Archive for Famine & Food Aid

From the Gallery of Unfortunate North Korean Photo Ops: Jabba at the Gym

Good news: Margaret Chan may have missed the evidence, but at least one North Korean has an obesity problem. Bad news: He just appointed himself National Personal Trainer.

That may be the worst photo op since this one. Or this one.

North Korea’s KCNA state media said Kim was accompanied by his new wife, Ri Sol-ju, and that the exercise centre had been “built according to the direct initiative and plan” of the Young General, as he is known. It added that Kim is “always deeply concerned for the promotion of people’s health and living standards.”

So concerned that he blew enough rice money to feed a small town for a year on a new gym that no one in North Korea but him needs, in the middle of its 18th annual food crisis since his grandpa became North Korea’s largest stockpile of preserved meat.

Kim told the staff that if office workers who work indoors all day, “take exercise and receive medical treatment at the centre, they can devote themselves to revolutionary work in good health.” - The Telegraph, Julian Riall

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of the gym staff members, being lectured on fitness and exercise by a morbidly obese man … who showed up in a Mao suit? Suppress your amusement, comrade. Think of your children.

And of course you’re right. This really isn’t funny at all.

Forgive me. If I didn’t laugh, I’d be too depressed to write this and you’d be too depressed to read it. I wonder how many people living outside Pyongyang will ever see that picture.

New Report Details North Korea’s Political Apartheid System

Today at 2 p.m., the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea will formally release its new report, “Marked for life: Songbun, North Korea’s Social Classification System.” Here is an extended excerpt:

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?

Update:  Reporting from Reuters and — yes — the AP, too.

In South Hwanghae, Echoes of the Holodomor

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 chooses to 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.

Kim Jong Un Buys up Luxuries; Christine Ahn Attributes Famine, Cannibalism Reports to “Political Bias”

When North Korea tried and failed to launch its Unha-3 rocket this year, it not only chose that launch instead of a big shipment of American food aid as the price of keeping quiet until November, it also lost the six-month supply of grain it could have bought with the money it cost to build the damn thing to begin with. But it’s good to see that those choices haven’t cramped the lifestyles of any North Koreans fortunate enough to live within range of an Associated Press camera:

Ten thousand rolls of tobacco, 12 bottles of Sake, and a handful of second-hand Mercedes-Benz cars are among the latest reported breaches by North Korea of a U.N. ban on luxury goods sales to the reclusive state, according to a confidential draft U.N. report.

Japan told a U.N. panel of experts that Pyongyang also imported thousands of computers and thousands of dollars worth of cosmetics and that almost all the goods were shipped through China, it was reported in the draft seen by Reuters on Thursday.

The five North Korean violations reported to the panel by Japan during the past year took place between 2008 and 2010. [Reuters]

China voted for U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which prohibit North Korea from importing luxury goods. Discuss among yourselves.

Here at OFK, we always try to present a balanced perspective, so I’ll just let you watch as much of this as you can endure.

North Korea Executes Three (We Know About) for Cannibalism

My first reaction to these reports years ago was skepticism, but if you hear enough people say the same thing (see here and here), you start to think they can’t all be lying:

North Korea has held public executions of at least three people on charges of cannibalism in recent years, a South Korean state-run institute said Thursday, the latest development that could support what has long been rumored in the isolated country.

There have been accounts among North Korean defectors in the South that some North Koreans ate and sold human flesh during the massive famine in the late 1990s that was estimated to have killed 2 million people.

A North Korean man in the northeastern city of Hyesan was executed in December 2009 for killing a preteen girl and eating her flesh, the Korea Institute for National Unification said in a white paper on human rights in North Korea, which is set to be released next week.

The man committed the crime because of a lack of food following Pyongyang’s botched currency reform in late 2009 that caused massive inflation and worsened food shortages, the white paper said, citing an interview with an unidentified defector in June last year.  [Yonhap]

More here. Apparently, not everyone in North Korea gets invited to the supermarkets and picnics that the AP has been photographing in Pyongyang.

AP Photographers Finalists for the Walter Duranty Prize

Via the AP’s exclusive reporting from Pyongyang, we learn today that North Koreans are happy people who love to dance and sing, and who have lots of bread to eat at picnics! So what’s all this nonsense about starvation and food aid I keep hearing? As you can can see, no one needs food aid here, except when they do!

