My friend, Andrei Lankov, is again proclaiming that North Korea has reformed its agricultural sector, which he credits for last year’s improved harvest. I’ve grown comfortable with my pessimism about reform in North Korea, because events have never failed to vindicate it. Regrettably, nothing in my friend’s report dissuades me from adherence to my default view.
First, Lankov claims that these reforms have resulted in a 30% increase in last year’s harvest; however, the most reliable data we have show a 5% increase, but nothing resembling what Lankov’s sources claim.
Second, Lankov’s conclusion appears to rest on “Chinese experts who recently visited North Korea,” which means that this information could be disinformation, unreliable hearsay, unrepresentative of the country as a whole, or influenced by the bias of the “experts.” Aside from Andrei’s report, I’ve seen no evidence of a policy change from the Daily NK, New Focus, and other outlets with sources inside North Korea.
Third, I’m still reading fresh reports of the regime trying to calibrate the level of hunger, compensating for the improved harvest by sending more food to Pyongyang without giving regular rations to people elsewhere. You can’t really call a change of policy “reform” unless it’s reasonably calculated to improve the welfare of the people. Furthermore, such reform would be unsustainable. People won’t work harder to grow food that will only be seized from them. Instead, they’ll pilfer and hoard as much as they can, pre-harvest food to beat the tax man, increase their reliance on sotoji (private plot) agriculture, and find other survival strategies that will drive down or hide yields. All of this behavior also prevents any accurate assessment of harvests.
Finally, whatever policies changed last year, it’s hard to extend those trends into this year, given the purge of so many officials who held a more pragmatic view of property, trade, and commerce. Certainly the reports of mass currency confiscations in Pyongyang do not suggest that the regime has embraced economic freedom or the profit motive (unless it’s the one profiting).
~ ~ ~
Foreign food aid is another food source that impacts this picture, although there is much debate about how much it impacts the availability of food to ordinary North Koreans. Since aid programs were scaled back dramatically in 2006, only 2.4 million North Koreans — about 11% of the population — were nominal beneficiaries, despite the fact that 84% of households have an insufficient or marginal food supply. If diversion and corruption continue to take a substantial cut of that aid, then the percentage of North Koreans receiving aid must fall far short of 11%. Furthermore, it’s fair to assume that the regime picks that 11% of approved recipients based on criteria other than need alone.
Still, foreign aid almost certainly does impact the aggregate food supply, if indirectly. Much of the diverted food ends up in markets (Item 8), where it affects commodity prices. And when the regime has less aid to give to the army, hungry soldiers become marauders and loot nearly farms to survive.
I tell you all of this to give some context to a report that “North Korea received record-low food aid from the United Nations food agency in 2013 due to sluggish contributions from the international community.” Last year, the World Food Program collected just 30% of what it appealed for, and donations were so “sluggish” that the World Food Program’s nutrition biscuit factories are on the verge of shutting down:
Some 38,000 tons of food were delivered from the World Food Program (WFP) to the impoverished communist country in 2013, some 30 percent of the agency’s target for the year, according to the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA).
It was less than half the amount sent in the previous year and the smallest since 1996 when the agency began helping the North, the report said, adding it was attributable to the WFP’s failure to raise enough funds to achieve the goal.
The amount of the U.N. agency’s food aid to the North has been fluctuating from some 136,000 tons in 2008, 50,000 tons in 2010, 100,000 tons in 2011 and 84,000 tons in 2012, according to WFP data. [Yonhap]
The WFP claims that food rations in North Korea today are 573 grams per person, compared to the WFP’s “minimum recommended amount” of 600 grams. Fortunately, very few North Koreans still rely on the state distribution system as a food source. Last week, a South Korean think tank estimated that 90% of North Koreans now derive at least part of their household income from markets:
A study of North Korean defectors by Kim’s institute showed that more than 74 percent had experience selling goods in open-air markets. They derived 70 to 80 percent of their income from unofficial economic activity and spent 80 to 90 percent of their incomes buying goods in informal markets rather than state-run stores.
Yonhap’s report doesn’t pursue the reasons for the drop in donations. One must be the fact that North Korea is the only industrialized society that has ever had such a prolonged food crisis. “Normal” societies react to food shortages by instituting broad agricultural and economic reforms, and by using more of their wealth to purchase and import food from other nations. North Korea just imports less food when it gets more aid. It’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that the regime is “calibrating” a more-or-less constant state of hunger to keep its population docile, tired, and too busy surviving to resist.
Another, more obvious reason is that the regime so clearly has enough money to feed every one of its people, yet chooses to spend the money on weapons and ski resorts instead. Aid workers know this, but in the interest of maintaining their own access, they’ve chosen not to talk about it (even as they vocally criticize governments that implement U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea’s proliferation).
The result is the worst of both worlds. Some governments, particularly in Europe, are balking at designating North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank under UNSCR 2094, despite its history of involvement in proliferation. Ironically, European governments are justifying that decision based on the impact of sanctions on humanitarian aid programs they’ve stopped funding!
It’s reasonable for governments to conclude that their aid can do more good in other places. It is wrong, however, to simply give up on helping the North Korean people. The correct response isn’t to accede to the use of food as a weapon; it’s to force North Korea to make more food available to more of its people.
Because so much North Korean money allegedly resides in Europe, Europe could play an important role in forcing this change. (So could other nations, including Switzerland, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, and yes, China.) If host nations were to block Kim Jong Un’s known slush funds and make it clear that those funds are only available for the purchase of food and humanitarian supplies, it would not only increase the amount of food North Korea imports, it would put severe pressure on Kim Jong Un to change his food distribution and agricultural policies. In the short term, this could extract transparency from Kim Jong Un in monitoring the distribution of aid. In the longer term, it could force North Korea to become more transparent in other ways.