Category Archives: Famine & Food Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An excellent panel discussion on food aid to North Korea …

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

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

HT: Dr. Mark P. Barry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

Update: Similar thoughts from Patrick Cronin.

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Starving Bulawayo to feed Pyongyang?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In North Korea, flood -> hunger, drought -> hunger, bumper harvest -> hunger

Last year, after two decades of almost interrupted crop failures, North Korea experienced its first good harvest since at least 2005, and possibly since 1992. Unfortunately, it looks like North Korea is regressing to the norm again, with KCNA claiming that North Korea is experiencing “its worst spring drought in more than three decades.”

It’s seldom wise to accept KCNA’s claims at face value, but even if one does, it’s worth remembering that none of the floods and droughts that North Korea reports every year ever caused a famine in South Korea. Do weather patterns stop at the DMZ? By contrast, every weather anomaly that hits North Korea results in a World Food Program appeal for food aid, and every time, we have the same old questions about whether the aid really reaches those who need it.

Will this drought plunge North Korea back into famine? No more than any other drought, flood, or bumper harvest during the last 20 years, since the time when members of North Korean’s expendable classes learned to smuggle and trade and survive through black-market capitalism.

What’s interesting is the extent to which major variations in domestic production have little apparent effect on the domestic food situation, at least as the World Food Program (our least-bad authority) describes it. After all, one would expect that after last year’s good harvest, North Koreans finally had enough to eat, right? Wrong. Instead, the U.N. WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 84% of North Korean households had marginal or poor food consumption, and the WFP launched a two-year, $200 million appeal for more food aid from abroad.

Of course, Kim Jong Un could have more than satisfied that appeal himself, using the $300 million he instead spent on ski resorts and other white-elephant leisure facilities, or by simply confiscating less land and food. But rather than close North Korea’s food gap, Kim Jong Un chose to cut back on commercial imports of food from China instead.

Ironically, Kim is the one North Korean who doesn’t seem to be getting any thinner. In North Korea, harvests rise and fall, but hunger — at least for those on the lower tiers of North Korea’s caste system — is a constant. The inescapable conclusion is that North Korea calibrates the domestic food supply as a matter of state policy, perhaps to divert its spending on food to other purposes, and perhaps to maintain a more-or-less constant degree of hunger among the lower classes as a tool of control.

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Aid donors give up on North Korea

My friend, Andrei Lankov, is again proclaiming that North Korea has reformed its agricultural sector, which he credits for last year’s improved harvest. I’ve grown comfortable with my pessimism about reform in North Korea, because events have never failed to vindicate it. Regrettably, nothing in my friend’s report dissuades me from adherence to my default view.

First, Lankov claims that these reforms have resulted in a 30% increase in last year’s harvest; however, the most reliable data we have show a 5% increase, but nothing resembling what Lankov’s sources claim.

Second, Lankov’s conclusion appears to rest on “Chinese experts who recently visited North Korea,” which means that this information could be disinformation, unreliable hearsay, unrepresentative of the country as a whole, or influenced by the bias of the “experts.” Aside from Andrei’s report, I’ve seen no evidence of a policy change from the Daily NK, New Focus, and other outlets with sources inside North Korea.

Third, I’m still reading fresh reports of the regime trying to calibrate the level of hunger, compensating for the improved harvest by sending more food to Pyongyang without giving regular rations to people elsewhere. You can’t really call a change of policy “reform” unless it’s reasonably calculated to improve the welfare of the people. Furthermore, such reform would be unsustainable. People won’t work harder to grow food that will only be seized from them. Instead, they’ll pilfer and hoard as much as they can, pre-harvest food to beat the tax man, increase their reliance on sotoji (private plot) agriculture, and find other survival strategies that will drive down or hide yields. All of this behavior also prevents any accurate assessment of harvests.

Finally, whatever policies changed last year, it’s hard to extend those trends into this year, given the purge of so many officials who held a more pragmatic view of property, trade, and commerce. Certainly the reports of mass currency confiscations in Pyongyang do not suggest that the regime has embraced economic freedom or the profit motive (unless it’s the one profiting).