I feel sorry for the less fortunate people who live in places without their own memorandum of understanding with the AP. For example, according to this report, 20,000 people have died of starvation since last December in a place called South Hwanghae Province. That seems like an awfully high number. If only there were, you know, some professional journalists somewhere in the vicinity with enough curiosity to ask to go there and seek out the truth. If only this were happening in North Korea, where the AP correspondent, Jean H. Lee, says her hosts have never refused to let her cover a story. Because if there were reports of mass casualty famine in a nearby province in North Korea, heck, it could only mean that Lee didn’t care enough to ask.

Yet somehow, other news organizations continue to find ways to bring us lurid stories like this one:

David Austin is one of the few outsiders who has seen firsthand how people live in the North Korean countryside, and he describes a population “lethargic” from malnutrition. Just two weeks ago, he visited an orphanage as part of his work as the North Korea program director for the relief organization Mercy Corps. He said the last protein children had eaten was in January — eggs.

“That tells us not only are they not getting a balanced diet but in terms of the rations, they’re getting only about 60% of what a child needs,” he said. Austin describes widespread severe malnourishment and “an entire generation” that is “stunted physically, developmentally because of chronic malnutrition.” [CNN, April 12, 2012]

Then again, now that three AP photographers are Pulitzer finalists “for their extraordinary portrayal of daily life inside the reclusive nation of North Korea,” our historical analogy is only one “AP exclusive” regime-guided tour away from perfection.

If a country can’t grow its own food, that can only mean that it’s America’s obligation to give them enough money to buy some. Oh, right. Nope, no human rights violation to see there.

WaPo Editors, Andrew Natsios on the Post-Groundhog Day Agreement

I’d say it’s more than slightly significant to see the editorial page of the Washington Post accusing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton of (as Robert Gates put it) buying the same horse all over again:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was careful not to oversell the agreement, calling it “a modest first step in the right direction. Officials said it would allow inspectors to get a first look at the uranium enrichment facility constructed at Yongbyon while letting the United States test whether the new regime of Kim Jong Eun is serious about a more far-reaching accord to give up nuclear weapons.

It’s difficult to find any students of North Korea who expect such seriousness. Instead they point to the big short-term gains the twenty-something Mr. Kim will reap. The first will come on the “Day of the Sun,” April 15, when the regime will celebrate the 100th birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung. The youngest Kim will be able to point to the tribute being paid by the U.S. imperialists and also deliver a little on a promise that this year will bring greater prosperity.

As part of the bargain, the Obama administration effectively ratified the next generation of one of the world’s worst tyrannies, declaring that it has “no hostile intention” toward North Korea. There will be no inspection or accounting of North Korea’s existing arsenal of weapons, and its uranium enrichment will likely continue at undeclared sites beyond Yongbyon. The deal could weaken the pro-American South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak, which has taken a tough line on aid to the North, ahead of crucial parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

Oh, and the trigger for Pyongyang to renege is already built in. The regime said it would maintain the limited moratorium “while productive dialogue continues,” and spelled out what it expects: “the lifting of sanctions … and provision of light water reactors. If that’s not delivered — or if the United States insists on intrusive monitoring of the food aid — the nuclear inspectors will be booted back out.

So once again: Why buy this horse? The argument can be made that something, even a limited moratorium, is better than nothing. Maybe talks with North Korea will deter the new leader from misbehavior, such as more nuclear tests or military provocations of South Korea, if only for a while. But “stability” has been purchased not just at the price of 240,000 tons of food, but by sanctioning the continued oppression of 24 million people.

Jeez. I could have written that, except that I’d have made it funnier.

While you’re there, don’t miss this op-ed by Andrew Natsios, arguing that it was a mistake for Obama to link food aid to disarmament negotiations. In fact, Natsios almost seems to be saying we shouldn’t talk disarmament at all, which is something I almost agree with:

The purpose of humanitarian assistance under U.S. law and international humanitarian convention is to save lives and relieve suffering. It must not be used as a weapon of U.S. diplomacy and should not be manipulated by North Korean officials, military or secret police.

