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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
Here’s the latest from Professor Lee and me on the policy implications of the Commission of Inquiry’s report. The theme is that sanctions can be a tool to make Kim Jong Un’s misused wealth a source of funding for the U.N.’s underfunded aid programs — assuming Kim Jong Un allows the aid to be monitored.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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]
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?
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.]
Weeks before North Korea’s latest nuclear test, it was clear that the political climate surrounding North Korea policy was ready for a big shift away from honor-system diplomacy and toward tougher sanctions. This test is likely to mean a major legislative push here in Washington — not just to punish North Korea, but to craft and enact sanctions that attack the regime’s structural weaknesses, with the intent of either coercing its disarmament or destroying it. For all the tension that will prompt in the short term, it is the only plausible non-military path to a long-term solution.
Republicans in Congress will start by pushing to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Opponents of such a move are fond of arguing that this would be be motivated by factors unrelated to terrorism, but those people either don’t know the facts or are hiding them. It was the Bush Administration that de-listed North Korea for political reasons, in spite of North Korea’s refusal to acknowledge, end, or renounce its past and ongoing terrorism. Opponents of re-listing North Korea should read the legal definition of “international terrorism” at 18 U.S.C. 2331, and then explain why the abduction and murder of the activist and rescuer, the Rev. Kim Dong Shik, doesn’t count. Or the attempted assassination of defector-dissident Park Sang-Hak. Or the attempted assassination of defector-dissident Hwang Jang-Yop. Or all of those other poison needle assassination attempts against human rights activists North Korea’s agents were behind, whether in China or South Korea. Or its calls for its supporters to slit Lee Myung Bak’s throat, or its threat to shell the Blue House. Or its threat to shell the offices of newspapers that criticize the regime. I could go on, and on. North Korea has never sponsored more terrorism in its dreadful history than in the period since George W. Bush removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.
This is only a start. I also expect to see a much broader, more comprehensive sanctions effort aimed at North Korea’s proliferation and money laundering, certainly in Congress and perhaps Read more
The most superficial things you’ve probably heard about Kim Jong Un are the closely related ideas that he is, or must be, a latent reformer because he (a) appreciates aspects of Western culture, (b) has a fashionable wife, and (c) had a Swiss education. As examples, I’ll cite this report by Jean Lee, this and this from Joohee Cho of ABC, and this exercise in straw-grasping by John DeLury. The problem with this theory is that it isn’t supported by any evidence that the regime has become less brutal, menacing, controlling, or confiscatory in the last year.
Leave aside the foundational question of whether Kim Jong Un is more than a figurehead, an assumption I am underprepared to accept. During his schooling abroad, he didn’t exhibit many signs of intellectual curiosity, enlightenment, or strength of character. Even the word “education” is a stretch; Jong Un didn’t graduate from his expensive foreign school.
Historically, the exposure of dictators’ sons to foreign culture has not moderated them; it was just another place for them to be everything they were at home except above the law and shielded from our sight. Because little tyrants eventually become big tyrants, what they became was self-indulgent, impulsive sociopaths. Nicu Ceausescu, Uday Hussein, and Hannibal Qaddafi never lacked for access to Europe’s fleshpots. Nicu and Uday (both of whom were serial rapists at home) are rumored to have palled around together in Switzerland, and both Uday and Hannibal share the distinction of being expelled from it for violent assaults (so enraging the elder Qaddafi that he demanded that the entire country of Switzerland be abolished; Hannibal later got in trouble in Denmark and the U.K. for other assaults). Like his peers before him, Kim Jong Un was privileged enough to be whisked off to a bacchanalian playground. Unlike his peers, he spent his time there torturing animals and masturbating to bondage porn alone in his room. But he loves Disney characters! Yes, and so did Hitler. It’s at least as plausible to theorize that Jong Un combines the self-restraint of Nicu and Uday with the poisonous inadequacy of Goebbels and Hitler.