~  ~  ~

Foreign food aid is another food source that impacts this picture, although there is much debate about how much it impacts the availability of food to ordinary North Koreans. Since aid programs were scaled back dramatically in 2006, only 2.4 million North Koreans — about 11% of the population — were nominal beneficiaries, despite the fact that 84% of households have an insufficient or marginal food supply. If diversion and corruption continue to take a substantial cut of that aid, then the percentage of North Koreans receiving aid must fall far short of 11%. Furthermore, it’s fair to assume that the regime picks that 11% of approved recipients based on criteria other than need alone.

Still, foreign aid almost certainly does impact the aggregate food supply, if indirectly. Much of the diverted food ends up in markets (Item 8), where it affects commodity prices. And when the regime has less aid to give to the army, hungry soldiers become marauders and loot nearly farms to survive.

I tell you all of this to give some context to a report that “North Korea received record-low food aid from the United Nations food agency in 2013 due to sluggish contributions from the international community.” Last year, the World Food Program collected just 30% of what it appealed for, and donations were so “sluggish” that the World Food Program’s nutrition biscuit factories are on the verge of shutting down:

Some 38,000 tons of food were delivered from the World Food Program (WFP) to the impoverished communist country in 2013, some 30 percent of the agency’s target for the year, according to the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA). 

It was less than half the amount sent in the previous year and the smallest since 1996 when the agency began helping the North, the report said, adding it was attributable to the WFP’s failure to raise enough funds to achieve the goal.

The amount of the U.N. agency’s food aid to the North has been fluctuating from some 136,000 tons in 2008, 50,000 tons in 2010, 100,000 tons in 2011 and 84,000 tons in 2012, according to WFP data. [Yonhap]

The WFP claims that food rations in North Korea today are 573 grams per person, compared to the WFP’s “minimum recommended amount” of 600 grams. Fortunately, very few North Koreans still rely on the state distribution system as a food source. Last week, a South Korean think tank estimated that 90% of North Koreans now derive at least part of their household income from markets:

A study of North Korean defectors by Kim’s institute showed that more than 74 percent had experience selling goods in open-air markets. They derived 70 to 80 percent of their income from unofficial economic activity and spent 80 to 90 percent of their incomes buying goods in informal markets rather than state-run stores.

Yonhap’s report doesn’t pursue the reasons for the drop in donations. One must be the fact that North Korea is the only industrialized society that has ever had such a prolonged food crisis. “Normal” societies react to food shortages by instituting broad agricultural and economic reforms, and by using more of their wealth to purchase and import food from other nations. North Korea just imports less food when it gets more aid. It’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that the regime is “calibrating” a more-or-less constant state of hunger to keep its population docile, tired, and too busy surviving to resist.

Another, more obvious reason is that the regime so clearly has enough money to feed every one of its people, yet chooses to spend the money on weapons and ski resorts instead. Aid workers know this, but in the interest of maintaining their own access, they’ve chosen not to talk about it (even as they vocally criticize governments that implement U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea’s proliferation).

The result is the worst of both worlds. Some governments, particularly in Europe, are balking at designating North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank under UNSCR 2094, despite its history of involvement in proliferation. Ironically, European governments are justifying that decision based on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian aid programs they’ve stopped funding!

It’s reasonable for governments to conclude that their aid can do more good in other places. It is wrong, however, to simply give up on helping the North Korean people. The correct response isn’t to accede to the use of food as a weapon; it’s to force North Korea to make more food available to more of its people.

Because so much North Korean money allegedly resides in Europe, Europe could play an important role in forcing this change. (So could other nations, including Switzerland, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, and yes, China.) If host nations were to block Kim Jong Un’s known slush funds and make it clear that those funds are only available for the purchase of food and humanitarian supplies, it would not only increase the amount of food North Korea imports, it would put severe pressure on Kim Jong Un to change his food distribution and agricultural policies. In the short term, this could extract transparency from Kim Jong Un in monitoring the distribution of aid. In the longer term, it could force North Korea to become more transparent in other ways.