Aggressive monitoring is the only way to ensure that food aid goes to poor families. U.S. authorities should insist on expatriate monitors and translators, unannounced site visits and frequent nutritional monitoring. If monitoring agreements are violated, shipments of food aid should be stopped. Under no circumstances should U.S. food aid go through the Public Distribution System, which is a Stalinist means for Pyongyang to control the population and triage the powerless.

The latest nuclear negotiations are likely to yield what they have for 18 years: nothing. It is time to talk with the North Koreans about other things, such as their abysmal human rights record; the need for economic and political reforms; and health programs for children, many of whom face permanent damage from chronic malnutrition and preventable disease.

North Korea is dying. Its economic system is a wreck, and it cannot feed its people. Most North Koreans I have interviewed over the years privately admit all of this. Washington should do nothing to prolong the agony of the long-suffering North Korean people by supporting the existing system. But perhaps we can begin to push them toward reform.

I have tremendous respect for Mr. Natsios. Furthermore, he’s right that the administration shouldn’t disingenuously deny that there’s a quid pro quo here. The oily, smarmy deceptions of men like Glyn Davies and Chris Hill are the reason why people like me disbelieve almost everything the State Department says about North Korea, principally their assessments of how well North Korea is keeping its various disarmament commitments. It’s not unlike the AP’s own excessive entanglement with the North Korean regime sucking all of the credibility out of its reporting. But the more I think about this linkage issue, the less sure I am that that’s right. As compelling an argument as Natsios makes, however, it seems to me that the missing piece in all of our issues with North Korea is transparency. Why not make food aid the gateway test of North Korea’s willingness to accept transparency?

Agreed Framework III Watch

There isn’t much to say about this that I haven’t already said so many times that I’m tired of saying it:

North Korea on Wednesday signaled a willingness to freeze its uranium enrichment program in exchange for “confidence-building” incentives from the United States such as a suspension of sanctions and a resumption of food aid.

The statement, carried by North Korea’s state-run news agency and attributed to a foreign ministry spokesman, was the first sign that North Korean heir Kim Jong Eun might be open a deal discussed last year, and then put on hold following the death of leader Kim Jong Il. [WaPo]

For extra irony, North Korea is accusing us of politicizing food aid and demanding that we earn their trust. It’s the little things like this that sustain me.

So what we learn from this is that Jang Song Thaek is receptive to taking our money, which I’m sure plenty of people will want to confuse with openness to reform or actual disarmament. Really, if the Obama Administration wants to make this kind of deal, I wish it would hurry up and do it now, in time for it to be an issue in the presidential election. But for the record, I strongly doubt that we’ll see an Agreed Framework III this year, for reasons of domestic politics in the U.S. and North Korea (South Korea’s government might have an interest in looking conciliatory right now).

Up until now, Obama’s North Korea policy has been notable for its absence of awfulness, but his placement of the likes of Wendy Sherman, Sung Kim, and Glyn Davies in the State Department’s top Korea policy-making roles is profoundly disturbing and suggests a pre-positioning of people who are inclined to execute a hard turn toward appeasement once the presidential election is over. All of the “insider” accounts I’ve heard tell me that Obama came into office fully prepared to appease, even on the very heels of the collapse of Agreed Framework II. It was only Kim Jong Il’s awful behavior during the next two years that shifted him toward sanctions (however imperfectly implemented) and “strategic patience.” Assuming no colossal provocation intervenes, my guess is that the patience will run out in December of 2012.

Reunifying Korea, One Shot at at Time!

You may remember that several years ago, a liquor distributor in the United States tried to introduce North Korean soju into the U.S. market. That effort failed long before President Obama reimposed trade sanctions on North Korea, partially because of the importer’s legal troubles, but probably also because the stuff supposedly tasted awful.

Apparently, North Korean consumers share that assessment, because the same brand of South Korean soju that once kept me fully occupied as a prosecutor and defense counsel is a hit on the North Korean black market:

A source in Onsong reported July 6th that the South Korean Cham-isul (trans: True Dew) brand of soju has appeared in North Korean markets and has been an instant hit with local consumers. Reports of South Korean made noodles or choco pies on sale in North Korean markets are well established but this is the first news that South Korean soju has also become available. Cham-isul soju has been sold there since May.

