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.
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.
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.
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?
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 politicizingfood 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.
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.
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?
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 nukemoney 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.
“There’s a need, but we don’t know how great it is,” says a knowledgeable western observer. “My hunch is it’s less about a shortage of food and more about unequal distribution. You can buy rice in the markets if you have the means. He strongly questions the “emergency assessment” issued by the World Food Program last winter that indicated more than six million people would need food assistance this year. “How do you generalize?” he asks. “Six million people is a quarter of the country… It’s overstated.”
Marcus Prior, the WFP’s Asia spokesman, says “the situation is not at the level of the mid-1990s” when as many as two million people are believed to have died of starvation and disease. But he notes that “bilateral and humanitarian assistance has declined dramatically in recent years.
The report is a timely one for purposes of this blog, because it came out the same day Mr. Prior responded to a detailed set of interview questions I posed to him about the WFP’s North Korea needs assessment and feeding operation. I’ve posted the questions and answers in full — no edits except formatting to better distinguish questions from answers. Read it below the fold.
I can’t say that Mr. Prior talked me out of my doubts about the WFP’s appeal. In fact, they reinforced my skepticism that the WFP has adequately assessed the needs of the people it would feed, that it has extracted sufficient concessions from the North Korean regime on monitoring, or that it has the principled determination to enforce even the concessions it did extract. As you read his answers, ask yourself if the WFP is more concerned about addressing that skepticism, or about how the North Koreans might react if they ever read them. The WFP’s intentions are noble, so I’m not completely unsympathetic to its prisoner’s dilemma, but its methods are flawed and its principles are malleable. I’m not convinced that the standards of the civilized world must yield — again — to North Korea’s megalomanocracy, not vice versa.
That said, I thank Mr. Prior for taking to the time to respond to my questions, despite knowing full well that I’ve been critical of the WFP’s food aid operations in the past.
This comes to us via the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. There’s no embed link, but you can watch it here. It’s consistent with other recent reports from North Korea, some of which suggest that even elite units are underfed. Note that when the soldiers get hungry, they head straight for the markets to expropriate food from the traders. This helps explain why the regime tolerates markets, and it also adds to our suspicion that whatever food aid we distribute will be expropriated in the same way.
I’ll warn you that the sight of the starving, filthy kkotjaebi (homeless orphaned children) may haunt you.
If we are to believe the International Business Times — and I’ve allowed the temptation to do so overcome my better judgment — North Korea ranks itself the second-happiest nation in own global Happiness Index.
I realize that reactions to this news may vary. You may be thinking that it’s an honor just to be nominated. Others will wonder which camp are the judges in now. One observer correctly notes that “[n]othing says happy like government-issued proclamations of happiness.” But all of that happiness isn’t free. It costs money, and comes in crates, preferably with falsified bills of lading. And in lean times like these, let no one — with the possible exception of almost 90% of North Koreans — deny that Kim Jong Il knows what his people really want. People can only become so desperately happy by clicking their heels and dancing the pain away!
Italy foiled an attempt by North Korea to import tap-dancing shoes in breach of a U.N. ban on the sale of luxury goods to Pyongyang, according to a U.N. report on the enforcement of sanctions against the North. [....]
The U.N. panel’s report said that Pyongyang has also attempted to skirt the embargo on luxury goods by purchasing a dozen Mercedes-Benz vehicles, high-end musical recording equipment, more than three dozen pianos and cosmetics. Some of the items were successfully shipped to North Korea, it said.
“Most of these luxury goods reached or would have reached (North) Korea after transiting through a neighboring trans-shipment hub,” the U.N. panel’s report said. Diplomats told Reuters that the “trans-shipment hub” was in China. They said that China has also been a transit hub for missile technology transfers between Iran and North Korea, as detailed in the same U.N. report.
The panel said it was collecting information on other possible violations of the ban on luxury items involving “cars, watches, spirits or food.”