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In North Korea, hunger isn’t a function of production, but of state policy.

In North Korea, malnutrition remains widespread, crops are being seized in the provinces, women are selling their bodies to survive, NGOs say the country is in a state of humanitarian crisis, and a staggering 84% of households still can’t get enough to eat.

So what else is new? The U.N. says North Korea has just had its best harvest in years.

North Korea is still struggling with chronic malnutrition with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption, United Nations agencies said on Thursday, despite a 5 percent rise in staple food output.

Overall production for this year’s harvest is estimated at some 5.03 million metric tons, roughly a 5 percent increase from last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) said in a joint statement.

“Despite the improved harvest, the food security situation is still unsatisfactory with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption,” it said. [Yonhap]

Courtesy of Steph Haggard, you can read the WFP/FAO’s complete annual food assessment for North Korea here. Read it skeptically, because it still relies on what the regime shows and tells the U.N. According to maps inside the report, the agencies were only allowed to sample a few tiny tracts of the country, which raises suspicions of selection bias. Or, as the report itself concedes:

The Mission held interviews with a sample of 77 households to better understand household-level food and nutrition security. The Mission used a structured household questionnaire. In each county 2 to 3 households were selected. The types of household to be visited – cooperative farm or households dependent on the Public Distribution System (PDS) – were chosen at the request of the Mission teams. The final sample consisted of 47 PDS-dependent households, 29 cooperative farmers, and 1 mixed household. In addition, the Mission visited 16 hospitals and 24 child institutions to assess the contribution of Government institutions to overall food security. Nine state shops and three farmers’ markets were also visited. Doctors, nurses and nursery managers were asked specific questions on the nutrition situation of children.

The sample cannot be treated as representative of the entire population as it was small and was not selected in a statistically random manner. The results presented in this report should, therefore, be considered as indicative only.

This doesn’t inspire much confidence. Aside from the obvious problems of methodology and the potential for manipulation, regime officials probably don’t have a complete picture of domestic food production themselves. Why not? For one thing, collectives have an incentive to underreport production. If they report less, less is seized from them, and more is left over to eat, hoard, or sell.

The regime also doesn’t know how much food North Koreans are growing on private plots hidden in the mountains, on their balconies and rooftops, and even on vacant lots in cities.

Two weeks ago over dinner, I spoke with a recent (circa 2009) defector from the Northeast about these private plots. (Let’s call him Mr. Lee, if that’s all right with you.) I asked Mr. Lee how much of North Korea’s food supply these private plots were providing when he left. He couldn’t offer more than a broad estimate of 20 to 25 percent, which happens to be about the same percentage that private plots once contributed to the U.S.S.R.’s food supply. Mr. Lee was emphatic that the WFP’s reliance on official statistics meant that it could not possibly arrive at an accurate estimate of this “unofficial” production, which the regime barely acknowledges, sometimes tolerates, and sometimes arbitrarily restricts. (By law, most grains and other food products may only be sold to the state.)

Although the U.N. report does refer to “home and kitchen gardens,” those terms don’t describe what Mr. Lee did, or that Andrei Lankov and his co-authors wrote about in this fascinating research paper. In the Northeast in particular, large plots called sotoji are cleared amid tracts of forest land, often after bribing the rangers. Writing in the Korea Times, Lankov estimated that in the Northeast, where Mr. Lee hails from, “sotoji fields seem to produce as much as 60 percent of all food sold on the local market.” There’s little else in the U.N. report to suggest a complete understanding of what people are producing privately and selling in the markets illegally (see, e.g., pages 15 and 22).