“North Koreans have a tremendous curiosity about South Korean soju,” the source went on, “and everyone wants to get hold of a bottle and give it a try. It’s on sale for 3,000\. That’s around ten times the cost of North Korean soju.” At an exchange rate of 1SK\ to 3NK\, each bottle is the equivalent of 1,000SK\. [....]

“The Cham-isul soju available in the markets has been brought across the border by traders and smugglers. North Korean consumers are getting more and more used to South Korean goods, from electrical goods to food products,” concluded the source. [Open News]

Anyone who has ever been to Korea knows that soju is powerful stuff. Authoritative historical archives tell us that as recently as 1959, sailors were known to swill it until they hallucinated winking, doe-eyed island beauties and ran their ships aground:

Maybe I’m making too much of trivialities like soju, ramyon noodles, and ChocoPies, but I like the way our two soju stories illustrate the right way and the wrong way to “engage” with North Korea. When engagement is negotiated by diplomats, Kim Jong Il dictates the terms so that he earns hard currency to buy God-only-knows-what, and keep all but a few hand-picked, loyal North Koreans shielded from the outside world. It’s enough to make you think the North Koreans have better diplomats than we do. This story shows us a much more effective way — using the market to reach North Korea’s people instead of trying to negotiate our way through its government.

soju1.jpg
Also pictured: Soju

Take engagement away from the diplomats and leave it to the marketplace — which really means the North Korean people themselves — and wondrous things happen. Not only do people drink better liquor, but people, goods, services, money, and culture cross borders; state-imposed isolation melts away; the truth enters forbidden places; and repressed societies and economies start to awaken. You can even detect a people’s latent and subversive yearning for reunification expressed, something that Kim Jong Il seems desperate to extinguish:

One such North Hamkyung Province source reported on the 13th, “National Security Agency people responsible for the jangmadang [markets] and members of the Worker’s and Peasant’s Red Guard appear every day to examine all goods such as clothes and daily necessities one by one, insisting that they are “˜rooting out capitalist elements.’ All the products labeled “˜South Korea’ are confiscated without compensation. “Even (fake South Korean) products made in China are taken away if they have South Chosun words on them,” the source went on. “Shampoo, toothpaste and other daily necessities are all targets.

Since the start of the 2000s, South Korean products have been entering North Korea thanks to smugglers and traders, and have sold well in the jangmadang at above average prices thanks in large part to their high quality. Smugglers also prefer South Korean products to those made in China because they are more profitable, making them willing to risk punishment to bring such products in. [....]

The North Korean authorities have tended to call this a “˜capitalist wind’ and often range their official crackdowns against it, but this has hitherto only drawn interest toward the forbidden fruit. What is more, the security service agents and soldiers who are supposed to be cracking down on it are prepared to accept bribes to turn a blind eye, and in many cases have shown sympathy for the activities of traders and smugglers.[Daily NK]

In the markets, the hungry can find all sorts of nourishment, including the physical kind. Markets were probably a major factor in ending the Great Famine as North Koreans learned new ways to get food that the state would not provide. They showed such potential to ameliorate North Korea’s perennial food crisis that today, up to 80% of North Koreans depend on them for their food supply. It’s telling that North Korea managed to survive the regime’s 2005 closure of most of the World Food Program’s operations there without mass famine, but has suffered a more significant deterioration in its food crisis since the regime began trying to shut down the country’s markets in mid-2009. This peaked with the Great Confiscation in December, which devastated the rising market economy that was bringing food and other goods from outside the country. North Korea’s domestic food production last year wasn’t worse than in previous years, but the markets — and the traders who fill them — have recovered unevenly from this regime-made disaster, with markets in the border regions recovering faster than those in the interior. The regime hasn’t quit trying to crack down, but can’t fill the void in the food supply, so every time its crackdowns cause hunger and discontent, it’s forced to back off.

Those whose position is most fragile complain the most, the source went on, saying that such people point out, “The state cannot produce and it cannot give the people distribution, so why are they even stopping us from surviving? Some people have even said wryly, “˜So, this is the strong and prosperous state’.

