hungry nation to export food, neither the U.S. nor U.N. sanctions prohibit food exports (although perhaps they should). One possible explanation is the fact that North Korea’s seafood trade is controlled by none other than the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, which was just designated by the U.N. under UNSCR 2270.

The bureau owns dozens of ‘trade vessels’ that it uses for missions and also to secure capital. Along main ports near the West and East Sea, the bureau employs cargo ships like Chong Chon Gang that are tens of thousands of tons in size, or ‘trade vessels’ and ‘reefer ships’ such as Nam San 1, 2, Kum Gang San, Mu Bong 1, 2, Po Thong Gang 11, 12, Seung Ri, and Myong Song, which are 800 to 1,000 tons.

North Korea has given vessels like Po Thong Gang and Mu Bong a monopoly on king crabs, shrimp, and conch fishing. Therefore, they’re able to secure some 1,000 tons annually in marine goods and sell them to individual companies in Japan to buy the necessary reconnaissance equipment.

These bureau vessels also conceal their true origins and engage in trade as regular ships. Especially when they are subject to international sanctions and unable to make port entry, they use tactful tricks such as remaining in international waters, where Chongryon (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, an entity holding strong ties with Pyongyang) companies will come to their aid in trade.

The reconnaissance bureau operates the ‘Birobong Trading Company’ to earn foreign currency, and under this are needlework and garment factories, as well as marine stations for fishing. Also, it uses the Unit 96 equipment supply station in Pyongyang’s Sonkyo District to buy reconnaissance supplies from overseas and then transfer them to subordinate military installations who will then distribute the equipment to each associated military corps. [Daily NK]

In related news, the Donga Ilbo reports that China has also begun to inspect air cargo to and from North Korea. We’ll see how that affects the flow of jewelry and flat-screen TVs into Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, along the border with China, the source of most of the goods sold in the markets, the Daily NK reports that “[d]espite the sanctions that have already kicked in, products from China are still flowing into North Korea.” The Economist also reports that non-sanctioned trade continues to flow freely in both directions — and spins this as a failure of the sanctions. But neither U.S. nor U.N. sanctions attempt to impose a blanket trade embargo. Their objective is to target the currency reserves and income that sustain the regime — to starve it of cash without starving the ordinary people. That is an important distinction that some reporters don’t seem to understand.

The news bears careful watching, but so far, the sanctions show signs of constricting the cash flows that fund the regime, without starving the poor and underprivileged. As Yonhap quotes me today, much could still go wrong, and it’s much too early to declare victory.* The U.S. and U.N. member states have only begun to implement the sanctions. Effective enforcement will require more investigative resources, long months of rat-catching, and sustained political will. The U.S. and its allies must avoid unforced errors that cause adverse humanitarian impacts and deny the effort the political support it will need. There will be more provocations, tests, and war scares. Those things are the inevitable costs of belatedly confronting a problem, rather than applying palliatives to its symptoms. But the signs we’ve seen since January are the signs I’d expect to see at this stage if my theory was right.

~   ~   ~

* Errata: My reference to section 302 was incorrect. It’s actually section 304. Thanks to the encyclopedic mind of Professor Lee for catching this. Also, “His Corpulency” and “His Porcine Majesty” are registered trademarks of OneFreeKorea.

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Samantha Power: N. Korea would rather grow its nuke programs than grow its children

I’ll just give you this excerpt from Ambassador Power’s speech before the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270.

Ms. Power (United States of America): In looking at North Korea, it can at times feel as though one is seeing two entirely different realities. One is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that is expending tremendous resources in pursuing advanced technology to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying out a nuclear strike a continent away. The other is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which, according to a joint assessment conducted by the World Food Programme and the North Korean Government, 25 per cent of children under the age of 5 suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. One is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which the Government brags about carrying out nuclear tests proscribed by the Security Council, such as the test carried out on 6 January. The other is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in which individuals must endure the searing pain of seeing generations of their loved ones starve to death, such as the North Korean defector who joined us in the Council Chamber just a few months ago, whose grandmother, father and two brothers had all died because they could not find enough food. On the surface, it can seem as though those distinct North Korean realities have nothing to do with one another; yet, as we all know, they have everything to do with one another — part of the perverse reality that has no equal in this world. The chronic suffering of the people of North Korea is the direct result of the choices made by the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a Government that has consistently prioritized its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes over providing for the most basic needs of its own people. As underscored in resolution 2270 (2016), which we have adopted today, virtually all of the resources of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are channelled into its reckless and relentless pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The North Korean Government would rather grow its nuclear weapons programme than grow its own children. That is the reality that we are facing.