China voted for U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, both of which ban the import of luxury goods by North Korea and call on all member states to enforce that ban.
U.S. government officials and experts focused on coordinating monitoring terms of possible food aid to North Korea during their trip to the communist nation last week, the U.S. administration said Tuesday.
“While they were there, they discussed, specifically related to the food assessment, monitoring terms necessary to ensure that if indeed we did provide humanitarian aid to North Korea, that it would reach those for whom it’s intended,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a press briefing.
Robert King, special envoy for North Korean human rights, led a team of officials and experts to Pyongyang last week before the Obama administration makes a decision on whether to resume food aid to the hunger-stricken nation.
Inexplicably, some people continue to say that they don’t trust the North Korean regime to distribute the food to the people who really need it, or even to allow for a complete assessment of who those people are. I’ll be a little more specific: “some people” includes at least four senators. One European diplomat questions the depth of the crisis and reports seeing “quite a few Lexus cars” driving around Pyongyang. Some even question whether, in North Korean terms, this year is really a crisis at all. Depending on whether you believe South Korea or the U.N., North Korea’s 2010 harvest was either 4.3 or 4.5 million tonnes of cereals. Compare that with:
Statistically, then, 2010 wasn’t a worse harvest year than most recent years, although just like in previous years, plenty of people will still go hungry. To complicate matters even more, there’s little apparent correlation between harvest statistics, aid, and anecdotal reports of worsening hunger in the North, which made 2009 seem like a particularly bad year. There seems to be a different disaster to blame for North Korea’s unprecedented food crisis every year, though some say that there’s really been only one disaster at work all along. In an age of global trade, famines are seldom a function of food supply, they’re really a function of resource distribution. That’s especially true of permanent famines, and it’s positively inescapable for permanent famines in nations that aren’t (really) at war.
After all these years, it’s still striking how little we know about hunger in North Korea and its causes, beyond those elements that are obvious and overarching.
Unlike in past years, however, North Korea is asking for food aid this year instead of dramatically reducing it or refusing it altogether. What’s different this year? I don’t pretend to be able to explain Kim Jong Il’s decisions. Most speculation centers on the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, but the interesting trend to me is that markets are doing a much more efficient job of feeding some of the hungry than the regime had been doing through the state distribution system, even with the support of foreign food aid. If past history is any guide, North Korea will again insist on channeling all aid through that system this year, too. But even as markets continue to reach greater numbers of underprivileged civilians, during the last year, there have been more reports of hunger in the North Korean military than we’d seen in previous years. I’ve speculated that the rising power of markets, combined with rising corruption, may be drawing food out of government and military storehouses. That might explain a few things.
Personally, I see North Korea’s willingness to be transparent and honest about its food crisis as a perfectly fine test of whether it’s capable of being transparent and honest about nukes, the Cheonan, Yeonpyeong, abductions, drugs, human rights, or anything else. If they can’t stop lying to us even when they’re begging, I’d say there are undoubtedly kids in other hungry places we can feed with our limited aid budget. How will we know? For one thing, they won’t insist on using their politically discriminatory state distribution system. For another, they’ll allow for nutritional assessments of those hungry kids who are paraded before cameras and aid workers, to ensure that they and their families are actually getting the long-term nutritional benefits of our aid. Finally, we will see an end to “closed counties” when it comes to the assessment of needs and the distribution of food. We’ll know they’re serious, in other words, when we can verify that the people in these places get their fair share of the aid, too.
I seldom find myself agreeing with the North Koreans on much, but it gives me strange comfort to find that they share my contempt for America’s worst ex-president:
In a memoir about her months as a prisoner in North Korea, Ling records that North Korean officials were infuriated by her suggestion that Carter be enlisted as the high-profile American to come retrieve her. They viewed Carter as washed-up and out of office for too long — a retread unfit to grace a photo-op dignifying Kim Jong Il. “Carter, Carter, Carter!” one official told her. “You have upset many people by asking for Carter. They held out instead for the bigger prize of a visit by Bill Clinton. [Claudia Rosett]
I suppose I can’t fault the AP’s Christopher Bodeen for not having read Laura Ling’s memoir of her fool’s errand in North Korea, but I can fault him for taking Pyongyang’s party line at face value when he writes:
Carter is well-regarded in North Korea and met in 1994 with the North’s then-leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s father, and brokered a U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal.