According to the Yangkang Province source, “One woman selling bathroom goods started having many people looking for South Chosun products around, and then immediately an NSA agent confiscated everything. Passing traders got pretty angry when they saw that, saying, “˜It’s not a case of waiting for the strong and prosperous state, it is a case of waiting for the day when those guys will die.’” [Daily NK]

If the regime can fill the void, it cracks down on markets. One relief group — which purports to feed the North Korean people without going through the regime — even suggests that’s why the regime is asking for aid now. That’s another argument against giving food aid unless we’re sure we can keep the regime from stealing it. At times, I have to wonder if the regime is constitutionally opposed to just buying food, even when doing so would seem to be in its interest (though so might keeping people hungry). Although it’s not clear that this rising people’s economy is closely linked to the official economy, the official economy has suffered, too, though probably for different reasons. One observer recently calculated that it has contracted by a stunning 18% since 2007. Part of this is probably due to the loss of South Korean aid money, but sanctions probably also played some role.

In short, markets can change North Korea in ways that state-to-state engagement policies like Sunshine couldn’t. They’re not changing North Korea because the state is willing to accept reform or openness, but because the state has largely lost its capacity to control it. If so, then the way to change North Korea isn’t to provide its regime economic support, it’s to do whatever we can to sap its capacity to control its borders. One way to do this is to facilitate cross-border trade by assisting, training, and equipping journalists, defectors, dissidents, and plain-old smugglers, but another way runs completely against the failed conventional wisdom about engagement. If the regime is desperate to close its borders and crack down on markets, then it follows that the more limited the regime’s resources, the more difficulty it will have cracking down on markets and the faster North Korean society will change. So if targeted sanctions deprive the regime of money to spend on border guards, police, customs officers, and cell phone trackers, they could be a greater agent of social change and economic development than economic cooperation with Kim Jong Il’s regime. That’s admittedly an unconventional view of engagement, but for all the time, money and lives that have been sacrificed for this conventional approach, where is the evidence that it has changed North Korea for the better?

Exclusive: Kim Jong Il Buys More Stuff You Can’t Eat!

By now, it seems clear that South Korea, Japan, and the United States will all refuse to contribute food aid to the World Food Program. Contributions from the EU, Sweden, and even China are minuscule in comparison to the WFP’s appeal, and to the amounts that the United States was providing during the Clinton and Bush Administrations, before North Korea itself rejected further aid out of apparent spite. Republicans who dominate the House again are dead-set against giving aid this year, and the Obama Administration sounds dissatisfied with North Korea’s concessions to the World Food Program on monitoring.

I was inclined to agree with the latter assessment until a WFP spokesman responded to some interview questions I sent him. The responses moved me beyond mere inclination and convinced me that the WFP’s assessment and monitoring, despite some useful safeguards, are inadequate. I acknowledge how difficult these questions are, and I respect plenty of people who disagree with my view here. Advocates of food aid paint a picture of terrible suffering in North Korea. They’re not wrong about that, but they still can’t convince me that international aid would help them. And when you read things like this, you can see why donors nations think their money is better spent on people they know they can help:

A high level Pyongyang source reported June 29th, “The Mercedes Benz limousine used by Kim Jong-il during his recent China visit in May was a different model to the ones he used in his visits last year in May and August.” The new car was photographed by Yonhap news when Kim Jong-il arrived at his Jangchun hotel.

The source said that Kim Jong-il used to be conveyed to his destinations in the Maybach model of limousine but in 2009 the Benz S-600 Pullman Guard came out of production and onto the market. This new model was $100,000 more expensive than the Maybach. Given that customarily when leaders are transported there are at least two cars required to simultaneously convey protection units, at least $200,000 must have been spent on the vehicles.

Asked whether the new cars might have been provided by the Chinese authorities, the source said, “A photo confirms otherwise but also the Beijing plates that the car is carrying are just a matter of custom that the Chinese authorities usually apply in the immigration process to cars that were transported by air. It’s certain that the car was brought in from North Korea.”