A few months ago, the Daily NK reported that the regime was cracking down on sotoji. (Update: In September 2012, Open News reported that the regime was confiscating and collectivizing them.) A crackdown might have had an outsized impact on the food situation, something that all of the statistics reported in the press could have missed. Privately, the regime could be overestimating this unreported production, causing it to squeeze the people more than they can bear. Or, it could be leading the U.N. to unrepresentative samples to make things look worse than they really are and bring in more aid (which never seems to dent the malnutrition problem for some reason). We know it isn’t above that.

In other words, U.N. estimates of the actual food situation, which can only be measured accurately by monitoring the health of a representative sample of the population over time, could be skewed in either direction.

But more fundamentally, hunger in North Korea isn’t a function of supply, but of state policy. State policy controls how much food is imported, how much is spent on things like fertilizer and machinery, who can grow what and where, what can be sold, how much is seized from those who grow and sell it, where the harvest goes once it’s collected, who gets a ration and how much, and how effectively foreign aid agencies can deliver aid. State policy at its harshest meant that each of the airplanes in these images killed as many people as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. But as Stephan Haggard explains, there’s no evidence of any reform in North Korea’s agricultural policies. Reform would mean the regime couldn’t use food to control people.

The WFP/FAO report does contain one telling sign that it got the larger food supply trend right. Last year, the regime slashed food imports by almost half compared to the previous year. (International food aid also fell.) Of course, we know that Kim Jong Un is diverting hard currency toward things like ski reports and water parks that no one is using (but hey, it’s December) and weapons programs. But the reduction in commercial imports could have an even more sinister significance. For years, I’ve suspected that the regime adjusts its food imports not so much as a response to receiving more food aid, but to calibrate its food supply at a consistently low level, to keep its “wavering” and “hostile” populations weak, listless, vulnerable, and obedient.

There is also evidence of abundance in some parts of North Korea. You’ll never guess where:

The authorities in Pyongyang have been distributing rice harvested this autumn to the public since October, having drawn down military grain stocks since the spring. The people of the capital are currently experiencing high food security as a result, as rice procured from North and South Hwanghae is used to service the population of the capital.

A source from Pyongyang reported to Daily NK on the 2nd, “At the beginning of October there was distribution of one week and then of two weeks of rice from the 2013 autumn harvest,” adding, “November was like October, with distribution divided into two lots, and the authorities have made it known that there will be normal distribution in December.”

“All the rice produced on the outskirts of Pyongyang goes to the military in those areas, whereas the rice that has been distributed this time came from further afield,” the source went on. “There was a good rice harvest this year so they started distributing it early, unlike in some other years.”

Moreover, the source added, “The Upper [the North Korean authorities] is propagating the idea that ‘The Marshal [Kim Jong Eun] is granting this distribution in accordance with his goal to ‘renovate Pyongyang within three years’,” and “Trust only in the Marshal and you’ll be able to live the good life.”  [….]

The source agreed. “The lives of people in Pyongyang are improving slowly off the back of two months of comparatively voluminous food distribution,” he noted. “People used to spend all the money they earned to buy rice and side dishes, but now they are buying things like clothes, or even saving their money.”

Meanwhile, other regions of North Korea are not receiving the same scale of distribution. A source from the northern border city of Hyesan, for example, told Daily NK that distribution there has been insignificant. “Since we got eight months of potatoes at the beginning of October after the harvest, there’s been nothing.”

A source from Hwanghae said the same, explaining that there has only been localized distribution of food to cooperative farm workers in accordance with production levels, and no mention of “rice distribution” at all.

Why would people in the provinces keep growing food they aren’t permitted to eat? There’s a hint of an answer beneath this dishonest Yonhap headline: “N. Korea offering incentives to farmers: WFP”. Incentives! Green shoots of capitalism at last! Huzzah, for profiteering can only mean reform! Except that if you read the article, it says, “North Korea is offering incentives to farmers who are productive, while cutting food rations for those who under-perform.” Yes, I suppose the threat of starvation counts as an incentive, too. Sigh.

As you’re digesting the last of your Thanksgiving leftovers, there are real children starving in front of their parents all over North Korea. Give thanks.