Ambassador Power gets it. I hope President Park does, too. She should now enact and use her country’s new human rights law to deliver this message to the North Korean people: rice, peace, and freedom.

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Aid agencies struggle to feed hungry kids as N. Korea cuts food imports to 10-year low

Wasn’t it only Groundhog Day when the U.N. released $8 million in emergency aid to “enable life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people” in North Korea who are the “most vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition?” Wasn’t it just last month when UNICEF warned that “25,000 children in North Korea require immediate treatment for malnutrition after a drought cut food production by a fifth and the government reduced rations?”

North Korea’s overall food imports from neighboring China fell by a quarter in 2015 when compared the previous year, while cereals and related food products fell to 10-year lows.

NK News analysis comparing monthly figures and data stretching back to 2005 shows that some of the DPRK’s primary food imports fell to levels not seen since the middle of the last decade.

In particular cereals – a trade group which includes rice – continued a steady decline throughout last year until settling at 30 percent of 2014 totals. But at 27,000 tons the figure was the lowest in more than 10 years. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

More helpful context for this problem:

Pyongyang is estimated to have spent a whopping $850 million launching the long-range rocket carrying its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite Sunday. That amount of money is large enough to feed 20 million North Koreans for a year if it were used to purchase about 2.5 million tons of corn from China.

Beijing must realize that what really harms the good of North Koreans are not the sanctions but the Pyongyang regime’s determination to develop nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. [Editorial, Joongang Daily]

As Professor Lee and I have noted before, Pyongyang values the dead more than the living. Here’s fresh evidence to support that.

A Newfocus internal correspondent reported that OGD ordered the corps headquarters across the state to build new statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il, to commemorate the upcoming 7th Congress of the Worker’s Party that is to be held in May 2016. The order is passed down from OGD through Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, then to the Supreme Command. […]

The correspondent explained, “The initially appointed amount of $600,000 by OGD is snowballing as the order passes down to lower social order. The dollar extortion from the residents is excruciating that the next thing they will take away is the people’s copper utensils”. [New Focus Int’l]

And let’s not forget those ski gondolas. Or this:

Satellite imagery of North Korea’s Nampho port reveals what appears to be a new 50-meter pleasure craft, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA). [….]

The new boat joins a number of other pleasure craft visible on satellite imagery around the DPRK’s coasts. In 2013, an NK News investigation revealed Kim Jong Un’s $7 million yacht, originally manufactured by British company Princess.

UN sanctions prohibit the sale of pleasure craft, cars and other luxury items to North Korea, but patchy implementation often means that prohibited goods can still find their way across the DPRK’s borders. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

When the U.N. issues statements that propagate Pyongyang’s lies — that it lacks the means to import more food, even while it’s importing extravagances and slashing commercial food imports — it perpetuates North Korea’s food crisis. You cannot — cannot, cannot — tell me that for 22 straight years, the droughts and floods that never caused anyone to go hungry in South Korea caused chronic malnutrition in North Korea. The causes of hunger in North Korea are, first, this obscene misallocation of wealth; second, arbitrary food and land confiscations; and third, the failure to institute meaningful agricultural or land reform.

North Koreans aren’t starving because of weather, they’re starving because of deliberate state policies. Those policies are crimes against humanity — what the U.N. Commission of Inquiry called “the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.” The World Food Program and other humanitarian agencies have a duty to address the real causes of this long-term humanitarian crisis by telling the world the truth about them. Until the world demands that Kim Jong-un prioritize his wealth to feed his people, those criminal policies will never change, and most North Koreans will continue to go hungry.