Meanwhile according to figures The Korea Trade Association has derived from China-North Korea trade statistics, North Korea imported $3,100,000 of European manufactured cars through China last year. Given that a ton of corn costs about $250 dollars, Kim Jong-il splurged a quantity of money that could have bought 13,000 tons of corn for his hungry people. [Open News]

This obscene trade violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874‘s prohibition on the sale of “luxury goods” to North Korea, and again calls into question the seriousness of China (naturally), but also of the German and Swiss governments to enforce compliance with the resolution.

From January through May, North Korea imported 229 Swiss-made watches worth $45,000 (48.43 million won) and 9 watch components, the American network Radio Free Asia reported on the 8th. Among the Swiss watches imported by North Korea were 174 spring-wound watches and 55 battery-operated watches, worth an average of $198 each.

During the same period last year North Korea had not imported any watches at all. North Korea imported 284 Swiss watches in 2007, 449 in 2008, and 662 in 2009, an increase each year, but that fell to 339 last year. [Nathan Schwartzmann, via RFA]

Oh, and let’s not forget that nuke money paid to the Pakistani Army. Critics will note that this isn’t a revelation of recent activity, of course. It’s a revelation of activity at the very height the Great Famine, as a million or two North Koreans were starving to death, and as the American taxpayers’ generosity toward the people of North Korea reached its peak.

Not only are donors suspicious, but plenty of North Koreans probably are, too. Stephan Haggard points us to the remarkable results of a survey by NKnet of North Korean refugees in South Korea. Haggard, who advocates giving food aid despite acknowledging its limitations, boils the data down to confirm that North Koreans — at least, those North Koreans whose opinions we can access — share (and perhaps confirm) our worst suspicions:

# Some of the more interesting responses have to do with assessments of the causes of the crisis. Respondents were allowed to pick two responses, meaning that all responses total to 200%. 27% cited lack of agricultural inputs. But the vast majority of responses target the regime itself: excessive military expenditure (88%); irresponsibility and incompetence of the leadership (26%); agricultural policy (14%). Only 7% cited natural disasters. This comports with our findings that the regime’s narratives may be getting less traction than in the past (if they ever really did).

# 94% of respondents believed that the way to “fundamentally solve the food problem” was for North Korea to reform and open up; only 1.4% cited large-scale aid as a solution.

# A stunning set of responses had to do with food aid itself. 78% said that they had never received food aid, which as we note in Witness may or may not be true. But 27% said that they gave some of the food that they received from the PDS back to the government. NKNET claims that this occurred in areas where monitoring was going on. In short, food distribution was a classic Potemkin village set up, with aid distributed for the monitors and then taken back. In fairness, though, while 98 percent of the respondents said that they had never seen foreign monitors, 30 percent claimed that monitoring had at least some effect.

# With respect to who got food aid, respondents were allowed to check as many categories as they chose. The findings provide a nice weighting of the power structure:

* Military, 73%; party cadres, 69%; administrative organs, 49%, privileged classes 39%
* Children in vulnerable classes, 4%; general people, 0.2% adults in vulnerable classes, 0; pregnant women, 0. [Stephan Haggard, Witness to Transformation blog]

The latter groups being the ones that are supposed to be the WFP’s recipients. The ultimate result? Fully three-quarters of those North Korean respondents opposed the idea of South Korea giving food aid to their own homeland, where many of their loved ones are still trying to scrape by. Of course, these refugees aren’t counting on the U.N. to feed their hungry families; they’re using smugglers to send them money, which their loved ones are using to buy food in the markets, which draws food into the country and undercuts the corrupt and discriminatory food distribution system that’s to blame for this perennial crisis. Markets almost certainly feed more hungry North Koreans than the WFP can, and what’s more, they’re doing more to develop North Korea’s economy and alleviate its long-term food crisis.

This is the part where you can insert your own disclaimer about selection bias among a refugee population. Or maybe these North Koreans arrived at their views only after escaping and reading news reports in the South, but I tend to doubt that. There are now more than 20,000 North Koreans who were both willing and able to go through hell to get to South Korea, which suggests that the overwhelming consensus among this rapidly growing population represents a significant constituency at its source. The real story here isn’t that the North Korean regime is starving the people — we’ve known that for years. The real story is that the North Korean people know who’s starving them.