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Witnesses: North Korea culpable for famine deaths

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry for North Korea has done excellent and necessary work collecting testimony about the regime’s political prison camps. Michael Kirby, the Commission’s Chairman, has earned the eternal gratitude of the Korean people for his forthrightness, and friends of mine who met him during the COI’s session in Washington last week tell me they were deeply impressed with both Kirby and Sonja Biserko (the third commissioner, Marzuki Darusman, who performed admirably as the U.N. Special Rapporteur, fell ill during his visit and didn’t make as many of the rounds).


Before the COI convened, I had low expectations. I’d grown accustomed to the impotence and incompetence of Ban Ki Moon’s U.N. I’m glad to admit that I was wrong this time. The COI’s report may or may not result in charges before the International Criminal Court, but it matters that the world is hearing the testimony that the COI is taking. Governments will consider it, and the COI’s findings, as they decide how to implement laws and regulations, and companies will consider it as they decide where not to invest. The COI has already imposed a penalty on Kim Jong Un, and that penalty will increase with each hearing, press conference, and finding.

But as much as the attention on the prison camps is necessary and welcome, I initially regretted that the COI hadn’t focused on a even greater but less understood crime — the needless and entirely preventable famine that may have killed millions of North Koreans. Nothing can bring the victims back, but at least their deaths should not be overlooked or misattributed to natural causes. Fortunately, they won’t be:

North Korea economy expert Marcus Noland told the panel Thursday that Pyongyang is “clearly culpable” in the denial of the right to food, both under current leader Kim Jong Un and his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who ruled during the devastating famine era.

“The North Korean government did not and continues not to use the resources available at its disposal to address the lack of food among the populace, and when aid was offered, it hindered and continues to hinder the operation of relief programs,” he said.

The North Korean government’s economic and agricultural policies contributed to the food shortages that led to the famine, he said, and the leaders could have avoided the devastation it wreaked by devoting a small portion of its budget—such as by diverting some from military expenditures—to addressing food needs.

“This was a man-made, preventable tragedy.  These people died needlessly, and the government is culpable.”  [Radio Free Asia]

Andrew Natsios, author of The Great North Korean Famine, whom I’ve come to know and respect over the previous year, reached a similar conclusion:

Former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios said that even if natural causes had been behind the early factors contributing to the famine, once it knew about the problem, Kim Jong Il’s government did not act fast enough to address it.

“He was in charge, he was responsible, he knew what was going on, and he chose not to buy food and give it to the people.”

The leadership would have known how the famine was devastating the population—including from government records showing a massive drop in children’s heights and weights due to malnutrition, Natsios said.

Its lack of action could not be put down to “incompetence,” he said.

“They knew what was going on and they chose not to take action to protect the population because their first objective was survival.”

If the Commission should care to accept my offer, I hope they’ll consider adding this exhibit to their indictment.

MiG-29 base @ 1400' 14oct2010

[The world’s deadliest operational aircraft…]

This is Suncheon Air Base, not far from Pyongyang. It’s the home of North Korea’s few modern combat aircraft — its MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Both types are modern enough to still be in service with the Russian Air Force, although these are almost certainly cheaper export models.

North Korea purchased its Su-25s between 1987 and 1989, before the famine, so we won’t count them in the analysis that follows. But Kim Jong Il acquired his first 12 MiG-29s from Belarus in 1995, just as North Korea plunged into famine. An export version of a MiG-29 costs about $35 million, which excludes maintenance, training, spare parts, and armament. The following year, North Korea bought 18 more MiG-29s from Belarus and Mother Russia. The total purchase cost of thirty MiG-29s works out to over $1 billion. In addition, the annual cost to maintain each aircraft is around $5 million, which works out to over $600 million for the period between 1995 and 2000. Let’s assume that North Korea skimped on fuel and spare parts and accept a more conservative cost figure of $1.5 billion.

MiG-29s @ 600' 14oct2010

[… and they’ve never been used in combat.]