Until the world demands that Kim Jong-un prioritize his wealth to feed his people, those criminal policies will never change, and most North Koreans will continue to go hungry.

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Rice, peace & freedom: It’s time we told the N. Korean people the truth about why they’re hungry.

It is fitting that Groundhog Day was a busy day in North Korea. On the same day that Pyongyang announced that it would test a long-range missile, the U.N. released $8 million from its emergency aid fund “to assist [the] most vulnerable women and children” in North Korea.

Bangkok, 2 February 2016) United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on 29 January 2016 released US$ 8 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). These funds will enable life-saving assistance for more than 2.2 million people most vulnerable and at risk of malnutrition. The DPRK was one of nine countries to receive such grants within the overall $100 million allocation to underfunded emergencies.

Undernutrition is a fundamental cause of maternal and child death and disease: in DPRK, chronic malnutrition (stunting) among under-five children is at 27.9 per cent, while 4 per cent of under-five children are acutely malnourished (wasting). Around 70 per cent of the population, or 18 million people, are considered food insecure. Food production in the country is hampered by a lack of agricultural inputs and is highly vulnerable to shocks, particularly natural disasters. Due to drought in 2015, 11 per cent of the main harvest was lost.

Health service delivery, including reproductive health, remains inadequate, with many areas of the country not equipped with the facilities, equipment or medicines to meet people’s basic health needs. Under-five children and low-birth-weight newborns are vulnerable to life-threatening diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrhoea if they do not receive proper treatment or basic food, vitamins and micronutrients.

CERF funds will be used to sustain critical life-saving interventions aimed at improving the nutrition situation in the country through reduction of maternal and under-five child mortality and morbidity. More than 2.2 million people, including 1.8 million under-five children and 350,000 pregnant and lactating women, will benefit from assistance provided by CERF funds. “The commitment and support of the international community is vital. Protracted and serious needs must be addressed” said United Nations Resident Coordinator for the DPRK, Mr. Tapan Mishra. “Humanitarian needs must be kept separate from political issues to ensure minimum living conditions for the most vulnerable people.” The United Nations will continue to work towards addressing the structural causes of vulnerabilities and chronic malnutrition through its interventions agreed with the DPRK Government. [Relief Web]

Separately, UNICEF recently warned that “25,000 children in North Korea require immediate treatment for malnutrition after a drought cut food production by a fifth and the government reduced rations.” But the true “structural cause” of the “vulnerabilities and chronic malnutrition” Mr. Mishra cites is staring us in the face.

watches3

The fact that donor nations can see this is why the U.N. must dip into its emergency fund to provide for the most urgent needs of North Korean children. No other industrialized country has ever experienced such a prolonged food crisis. Most readers probably have a general idea that Kim Jong-un could afford to feed his population by spending less on weapons, but let’s examine the figures in greater detail. First, $8 million is a small sum compared to $200 million, the total cost of the World Food Program’s (WFP) current two-year program to assist 2.4 million vulnerable women, children, and families. That’s an annualized cost of $100 million per year.

A close reading of WFP Inspector General reports reveals that a substantial, but unquantifiable amount of this is overhead — salaries of the aid workers, salaries of the North Korean workers provided to the WFP by the North Korean government, fuel purchased from the North Korean government, and other costs (such as storage) paid to the North Korean government. In other words, the actual food costs are likely just a fraction of that $100 million a year.

It also bears repeating that 2.4 million North Koreans represents a small percentage of the North Koreans who are food insecure. Recent U.N. studies have placed the percentage of North Koreans who are food insecure at between 70 percent and 84 percent, out of a population of roughly 23 million people. Before the North Korean government expelled most international aid workers in 2006, the WFP was feeding 6.5 million North Koreans. 

For comparison, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its missile programs in 2012 alone. In 2013, it spent $644 million on luxury goods, which U.N. resolutions prohibit it from importing. Let no one say that North Korea’s missiles never killed or hurt anyone.

Yet in listing the causes of the food crisis, the World Food program lists droughts, floods, typhoons, deforestation, an “economic downturn,” a “lack of agricultural inputs such as fertilizers,” and “limited capacity to access international capital markets and import food.”