I’ve already drawn the comparison between how Lee and Cho covered Ri Sol Ju’s fashions to how Vogue covered Asma Assad’s. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Don’t the first ladies of most impoverished banana republics love high fashion? I’ll say this much for Asma — the long list of her husband’s crimes doesn’t include starving his people while telling the world he can’t afford corn.
We know very little about Kim Jong Un’s personality; in fact, we don’t even know how important it is to know about it. All we can judge is the regime’s performance on matters of substance since his coronation. Maybe one day, the regime will make some pragmatic or humane reforms, although there’s scant evidence for that now. Last fall, for example, there was a lot of excitement outside North Korea when the regime announced agricultural reforms that would have allowed collectives to keep more of their crops. Never mind that the move was accompanied by the seizure of privately cultivated land, which had become a major source of food and income for less-privileged North Koreans. The reforms were quickly forgotten as the harvest came in.
Politically, the regime has cracked down on information flows and defections. The area around Camp 22 is a particular target for warnings to citizens against telling what they’ve witnessed inside North Korea. Judging by new statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the crackdown is working.
Although the crackdown began during Kim Jong Il’s rule, it has been redoubled since his death.
Under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, human rights activists and South Korean officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to smuggle refugees out of the country, contributing to a sharp drop in the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea in the past year. [NYT]
Notwithstanding the explanation by the Times that this decline is the result of a crackdown, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves if there might be other reasons for this decreased flow. Foreign observers are seeing more cars, cell phones, and luxury goods in the elite reservation of Pyongyang, but are most North Koreans better off now than they were in 2009? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s economic recovery from the Great Famine of 1993 to 2000 appears to have peaked around 2005, when it was reversed by a series of confiscatory measures. As recently as last year, there were reports of microfamines in Hwanghae, the rice bowl of North Korea, as a direct consequence of crop seizures. Unfortunately for the people of Hwanghae, it is all but impossible for most of them to make it all the way across North Korea to the Chinese border, to say nothing of crossing the border and evading Chinese police. (I suppose these things are especially hard to do while starving.)
The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currencyrevaluation that I like to call The Great Confiscation. This action not only caused tremendous financial hardship for many North Koreans, it did lasting damage to North Korea’s black-market economy and unprecedented publicdisturbances, even resulting in an apology by North Korea’s third-highest official and, so it is rumored, the execution of at least one scapegoat. I’ve stopped hearing reports that the regime is closing down markets or banning the sale of foreign goods, as it had been in 2009, but the existence of these markets, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival, remains tenuous.
In other words, economic conditions in North Korea probably got worse for most North Koreans during the period between 2008 and 2011 (I don’t have enough information to extend that trend through 2012). North Korea looks like an even more miserable place when compared to South Korea’s rapid GDP growth:
The Wall Street Journal‘s Kwanwoo Jun Evan Ramstad actually asked the question of whether improved economic conditions might explain the drop in defections. He gets an answer, and two more plausible explanations:
Few in Seoul see the latest data as a sign of North Korea turning into a better place to live in under Kim Jong Eun, the new leader who took power after his father Kim Jong Il died in late December 2011.
“That falling number doesn’t mean that economic conditions are getting better in North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “A number of people, who could no longer bear the hardship up in the North, have already fled the country, and those who have stayed behind are probably immune to the difficulties or able to find a way to survive the ordeal.” [Korea Real Time]
Ramstad also points to China’s crackdown on the other side of the border, and notes that North Koreans who had intended to defect to South Korea (or perhaps return with money or goods to North Korea) may be stranded in China.
One dynamic that intrigues me is the tendency of defections to ventilate political pressures by allowing the most discontented and ambitious dissenters to escape. Now that only the very rich can hope to escape North Korea, what alternative stands between the discontented and lives lived in misery?
Correction: I mistakenly attributed the Korea Real Time post to Evan Ramstad. I apologize for the error.