Obviously, this $1.5 billion figure doesn’t include what Kim Jong Il spent on missiles, nuclear weapons, palaces, yachts, or limousines, or the 40 MiG-21s he bought from Kazakhstan in 1999, near the end of the famine.

The best estimates of the North Korean famine’s human toll range from 600,000 to 2.5 million (other estimates are higher). I’ve explained here why I believe the 2.5 million figure is better supported. To parse it for yourself, you’ll need to read Andrew Natsios’s book.

At the height of the famine, in 1997, North Korea’s grain deficit was estimated at 1.9 million tonnes. During the famine years, the average price of corn was around $120 a tonne. That works out to an annual cost of $228 million to close North Korea’s grain deficit during each of the famine years. If you divide $1.5 billion by $228 million, the cost of these MiG-29s could have more than covered North Korea’s food deficit for six and half years, a period that spans the duration of the famine. If Kim Jong Il had imported corn instead of these MiGs, there would have been no famine.

Now, divide 2.5 million dead by 30 MiG-29s. You arrive at a cost of 75,000 lives per aircraft — roughly the same death toll as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. For each plane.

[A million deaths is just a statistic.]

The victims of North Korea’s famine didn’t have to die, but they did — maybe by the millions, and often after watching their children die before them. They were killed by the deliberate polices of their government — policies whose effects were felt year after agonizing year — as surely as the victims of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Auschwitz. The main difference is that the North Korean victims didn’t die after moments of agony. Their final agony lasted weeks, if not months.

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Cartmanland, the Country: Kim Jong Un inspects Pyongyang’s new 3-D cinema

The expression was “bread and circuses,” not “bread or circuses”:

Marshal Kim Jong Un, first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, first chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, visited …

Wait! Let me guess. A steel mill? An artillery battery? A model collective farm that raises alpaca wool for export? A troupe of precious toddlers who were taken from their mothers at birth and trained to somersault through flaming hoops for the amusement of affluent Belgian tourists? No, none of these things.

… the 3-d rhythmic cinema and video games rooms newly built in the amusement house of the Rungna People’s Pleasure Park.

He first went round the Rungna 3-d rhythmic cinema.

He looked round various places of the cinema to learn about in detail its construction, specifications of equipment and plan to operate the cinema.

After going round the audience rooms, control room and editing room, he was greatly pleased that soldier-builders successfully constructed the modern cinema in a brief span of time.

Watching 3-d films “Winners” and “Don’t wait for us” in audience room No. 5, he learned in detail about the quality and sound effect of films and rhythms. [KCNA]

The Chosun Ilbo has a picture.

North Korea is not a starving nation, it’s just a nation with many starving people.

In April 2011, Jimmy Carter said that the United States and South Korea had chosen “to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation.” Discuss among yourselves.

Update: I changed the post title from “4-D” to “3-D,” because KCNA’s English text fails to support the Chosun Ilbo’s description of “in theater physical effects.” Can anyone find the original Korean?

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European NGOs protest enforcement of U.N. sanctions, but not the millions Kim Jong Un wastes on European luxuries

Last week, the Swiss government announced that it had blocked an attempt by North Korea to buy $7.24 million worth of ski lifts, plus “golf, horseback riding and water sports” gear. That this transaction was beneath even the Swiss is saying something; historically, Switzerland was to kleptocracy what post-war Cambodia was to underage pederasty. Switzerland is near the top of any list of countries suspected of hosting North Korean slush funds that are variously estimated to be worth between $1 billion and $4 billion. Throughout the duration of a famine that, according for former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios, killed up to 2.5 million people, the Swiss sold Kim Jong Il $2.4 million worth of watches a year. Swiss suppliers sold the North Koreans their very own U.S. mint for printing perfect counterfeit $100 bills. More recently, Geneva-based Kempinski Hotels won the right to operate the Ryugyong Hotel, a vacant shell that was just glassed over for a cost of $180 million. In an unfortunate choice of words, Kempinski’s CEO promised that, when finished, the Ryugyong would be “a money printing machine,” but an escalation in North Korean war threats forced Kempinski to withdraw from the project. The estimated cost of the Ryugyong now totals $750 million, almost four times the annual budget that the World Food Program just authorized to feed 2.4 million North Koreans.