In 2015, a U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring international compliance with sanctions against North Korea found that the North Korean government had placed an intelligence officer inside the WFP’s Rome headquarters.

Recent evidence, however, suggests that the North Korean government has no difficulty importing the things it really wants.

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Satellite imagery of North Korea’s Nampho port reveals what appears to be a new 50-meter pleasure craft, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA).

The boat which was first spotted by Curtis Melvin at the U.S.-Korea Institute in Washington D.C., and can be seen docked at the naval headquarters of North Korea’s West Sea fleet. [….]

“No visitors have reported seeing or photographing this boat. We are under the impression that this boat was imported, at one point or another,” Melvin added, though admitted more me definite proof (sic) had so far been hard to come by. [….]

The new boat joins a number of other pleasure craft visible on satellite imagery around the DPRK’s coasts. In 2013, an NK News investigation revealed Kim Jong Un’s $7 million yacht, originally manufactured by British company Princess.

UN sanctions prohibit the sale of pleasure craft, cars and other luxury items to North Korea, but patchy implementation often means that prohibited goods can still find their way across the DPRK’s borders. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

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Photos obtained by NK Pro reveal North Korea’s new gondolas at the Masikryong ski resort originally came from Austria, in what could constitute a breach of UN luxury goods sanctions and EU regulations.

The recently installed cable car system now running up the Taehwa Peak in the DPRK’s Kangwon Province, once ferried passengers around the high end Ischgl resort on the border between Austria and Switzerland as part of network of 45 ski lifts and cable cars.

Coming amid momentum for fresh United Nations sanctions to respond to the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test, the gondola is the latest in a string of controversial purchases by the North Korean resort, which also include skiing equipment and specialized machinery sourced from Europe and Canada. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

A government that can import yachts and ski gondolas surely has the means to import rice.

In its 2014 report, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that found evidence of crimes against humanity in North Korea discussed Pyongyang’s “systematic, widespread and grave violations of the right to food” in extensive detail.

660. Large amounts of state expenditure are also devoted to giant bronze statues and other projects designed to further the personality cult of Kim Il-sung and his successors and showcase their achievements. These projects are given absolute priority, which is also evidenced by the fact that they are often completed in a short period of time.  The DPRK Minister of Finance, Choe Kwang-jin, reported about the 2012 budget of the DPRK:

Of the total state budgetary expenditure for the economic development and improvement of people’s living standard, 44.8 per cent was used for funding the building of edifices to be presented to the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung, the consolidation of the material and technological foundation of Juche-based, modern and self-supporting economy and the work for face-lifting the country.

661. In 2013, Kim Jong-un ordered the KPA to construct a “world-class” ski resort that would rival the winter sports facilities that are being built in the ROK in preparation of the ROK’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. When visiting the site in May 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly “was greatly satisfied to learn that soldier-builders have constructed a skiing area on mountain ranges covering hundreds of thousands of square meters, including primary, intermediate and advanced courses with almost 110,000 meters in total length and between 40 and 120 metres in width.” 

662. A number of similar prestige projects that fail to have any immediate positive impact on the situation of the general population have been pursued, including the construction of the monumental Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang, the Rungna Dolphinarium and Pleasure Park in Pyongyang and a beach resort town in Wonsan.

(f) Purchase of luxury goods

663. The DPRK continues allocating a significant amount of the state’s resources for the purchase and importation of luxury goods, as confirmed by the reports of the United Nations Panel of Experts established pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009), which inter alia monitors the implementation of the Security Council sanctions prohibiting the import of luxury goods. In one report, the Panel of Experts described the confiscation, by Italy, of luxury items such as high quality cognac and whiskey worth 12,000 euros (USD 17,290) and equipment for a 1,000-person cinema valued at Euro 130,000 (USD 187,310). The report further revealed that the DPRK has attempted to purchase and import a dozen Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment, more than three dozen pianos and cosmetics. 