You have to wonder what basis Bodeen could possibly have to reach and report this opinion within an opinion. It seems fairer to infer that the North Koreans regard Carter as a reliable tool. After all, Carter is a consistent advocate of policies that abet the regime’s goals, one who never demands the moderation of its ruthlessness. In this, Carter is joined by a coterie of fellow has-beens, including Mary Robinson, the former U.N. High Commissioner for refugees Human Rights. Robinson is mostly remembered for criticisms implying that Iraqis would be better off living under Saddam Hussein’s tender mercies — and I wonder how many Iraqis would agree with that now? — but even more than this, Robinson deserves to be remembered for having, as far as I can tell, not uttered a single unpleasant word about North Korea’s prison camps or its selective starvation of its population during her entire tenure.
At Monday’s briefing, Carter also criticized long-standing economic sanctions imposed on the North’s hardline communist regime, saying they were adding to suffering among ordinary citizens amid a severe drop-off in food aid to the North.
“In almost any case when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least,” he said. “And we believe that the last 50 years of deprivation of the North Korean people to adequate access to trade and commerce has been very damaging to their economy, as well as some problems they may have brought on by themselves.”
But the sanctions aren’t against the “entire people.” Neither Carter nor Bodeen reveal the slightest hint of having actually examined the U.S. and U.N. sanctions that have been imposed since 2006 (they’re linked in my sidebar). They are tightly targeted at Kim Jong Il’s proliferation, money laundering, and his squandering on obscene extravagances money that ought to be spent on food. The sanctions specifically exempt humanitarian assistance. As Carter should know, North Korea’s people starved for years before these sanctions were imposed, including after President Clinton relaxed most sanctions on bilateral trade. And if sanctions were really starving North Koreans, then why is Kim Jong Il dodging them to buy not food but “94 Swiss watches for about US$200 each early this year,” Clapton concerts and “extravagant lifestyles” for its “princelings,” and an alleged “long convoy of lorries believed to be carrying gifts for North Korea’s elite?” Kim Jong Il even found a spare $500,000 to donate to his dwindling cadre of sympathizers in Japan. These, by the way, are just the examples I’ve noted in the last two months. I could cite many others. Given this sampling of evidence, just what resources does Kim Jong Il lack that we’re now morally compelled to provide?
And given North Korea’s general aversion to transparency, just whose needs would our aid really meet? Some reports from inside North Korea suggest that most people aren’t that much worse off than they’ve been for the last decade. To the extent that they are, the primary cause is the regime’s confiscation of savings from millions of North Koreans, and the impact that confiscation had on the markets that keep 80% of them alive. One thing that does appear to be different this year is the increasing equality of misery among all but the most privileged of the North Korean elite. This year, more than in the past, soldiers and residents of Pyongyang are going hungry, too, and that presents a threat to things Kim Jong Il really does care about — his job security and his survival. That may explain his regime’s sudden desperation. The corruption and embezzlement of its ruling class have reached the unacceptable point where they’re diverting too much food from those who ensure the regime’s stability.
Carter overlooks these questions, seemingly out of an emotional compulsion to transfer culpability to America. But how, exactly, can Jimmy Carter overcome Kim Jong Il’s desperation to keep his people ignorant, exhausted, and hungry?
OFK regulars should all know how much regard I have for Christopher Hill. So are my own preconceptions causing me to find something vaguely repellent in the way Hill frames the issue of food aid, or do others see things the way I do?