As a vibrant market economy arises from an underdeveloped one, it does not lift all boats as a rising tide would. Some get very rich fast, and some stay very poor. Such periods of rapid development are politically risky times, as uneducated masses are drawn away from their hardscrabble farm lives and packed into factory dormitories, slums, and shanty towns in the cities. Those places become hothouses of envy and radicalism that can bring down the political systems in which wealth and poverty coexist uneasily. It’s no coincidence that Marxist ideas rose as societies industrialized, and waned as most of the world entered a post-industrial phase. Marxism is an ideology built around an emotion — envy. To survive the political turbulence of industrialization, a strong state must have the means and the will to suppress lawlessness, but it must also inspire enough faith in The System that the masses harbor real hope that their lives will continue to improve under it.
On the surface, the coexistence of wealth and poverty in North Korea can resemble what we see in developing societies. But in what sense can it be said that North Korea, a place where the government wraps an iron fist around most commerce and predetermines the potential of its citizens before they’re even born, is “developing?” Are we really seeing the rise of a capitalist class in Pyongyang, or is the same old elite-class hoarding just becoming more ostentatious? The great irony of North Korea is that its most destabilizing force today is the same kind of class envy that propelled most of the Marxist revolutions of the last century. Two excellent news stories this week contrast the superficial trappings of wealth in Pyongyang with an exacerbation of poverty and continued starvation everywhere else. While the elite in Pyongyang have never had it so good, children continue to starve and die in the markets of other North Korean cities.
Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.
“People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed,” said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.
A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.
This is some of the best journalism the Times has produced about North Korea in my memory. I hope we’ll see more of Mr. Jacobs’s work. Another giant, Barbara Demick, writes:
Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularized by the chic wife of North Korea’s not-yet 30-year-old leader. Brand new high-rise apartment buildings, which she’s heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into cellphones stuck to their ears.
All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice.
“Of course, they’re showing off with their cellphones. Who wouldn’t?” she snapped.
“There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder,” said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.
“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.
At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.
As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]
Separately, otherreports are claiming that North Korea’s food situation is as bad as it’s been at any time since the Great Famine. I’m a committed agnostic about any statement that claims to represent the true food situation in North Korea, given the restrictions on access to reliable data and the substantial variations that probably exist from region to region. It’s clear, however, that North Koreans don’t think their lives have improved during the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth or since the coronation of Kim Jong Un. The perception of declining living standards is bad news for any ruling regime, but it’s fatal when it’s so easily contrasted to the rising and conspicuous wealth of a privileged few. As a consequence, class envy in North Korea is almost certainly both deep and wide, and it’s turning North Korea into a Brechtian dystopia where the masses live by the laws of Erst kommt das Fressen and Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf.
Hat tips to several readers.
UPDATE: But then, the Kim Dynasty has become less Marxist with each generation, and more an expression of Emmanuel Goldstein’s oligarchical collectivism (I’m not the first one to be astonished by how much Goldstein’s criticism of Oceania sounds exactly like North Korea, but don’t take my word for it). That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that even the statues portraits of Marx and Lenin have been removed from Kim Il Sung Square.
We don’t know how extensive North Korea’s agricultural reforms are meant to be, but we do know that North Korea wants us to think that it’s instituting big reforms in its agricultural sector, because it took the AP’s Jean Lee on a show tour of a collective where the “farmers” were primed to tell her it was so. Is it too cynical of me to tend to disbelieve any fact that North Korea wants me to believe is true? Props to Lee for her hard work at getting this sentence past her “colleagues” at KCNA:
North Korea has a per capita GDP of $1,800 per year, according to the U.S. State Department, far below that of its neighbors in Northeast Asia, and its rocky, mountainous terrain and history of natural disasters has long challenged the Kim regime to provide enough food.
Yes, that is all! Nineteen consecutive years of drought-slash-flood that for some reason target all parts of North Korea, exclusively, but which never seem to impede the flow of rice or Omega watches to Pyongyang! I love officially approved news, don’t you?