664. Luxury goods expenditure by the DPRK rose to USD 645.8 million (470 million euros) in 2012. Reportedly, this was a sharp increase from the average of USD 300 million a year under Kim Jong-il in October 2013. [U.N. Commission of Inquiry report on Human Rights in N. Korea, Feb. 2014]

In response to North Korea’s missile test, a State Department spokesman called on Pyongyang to “put food in the mouths of the North Korean people instead of spending money on dangerous military capabilities.” There is fresh evidence that this message would resonate with North Koreans, too. Although the North Korean government’s propaganda blames international sanctions for causing food shortages, the claim is nonsense. Professor Lee and I debunked it here, in the pages of the New York Times. The North Korean people also question that narrative.

Q: North Korea may be sanctioned again by the international community. I presumed that only ordinary people will suffer, not the upper class. What do you think about that?

A: Our life is so miserable; we are so poor with or without sanctions. We make a living selling in the marketplace, because the government no longer provides rations as they used to. Sanctions make any difference. [….]

Q: North Korean official media are showing scenes of people in Pyongyang celebrating the success of the hydrogen bomb test. How about in the provincial towns?

A: There haven’t been any meetings or gatherings regarding the nuke test. No one has any interest in it. A successful test will not provide a single teaspoon of rice. We are only concerned about the price of rice. We don’t care about that shitty bomb story; we are too busy trying to feed ourselves. [Rimjin-gang]

And separately, this:

Q: How do the people feel about the hydrogen bomb test?

A: I doubt that many people would have pride about that (the nuke test)! We don’t have enough food to eat! Everyone is making an outcry since they are doing that kind of thing even though we are so hungry! [Rimjin-gang]

North Korea watchers often speculate that the regime uses bomb and missile tests to create an us-versus-them mentality, to bolster national pride in the regime, and to distract the people from the hardships they endure. As The New York Times notes, “Most of the country, especially outside the capital, remains in dire poverty, a fact that analysts say has spurred Mr. Kim to focus attention on his nuclear program.” There’s evidence that it’s not working anymore.

She said, “People here are more apprehensive than boastful. They say the regime has finally blown it after the repetitive talks about the nuclear test. People in the markets also argue, ‘The government should have spent the money on food supplies. The state media announced that the nuclear test was a success, but who knows whether it was.’ ”

The situations in the North Korean border region remain unchanged; the residents are largely indifferent to the success of its nuclear test. The regime propagated justifications for possessing nuclear weapons and its success on the 4th nuclear test, on the basis that it defends peace and protects from the United States and its other enemies.

In the past, people in the DPRK have been proud of nuclear test success and its purported power to defend the state. But public opinion has turned against nuclear weapons over the years, with people’s perception of nuclear arms development going from ‘possession of national defense power’ to ‘waste of financial resources’. [New Focus Int’l]

The South Korean government has just announced that it will increase its loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the DMZ. If Seoul ever develops and deploys a comprehensive information operations strategy for broadcasting to the North Korean people, it should make the true causes of hunger in North Korea a centerpiece of its message. Seoul’s message to the people of North Korea should be a variation on a message that has long proven effective when delivered to oppressed people: rice, peace, and freedom … and reunification.

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Rev. Tim Peters is feeding N. Korea’s hungry, and showing us how to re-think food aid

The Rev. Tim Peters, a man who embodies everything I admire about the word “Christian,” leads the group Helping Hands Korea, which has been helping North Koreans escape for more than a decade. Now, he’s putting into action what I call “guerrilla engagement,” reaching inside North Korea covertly and helping its oppressed and starved classes achieve material independence. He’s doing it by harnessing the private sotoji farms that operate on the edge of legality, and which may have saved North Korea from famine last year.

Rather than just spiriting a trickle of refugees to freedom abroad, he is also smuggling nutrient-rich vegetable seeds into North Korea, in a bold effort to provide food security for the 24.9 million people still trapped behind its barbed wire borders.

This campaign comes at a critical time. Due to some minor land reforms in the North, rural families now are allowed to cultivate tiny plots of land privately. A China-based refugee explained to him: “We have the land now, but we don’t have seeds.” [….]