Would food aid help to ensure the survival of a state whose treatment of its own citizens is among the most abysmal in the world? If so, and if denying food aid would result in a famine that the North Korean regime could not withstand, what could such a decision mean for eventual relations among Korean peoples living in the northern and southern parts of a unified country?
In the coming weeks, South Korea’s government will confront one of the toughest choices that any government can face: whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits (also in terms of human lives) that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring. [link]
But of course, famine wouldn’t induce regime collapse, for the same reason it didn’t induce regime collapse between 1993 and 2000: because the last thing starving people are thinking about is overthrowing their government. What I think Chris Hill fundamentally misunderstandings about North Korea in this case is that the regime uses hunger to cow its subjects.
Hill is also partially correct. He’s right to suggest that food aid would be diverted to the army and the elite, and that it would be misused to prop up the regime. He’s probably also right that this year, hunger does pose threat to the regime’s stability. But that threat doesn’t rise from the prospect of expendable orphans and peasants dying en masse in front of train stations. Instead, it rises from what I see as a very consequential paradigm shift in the North Korean economy: for the first time ever, the economic balance of power seems to be shifting away from the regime and toward the common people. The commissary officer who carries nothing but won can’t outbid the trader with yuan or dollars. North Korea’s endemic corruption may even allow leakage of food from government and military storehouses into markets, where citizens with dollars and yuan remitted by relatives abroad become the favored buyers. All of this represents something of a reversal of fortune in the last few years.
I admit that I’m making some interferences here, based on evidence of (a) a decline in the regime’s buying power, due in part to international sanctions, (b) a hungry army, (c) a rise in remittances from abroad, and (d) multiple reports that the North Korean won has become a currency of last resort ever since the Great Confiscation. I can’t say definitively that I’m right about this, but my theory is the best explanation I can find for these changing trends. If so, the right policy should be to deny the regime aid, absent a monitoring network that addresses the regime’s long history of diversion and discrimination.
On the other hand, it’s unconscionable to see something as horrible as a famine as advancing the objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Especially when it doesn’t. Instead, our objective ought to be to find the best available way to feed and empower the North Korean people. My view of hunger and food aid is very different from Hill’s. As I see it, nothing would be so transformational for North Korea as the arrival of foreign aid workers to actually hand out food to the hungry and ensure that the intended recipients get to eat it. I’d go so far as to make the regime’s acceptance of food aid — delivered directly by international donors and supervised by WFP monitors — a primary objective of the financial and diplomatic pressure we’re exerting on the regime now. I wouldn’t exclude the soldiers from the feeding program, either. Let them look into our eyes and see how long they’ve been lied to.
Not that any of this could possibly happen, in which case, our next-best option is to quietly encourage remittances, food smuggling, the flow of information, and whatever else erodes the regime’s economic and political control. Of course, a lot of people are going to die waiting for that to happen, but even more will die if we just keep propping up the system.
Which is exactly what Selig Harrison would have us do, naturally. Writing from some parallel universe, Harrison tells us that starvation in North Korea is our next missed opportunity to cozy up to the very people who are causing all of this suffering. He says that “a long-term commitment” to feed the North Korean army would be just the excuse North Korea’s closet reformers have been waiting for to disarm. And when I say “feed the North Korean army,” I’m not twisting Selig’s words. Here he is on the topic of monitoring:
This is a hypocritical response to the present crisis, since Washington does, in fact, impose blatantly political conditions for participating in UN food aid by demanding that Pyongyang agree to more intrusive inspections to assure that the aid does not go to the armed forces. This conditionality makes no sense because the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations whether or not there is outside aid.
Harrison is willing to accept that our aid will be diverted to the army and allocated in a politically discriminatory manner. This is also repugnant, and completely contrary to the ICRC’s Code of Conduct, but give Harrison credit for not even bothering to conceal his motives, which turn out not to be very humanitarian at all. Oh, and Harrison knows this long-term commitment will advance America’s diplomatic interests because — get this — in 1994, during one of his innumerable visits to Pyongyang, “Kang Sok Ju, then Deputy Foreign Minister . . . persuaded Kim [Jong Il] in my presence to accept the proposal” for a nuclear freeze. You see, people? If you’d only done it my way!