Because North Korea is North Korea, it protested that the Swiss government’s blocking of the ski lift sale was a violation of the U.N. Charter under the compulsion of “U.S. high-handed practices.” This reminds me to remind you that the Korean language actually has a word for “chutzpah,” and also, that this shouldn’t surprise you. As an aside, I can’t recall any other time in my lengthy study of North Korea that I’ve seen the “North Korea’s Skiers’ Association” this upset.

Do you know who didn’t comment on this story? Katharina Zellweger, that’s who. Zellweger led the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation from 2006 to 2011. SADC, the Swiss government’s overseas humanitarian aid agency, is one of those NGOs that didn’t withdraw from North Korea years ago over North Korea’s use of food, including food aid, as a weapon against its disfavored political castes. In May, Reuters quoted Zellweger’s criticism of sanctions that caused European banks to shun transactions with the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, which, according to the Treasury Department, serves as “a key financial node in North Korea’s WMD apparatus,” to “facilitate transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.” A new U.N. Security Council resolution recently reaffirmed a ban on the export of luxury items to North Korea, and also requires states to sanction entities involved in proliferation or the evasion of sanctions.

Unfortunately, the FTB is also the bank that foreign NGOs use to transfer hard currency into Pyongyang, and in May, the sanctions at least temporarily threatened to affect SADC’s operations by requiring them to carry cash into North Korea in duffle bags. (Never mind why a humanitarian NGO needs hard currency to spend in North Korea while feeding hungry North Koreans, although I admit to being more than mildly curious about that). According to the Chosun Ilbo, the North Korean government requires U.N. agencies to use the FTB. If North Korea also requires the same of NGOs working with the U.N. World Food Program, as SADC does, that’s a significant omission from the reporting of how sanctions have impacted humanitarian work in North Korea.

U.N. Security Council 2094, the Treasury Department’s sanctions regulations, and E.U. sanctions regulations all include waivers or exemptions for humanitarian aid. Section 207(d) of H.R. 1771, a tough, bipartisan sanctions bill pending in the House of Representatives, directs Treasury to authorize a responsible foreign bank to provide financial services for humanitarian and consular operations in North Korea.

This still isn’t the most important missing piece of this story, however. By an exquisite and tragic coincidence, SADC’s annual budget for North Korea is 7.2 million francs, or $7.84 million, just slightly more than what Kim Jong Un would have squandered on just this one wasteful purchase. This certainly begs a few questions.  For one, can you imagine all the good SADC could do for North Koreans if Kim Jong Un would donate that $7.24 to SADC instead of blowing it on high-end sporting goods? And why does Kim Jong Un insist on using food aid recipients as human shields for the financing of proliferation? Also, why should foreign donors contribute to aid programs whose budgets are dwarfed by North Korea’s spending on weapons and luxury items (many of the latter purchased from European suppliers with slush funds in European banks)? Finally, why shouldn’t those funds be confiscated from the European accounts of a government that prioritizes luxuries over feeding its people?

These may not be questions you would expect from the leader of an aid agency working in a country led by a ruthless, vindictive, and thin-skinned regime, but they are important to any honest examination of why the North Korean people need humanitarian aid in the first place. Any criticism that leaves them unexamined deserves to be dismissed as disingenuous.

Even these questions fail to plumb the depth of North Korea’s financial depravity. Two weeks ago, the World Food Program appealed to donor nations for another $98 million to feed North Korea’s can’t-haves. By contrast, according to South Korean government estimates, in 2012, North Korea spent $1.3 billion on its missile programs alone. Had Kim Jong Un’s fiscal priorities been otherwise, that money could have bought 4.6 million tons of corn, enough corn to eliminate North Korea’s food deficit … for four or five years.