Meanwhile, we are reminded again why we ought to be skeptical of all that optimistic speculation, like this example from The New York Times. And then, a day later, Yonhap reports, “North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament closed its session Tuesday, the country’s state media announced without making reference to economic reforms widely expected to come from the unexpected meeting of legislators.” So there’s that. Not that there’s a particularly strong causal link between legislation and policy in North Korea, but given how rare it is for North Korea to put on this puppet show twice in a year, does the absence of any major legislative initiatives suggest that some of the strings have become tangled?
Meanwhile, on the more tangible side of North Korean economic policy, fewer things have changed than some would have us think:
After nearly two years of interrogations while imprisoned in the inhumane Yodok camp, also called simply “No. 15,” Jang became aware he was there because he had earned so much foreign currency, the defector recalled in a meeting in Seoul of North Korean survivors of the country’s political prison camps.
Jang said hundreds of other hard-working foreign-currency earners were sent to the political prison for the same reason.
While North Korean authorities assigned an annual foreign currency target of more than US$1 million to each foreign income unit, completing the assignment drew suspicion from the government because they assumed that achieving the ambitious goal must involve irregularities, Jang explained in a package of written recollections released at the meeting. [Korea Times]
Lest you wonder if I’m the only one asking for stronger evidence to support this wildly optimistic speculation, there more here, from Luke Herman.
The songbun system in some ways resembles the apartheid race-based classification system of South Africa. Songbun subdivides the population of the country into 51 categories or ranks of trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and North Korean state. These many categories are grouped into three broad castes: the core, wavering, and hostile classes. Kim Il-sung gave a public speech in 1958 in which he reported that the core class represented 25%, wavering class 55%, and hostile class 20% of the population.
These three classes may have affected how families fared during the Great Famine of the 1990s, which Hwang Jang-yop—the regime’s chief party ideologue who defected to South Korea in 1997— estimated may have killed 3.5 million North Koreans. In mid-1998 the World Food Program, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the European Union conducted the first country-wide survey of the nutritional condition of North Korean children. They reported that 32% of the children showed no evidence of malnutrition, 62% suffered from moderate malnutrition, and 16% suffered from severe acute malnutrition, with an error rate of 5%. While the survey had its limitations because of restrictions placed on the effort by the North Korean state, it is noteworthy that the size of the three social classes is about the same as the size of the nutritional categories. If the regime was feeding people through the public distribution system based on their songbun classification, it would be reflected in the nutritional data; and the data does show considerable coincidence. In the context of the famine, songbun may have determined who lived and who died, who ate well and who starved, and whose children suffered permanent physical (through stunting) and intellectual damage (prolonged acute malnutrition lowers IQ levels) from acute severe malnutrition. We have some evidence that the songbun system determined ration levels in the public distribution system which fed the country from the founding of the North Korean state until the deterioration of the system during the famine and its ultimate collapse.
What is most remarkable about the songbun system is how long it has been in existence with so little outside scrutiny focused on it. One of the Board members of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Helen-Louise Hunter, is one of the first western scholars to write extensively on the subject in her book published in 1998, Kim Il Song’s North Korea. Her book is based on classified research she had done for U.S. intelligence agencies, which was later declassified so it could be published. The failure of the human rights community, the United Nations agencies, and outside scholars of North Korea may be attributed to the closed nature of the North Korean system, but it may also be a result of a reluctance to believe earlier anecdotal reports of how repressive this system was. Some non-governmental organizations and aid workers early in the outside world’s understanding of the famine thought that the North Korean food distribution system was a socially equitable means of reducing famine deaths by distributing food equally for everyone. No one reading this report on the songbun system could reach any such misguided conclusion today on the nature of the North Korean regime, its use of songbun as a means for its own survival, and its ongoing systematic punishment of those who are at the bottom of the stratified system.