But by now, even the Obama Administration is treating Selig like the crazy old uncle who lives in the attic, and Selig’s ego is not amused:
In contrast to the Bush Administration, which allowed me to host meetings for North Korean dignitaries at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Campbell has refused to let me convene a proposed discussion of US-North Korean policy issues to be addressed by Han in Washington. The argument is that this would look like “weakness” on the part of the United States.
You don’t say. So you mean to say that American diplomats see an appearance problem with hosting a function with a diplomat whose country just sank an allied nation’s warship and followed that up by shelling and killing its civilians? If that part of Harrison’s proposal sounds ridiculous, then wait until you see how he has defined the word “dignitary” down. The “Han” he refers to is none other than Han Song Ryol, who in a 2005 incident at a congressional office building accosted the founder of Free North Korea Radio and said: “You, bastard, you wanna die. Look at that son of a bitch ….” Fortunately, Han was with ex-Representative Curt Weldon, so no reputations were harmed. But this surely stretches the definition of “ambassador” and “diplomat,” much less “dignitary.” A man who comes to a congressional office building and threatens a witness to a hearing shouldn’t be sent an engraved invitation. He should be served with a restraining order.
Oh, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In February 2005, Selig Harrison alleged “that the Bush administration misrepresented and distorted the data” about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program to scuttle the first Agreed Framework. In August 2009, Harrison told an Associated Press reporter that, “Everything I’ve ever said about North Korea since 1972 has seemed at the time like screaming into the wilderness, and everything I’ve ever advocated has come to pass.
The Chosun Ilbo reports that as the North Korean diaspora swells, those who have escaped are forming stronger financial links with their hungry families in the homeland. And this has some people concerned:
North Korean defectors settled in South Korea are sending some US$10 million a year to their families back home, it was reported on Sunday. The amount is expected to grow as there are more than 20,000 North Korean defectors in the South and the number is increasing, a government intelligence official said. Now the government is investigating what the effects of these growing remittances may be.
After noting the potential positive effects of capitalism spreading in the North, the article finds that this threatens to punch a gaping hole in international sanctions against Kim Jong Il’s regime.
At the same time there are concerns that the increased money wired by defectors back to the North could undermine international sanctions against the communist country. North Korea earned around $300 million a year by selling seafood and sand to South Korea, but all trade was suspended after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan last year. And tours to North Korea’s scenic Mt. Kumgang resort, which generated $500 million in revenues over 10 years, were halted in July 2008.
A South Korean government source said, “We cannot rule out that money is being wired to North Korea by pro-North factions in the South who are aware that it is difficult to crack down on money transfers.”
Some 3,000 to 5,000 of 20,000 defectors settled in South Korea are sending W1-5 million (US$1=W1,117) each to their families back home through middlemen every year, the government and defectors’ organizations believe. The North could import about 18,500 tons of Thai rice ($540 per ton) or some 43,000 tons of corn ($230 per ton) for $10 million.
I appreciate that the Chosun adds that necessary context, to which I’ll add some more: the Kaesong Industrial Park is still “pumping $50 million per month into the collapsed North Korean economy.” That’s $600 million a year, every penny of which goes directly to the regime. Maybe I missed where the Chosun Ilbo and the Administration it supports have called for Kaesong to be closed.
If there are concerns, then, about undermining sanctions — not to mention South Korea’s own credibility in calling on other nations to enforce sanctions — that’s where the concern should begin, not crumbs for hungry kids. Why, after all, would Kim Jong Il bother to tap into small-time illegal remittances when he’s raking in $600 million a year, directly from South Korean taxpayers? If South Korea is worried about complying with the spirit and letter of UNSCR 1874, let it close Kaesong. Unless it has reason to suspect that the remittances are being diverted away from starving family members — like with, say, much of our international food aid — it should keep its hand off what North Korean refugees send home.