Reverend Peters recalled of that time: “We sent the first batches into North Korea using various networks. Soon after that, another Catacombs member, Ed, mentioned that his grandfather bequeathed to him a chestnut orchard some time ago. I half-jokingly said: ‘Ed, are all those chestnuts just rotting on the ground when you’re over here in Korea?’ The next thing I knew, his family had sent a big box of seeds from America as a donation to our initiative. That is how The Seed Project began.”

Catacombs volunteers — a motley assortment of graduate students, English teachers, military personnel, and local high school students — now gather weekly at a small art gallery. Their goal is to repackage high-quality vegetable seeds with Korean planting instructions, while keeping up-to-date on the latest North Korea headlines. This winter, they have prepped over one thousand units. [Rachel Stine, The World Post]

I’m proud to call Rev. Peters, and several other participants in this program, my friends:

Despite the religious nature of Peters’ approach, Catacombs enjoys significant support from human rights activists on the secular left. At any given meeting, a third of the attendees are atheist or agnostic. Included in this demographic is regular attendant Craig Urquhart. A Canadian activist, Craig recently donated approximately 100 packets of organic, heirloom seeds designed to grow well in frosty climates.

“It’s not like we’re sending Bibles North,” he said. “We’re sending seeds – food – and a path to a better future. Sending seeds North is one way to help North Koreans who suffer repression by their government. It slightly reduces their dependence on the state dictatorship and it fosters food independence. There’s no negative to this kind of engagement.”

Kurt Achin, a Seoul-based journalist and Catholic supporter of the program, remarked: “I met Tim in 2004 when I came over here to report on defectors and human rights. I am a huge supporter of his quiet approach.”

My only complaint about this otherwise groundbreaking article is that it cites low estimates of the percentage of food-insecure North Koreans. According to recent U.N. reports, that number is somewhere between 70 and 84 percent. Admittedly, U.N. assessments should be treated with skepticism; they may well be skewed by both regime manipulation and the hoarding of food, including sotoji-grown food.

The obvious challenge for this program will be to stay covert and avoid the state’s domination. After more than two decades of humanitarian aid from the U.N. and various NGOs — aid that has long been subject to diversion and manipulation — North Korea is still in a chronic food crisis despite being an industrialized society in a temperate zone with more than enough cash to feed every last North Korean. And after all, how different is the weather in North Korea (perpetual food crisis) from that in South Korea (no food crisis)?

Without a doubt, regime-sanctioned aid must have helped many (but certainly not most) needy North Koreans, but it has not solved the larger food crisis, and may even be contributing to it. As Benjamin K. Silberstein writes, “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.” Or, as Nicholas Eberstadt wrote recently:

There is one final, and particularly bitter, piece in the puzzle: the role of foreign aid in financing and ultimately facilitating North Korea’s ruin. Mirror statistics reveal that the DPRK has never been self-supporting. To the contrary, it has relied on a perennial inflow of foreign resources to sustain itself. Since 1960, North Korea has reportedly received more than $60 billion (in today’s dollars) more merchandise from abroad than it has shipped overseas. Nearly $45 billion of that came from Beijing and Moscow—a figure we can treat as a rough approximation of total Chinese and Soviet/Russian financial support.

Why didn’t these massive transfers result in any appreciable measure of long-term economic advancement? The work of economists Craig Burnside, David Dollar and Lant Pritchett, published in the late 1990s under the aegis of the World Bank, suggests an answer: Aid can have a negative effect on growth when a recipient state has a bad business climate, because foreign subsidies allow the regime, in the short term, to escape the consequences of its misrule. In such cases, the greater the volume of aid, the bigger the harm.

Unfortunately, North Korea’s horrific economic performance was enabled in part by leaders abroad who sent billions of dollars to Pyongyang. Those resources allowed the Kim dynasty to continue policies so patently destructive that they would have been forced to cease, or at least to moderate, them absent subsidy from overseas.

International aid workers and humanitarian policy makers have always feared that foreign assistance, through cascading mishaps, might leave recipients poorer and worse off in the end. [Wall Street Journal]

If Helping Hands can keep operating below the state’s radar, it can be a small beginning for a series of far greater things. With material independence comes intellectual independence. If you want to donate to Helping Hands Korea, here’s a link.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Updates, 15 April 2015:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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