As recently as this week, there is fresh evidence that North Korea’s current outbreak of microfamines is not the result of thirty consecutive years of droughts or floods, but the result of how the regime seizes, allocates, and selectively denies food. The regime blames it on a drought this year, and on a flood last year, but the regime knows why its people are really starving:
The Workers’ Party of Korea compiled an internal report in mid-March acknowledging that the starvation of massive number of people in North Korea’s south in January and February was a human-made disaster, it has been learned.
The report specifically attributed the starvation to the excessive supply of food to the military despite a serious shortage of food due to a flood last summer, said North Korean sources involved in trade. The report has been viewed as a sign of commitment by the regime of new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to squarely face the country’s problems.
A large number of workers at collective farms in three districts of South Hwanghae Province as well as part of North Hwanghae Province starved to death along with their families in early 2012, according to the sources. The Workers’ Party of Korea compiled a report on the matter in mid-March, mentioning a serious food shortage in these areas.
“South Hwanghae Province fell into difficulty as a result of a flood,” the party report reads. “In particular, a large number of farmers and their families suffered from a shortage of food.” It then points out, “Farming households suffered because they had to secure rice for the military.”
Although rainfall in South Hwanghae Province has been lower than usual this year, it’s inconclusive that this has actually affected food production. Am I the only person to wonder why all of those droughts and floods never cause famines in South Korea?
The Daily NK asks, fittingly, how there can be famine in the “breadbasket” — the rice bowl — of North Korea today, and adds that the reports of starvation are not easily attributed to natural causes.
To North Korean defectors, it is clear that the civilian starvation is a direct result of the decision to prioritize the military under the military-first policy and the subsequent obligation on the part of cooperative farms to provide rice for soldiers, coupled to controls covering trading activities by farm employees.
34-year old Lee Mi Kyung, who defected in 2011 from South Hwanghae Province, explained to Daily NK, “If everything grown did not go to military rice stores, then nobody would die. When I was in North Korea, because everything went for military rice there was nothing to eat in the farming season so we couldn’t work properly.”
“When autumn harvest time comes, soldiers guard the threshing shed and take all the grain that comes through it,” she went on. “If that proves not to be enough, then they also take privately farmed cereals into state stores in the name of military stocks.” [….]
According to defector Cha Young Ho (50), this is clearly a rural problem. He said, “People in the cities can trade, so there haven’t been many starvation deaths since the end of the March of Tribulation. But since last summer it started getting so bad that people have been collapsing in the fields for lack of food.” [Daily NK]
Spring and early summer are traditionally the hungriest parts of the year for North Koreans. Remember, most of the crop seizures precipitating this famine — it may well be something more like a cluster of microfamines — would have happened last fall. Meanwhile, the Rodong Sinmun is printing pictures of “active and seemingly successful rice planting going on in the region surrounding the North Korean capital.”
[Guard tower in a North Korean cornfield]
Having read too much of the terrible history of the last century, I am struck again by North Korea choosesto reenact the horrors of Mauthausen, and now, chooses to reenact Stalin’s Holodomor of the 1930s.
I suppose history is not just an endless loop of brutality and stupidity, but there are moments when that aspect eclipses all others. Then, as now, there are apologists and deniers, but if we’re looking for comfort in signs of progress, at least Stalin’s apologists were more talented. Stalin had Walter Duranty, but Jean Lee and David Guttenfelder don’t dare to cross the line into affirmative denial, and they must answer to their critics. Stalin had Anna Louise Strong and George Bernard Shaw; Kim Jong Un must settle for the otherwise talentless Christine Ahn. If there is anything hopeful to be taken from this, it is how new technologies have put capabilities like Google Earth and global publishing in the hands of nobodies working from their living rooms after work. The Internet has given lies instant global reach, but it has also given the truth something it didn’t have in 1932 — a fighting chance at catching up. Just imagine the impact of putting that technology into the hands of the North Korean people themselves.