Also interesting is who isn’t participating in this debate — that is, all of the people who were telling us during the Sunshine years that pouring aid into Kim Jong Il’s bank accounts would change North Korea. Subsequent events have resolved that question. But now we have a kind of engagement that really is transforming North Korea, because it largely circumvents Kim Jong Il and reaches the North Korean people. In that light, shouldn’t South Korea latch onto remittances to help break the economic dependency of the people on the regime, break down the socialist economy, and allow for the financing of alternative institutions and organizations? Remittances could play as important a role in the subversion of the regime as DVD’s, radios, or cell phones. The supply chains for North Korea’s markets are providing most of the other electronic instruments of subversion that are breaking North Korea’s information blockade. This is to say nothing of the humanitarian impact.
If South Korea wants to change North Korea — in exactly the way we were once told that the Sunshine Policy would — it would do everything it could to encourage these remittances. First, it could legalize money transfers to North Korea, provided they’re done through licensed transfer brokers. Licensing would be done at the advisement of the National Intelligence Service, which would help establish a registry of “reliable” money smugglers. Second, it could set up a simple insurance system to protect remitters against financial losses (you know, like it did for Kaesong). Third, it could regulate and monitor transfers to ferret out those that were in fact regime subterfuges, and to ensure (to the extent possible) that the money was sent to recipients who were in legitimate financial need. Establishing cell phone links to North Korea could eventually prove helpful to this verification. In the meantime, if you’re looking for economic inducements to transform North Korea, then find a way around Kim Jong Il. The money smugglers are showing us the way.
“It was discovered that, without a home, she had been wandering in the market and on the streets, before dying in a corn field,” the Asia Press spokesperson explained, “Since then was harvest time, she went there to eat corn but seems to have died of starvation.
Her body was apparently already decomposing by the time it was found, but the local People’s Safety Ministry agents were in no hurry to deal with it because she did not have any family, so it was left for a long time.
AN AUSTRIAN ”shopper” for the ”Dear Leader” of North Korea has been given a $A4.8 million fine and a suspended jail sentence for breaking an international embargo to sell goods to the volatile despot. The unnamed businessman has been hawking Western luxury products to Kim Jong-il for more than two decades.
A North Korean defector, Kim Jong-ryul, revealed in a book published earlier this year how his boss fell in love with the cuisine of Austria in particular and Western products in general. Kim Jong-ryul, who acted as bagman for many of the deals, painted a world of shell companies, fake freight bills and suitcases full of cash to buy up whatever the Dear Leader desired.
Now at least one individual has been held to account. The unnamed entrepreneur admitted selling at least eight S-Class Mercedes stretch limousines and two yachts worth collectively $A13 million. [....]
Mr Yon used Chinese middlemen and bank accounts to handle the transfers.
There is nothing North Korea needs so desperately — not even food aid — as it needs a revolution. And if this report is accurate, it’s going to get one:
“Amidst freezing temperatures fluctuating between 20 and 30 degrees, soldiers taking part in a joint air force – special operations forces training exercise at a military airbase in Samjiyeon weren’t even provided with food,” reported a source in Yanggangdo on the 6th December.
In North Korea’s current wartime conditions, an article on the 9th December reported that the North’s low altitude AN-2 fighter planes were taking part in counter invasion exercises with members of the of the 43rd brigade 10th corps special forces.
“Cold and hungry soldiers raiding villages for dogs and even roasting the rats and cats they find during winter exercises is not entirely new but the number of soldiers deserting because of their senior officers physical and verbal abuse is growing,” said the source.