I emphasize that this $1.3 billion–a figure that looks like “$1,300,000,000” when aroused to its full digital amplitude–includes just one year’s missile budget. It does not include what North Korea spent on its nuclear weapons programs, its conventional forces, or, say, the $1.5 million in used MiGs that it tried to buy from Mongolia. It does not include Pyongyang’s new dolphinarium, or the fitness center that serves as a distant-second line of defense against an outbreak of obesity. It does not include the cost of remodeling this palace, the $1,600 spent on Ri Sol-Ju’s Christian Dior handbag, or any of the other couture d’impératrice that brought on spasms of homoerotic simpering from the shallow end of the press pool last year.

Historically, discriminating North Korean tyrants have preferred European brands. With occasional exceptions, such as the blocked sale of two Azimut-Benetti yachts from Italy (price, $4.4 million) Europe has seldom hesitated to sell them. In 2010, Kim Jong Il distributed 160 Mercedes-Benz sedans to his cronies at once; the following year, he imported over $3 million worth of European cars. During a visit to China, he rode in a $400,000 Maybach (though it gives me a certain ghoulish satisfaction that he rode to Hell in a ’76 Lincoln). Most infamously, he is said to have spent $720,000 a year in Hennessy cognac. Before his death, his son and successor was spotted wearing a Swiss watch worth $78,000.

Another NGO that was quoted by Reuters criticizing the effect of the sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank was German NGO Welthungerhilfe, whose annual report for 2012 indicates that it spent 3,235,607 Euros, or approximately $4,300,000, on feeding North Koreans last year. What North Korea tried to spend on yachts in 2010 could have covered Welthungerhilfe’s budget for a year. What North Korea tried to spend on ski lift equipment could have covered Welthungerhilfe’s 2012 budget for nearly two years. Welthungerhilfe’s specific complaint involved delays in a series of cash transfers that were collectively worth less than the cost of one of Kim Jong Il’s Mercedes-Benz limousines.

To be fair, North Korea’s palace procurers undoubtedly purchased some of these luxuries in China without the direct knowledge of the European suppliers, but in other cases, the North Koreans purchased the goods directly. North Korea’s preference for European goods is also financially convenient; it’s a way to use trade to move (read: launder) the billions of dollars that North Korea’s rulers have stashed away in Europe’s banks, and then ship it home through Chinese ports, where customs inspections are notoriously lax.

North Korea is sometimes referred to as a “starving nation,” this isn’t really true, of course. North Korea is a nation with many starving people, but its government has more than enough cash to feed every one of them. It chooses not to feed them. It even reduces its commercial imports of food when it receives foreign food aid. The inescapable inference is that North Korea chooses to feed the people it deems useful, and chooses not to feed–or let anyone else feed–the expendable ones, who survive largely on food that is pilfered from collectives or government stocks, grown on hidden plots, or smuggled into North Korea and sold in a spreading network of markets that the regime sometimes tolerates. If some foreigners help to feed the non-expendables, that just leaves more money to buy nukes and swag from other foreigners.

Why does North Korea make these choices? Some of the answers are only knowable to psychopaths–even an abject moral imbecile can’t defend them and won’t try–but one of them is “because it can.” North Korea can make these horrible choices in part because European governments–democracies whose regulatory bureaucracies are influenced by public opinion and the words of influential NGOs–have been far too lax, for far too long, in limiting North Korea’s access to European bank accounts and European luxuries. Neither Switzerland nor the E.U. nations can immunize themselves against charges of abetting North Korea’s misery by contributing humanitarian aid that is, when compared to this tragic squandering of wealth, infinitesimal. A principled enforcement of U.N. sanctions would do the North Korean people far more good than feel-good gestures and unspoken truths.


[Correction:  A previous version of this post referred to “Switzerland and other EU nations,” incorrectly implying that Switzerland is an EU member state.  It is not. Thanks to Marc for calling my attention to the error.]

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