This is stunning, if true. For years, I’ve read reports of hunger and indiscipline in North Korean military units, but without knowing more, I’d assumed that those were second-line or shock units. This is the first such report I’ve read about North Korea’s 200,000-strong special forces, which are the units Kim Jong Il is depending on to die facing the enemy at the very entrance to his suryongbunker.
In the end, Kim Jong Il’s greed will be his undoing. It’s just tragic that so many North Koreans will have suffered and died before his misrule is finally brought to an end.
As I noted the other day, North Korea has announced its traditional million-ton food production shortfall for this year. True to form, its government has found a uniquely obnoxious way to address this that has nothing to do with increasing domestic food production or diverting foreign exchange toward the purchase of food:
North Korea demanded massive food aid from South Korea in return for concessions over a reunion programme for separated families, a Seoul official said.
The demand for 500,000 tonnes of rice and 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser was made when the two sides met in the North’s city of Kaesong to discuss reunions, media pool reports from Kaesong quoted the official as saying. [AFP]
Yes, I believe there isa word for this. At the other end of the hormonal spectrum, Ban Ki Moon pleads with us to think of the children:
The Secretary-General wrote that reports from inside the country indicate that North Koreans continue to suffer from chronic food security, high malnutrition and severe economic problems.
While serious concerns remain about political and civil rights in the insular nation, “I urge the international community not to constrain humanitarian aid on the basis of political and security concerns,” Ban wrote. [The Canadian Press]
You know, I’m long past believing that international food aid is ever going to make a damn bit of difference for North Korea’s children, for reasons that Ban unwittingly trips right over:
He also urged nations to “encourage improvements in the human rights situation” inside North Korea.
The Secretary-General said the North Korean government also had the responsibility “to take immediate steps to ensure the enjoyment of the right to food, water, sanitation and health, and to allocate greater budgetary resources to that end.”
“Such persistent problems as widespread food shortages, a health care system in decline, lack of access to safe drinking water and deterioration in the quality of education are seriously hampering the fulfilment of basic human rights,” Ban wrote.
Ban said broad restrictions on civil and political rights, such as freedom of thought, religion, and expression continue to be imposed by the North Korean government on its citizens. “The government’s control over the flow of information is strict and pervasive,” his report said.
But with North Korea, there are always fresh reminders of why there is donor fatigue. Coincident with its demand that other nations feed its people, North Korea is on a palace-building spree. There is so much theft, corruption, and diversion, and so little monitoring and accountability, that markets have become a more efficient and equitable way of feeding the North Korean people, as opposed to the few who keep everyone else hungry and ignorant. Which is why I appreciate that Josette Sheeran is at least expressing the problem accurately:
The World Food Programme estimates North Korea has one million metric tons of food less than it needs to feed its population this year.
Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the Rome-based UN food agency, told reporters in Japan on Tuesday that she will travel to the North to urge Pyongyang to provide enough food and nutrition for its hunger-stricken people.
Adding that up to 50-percent of children in North Korea are malnourished, she said that the WFP will provide food to some 600,000 young children and pregnant women there. [Chosun Ilbo]
I look forward to Ban Ki-Moon joining the call for food aid donations … from Kim Jong Il.
Open News reports that banditry by hungry North Korean soldiers is turning the population against the army:
According to our source, this kind of situation, where soldiers clean out cattle pens, steal pickled cabbages, take everything from people walking in the streets, and rape women in broad day, has been going on for a long time ““ ever since Kim il-sung’s death.
The source revealed, that North Korean residents looking at rice bags with American flags say, “They once said Americans should be beaten to death”, but now North Koreans even dare to say in public places, “We are still alive because of America, at least they are sending us rice. [Open News]
Reports like these suggest that the regime is having difficulty feeding some military units, particularly those in “non-strategic” interior regions. That probably tells us nothing about conditions within special forces or front-line units, which likely have a much higher place in North Korea’s food chain. In any event, negative public sentiment will be of relatively little consequence until the public is armed, or at least organized.
So much of watching North Korea inevitably comes down to explaining many levels of uncertainty, by sorting out which reports are plausible or at least with other known facts. The disagreement between Good Friends and the Daily NK over the food situation is a good example of this. Both publications have their own independent sources inside North Korea, but both also have different political objectives that may color their reporting. In fact, it’s just very difficult for us to know the true state of North Korea’s food situation, much less how it affects Kim Jong Il’s approval rating, but one impeccable and well-informed source is suggesting that there are widespread negative views of both situations:
The Korean people, on the occasion of the 16th anniversary of President Kim Il Sung’s demise, are recollecting the devoted efforts made by him for a solution to the food shortage. In his lifetime the President visited many farms throughout the country in all seasons regardless of the intense cold and sultriness.
One day in December Juche 36 (1947), he told officials that he was obliged to open the gate of the country at dawn and close it at night and that the Koreans had long desired five things (longevity, wealth, health, blessing of children and peaceful death) but he wanted to make them enjoy all kinds of good luck.
With such devotion to the people, he gave the peasants farmland after the liberation of the country, carried out agricultural cooperativization (sic) after the ceasefire and built socialist rural communities in the country. [KCNA]
The emphasis on Kim Il Sung is interesting. The elder Kim probably remains an object of some reverence for many North Koreans — the beginning of the Great Famine coincided with his death — but my best information suggests that the son and grandson are both widely (if quietly) reviled. And as Kim Kwang Jin explained to me last Thanksgiving, North Koreans have their own ways of expressing those sentiments, chiefly by openly wishing for a war with America and the GÃ¶tterdÃ¤mmerung they hope would follow. Open News is reporting more of that sentiment, too.
Public opinion can be an extraordinarily complex thing, particularly in states where information and expression are suppressed. Even in states where opinions can be expressed openly, Americans are often taken aback that societies that are the most anti-American, politically speaking, are often the most enthusiastic consumers of America’s lowest-common-denominator pop culture (personally, I’ve concluded that both sentiments are two sides of one coin, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day). I suspect that we’ll eventually find the same thing to be true of North Koreans — that their views of America are “complicated.” The emotions of their two-minutes’ hate are probably as real as the object of their passion is a caricature. Yet after all of this conditioning, many North Korean defectors want to go to America, and others remember they’re at least eating our rice.
The regime lets people carry about those American rice bags because it has found a way to explain — to spin — their existence as the winnings of nuclear extortion. Many North Koreans probably believe that spin. But in many of those same minds, that belief is probably still subject to reinterpretation.
The good news for North Koreans who’ve been written off the state’s dole is that food prices have mostly stabilized. The bad news is that quite a few of them have lost ground in their unending race against the Reaper:
A source inside North Korea explained, “Since the redenomination, some people have dropped from ‘middle income’ to ‘poor.’ As a result, demand for corn has increased, and that is the reason why corn prices have gone up. Some people still eat rice; however, many of those who used to eat rice are now feeding their families on corn.”
“Because of the planting battle, market hours were made shorter, but the market is running smoothly and food prices are stabilizing.”
However, the source conceded that the food security of senior citizens with no family support and homeless children seems to be very bad. The source said some of these people are indeed dying of malnutrition and disease, though not outright starvation. Daily NK]
It’s significant that this wave of misery is lapping at the gates of Pyongyang, where the Daily NK reports that people are selling their homes to buy food.
Yes, that’s right. People sell houses in North Korea, or to be precise, they sell the right to live in a house, and then “arrange” to have the new residence permit recorded with a cooperative local official.
Note also that Good Friends has reported widespread starvation in North Korea, or that it is on the brink of another famine, a claim that the Daily NK’s sources characterize as exaggerated, while conceding some mortality among the elderly. Like the Daily NK, I’ve also concluded in retrospect that some of Good Friends’s reports appear to have been exaggerated, although it’s obviously difficult to be certain who’s right here.
Next time one of North Korea’s apologists speaks of its pristine moral vales, gender equality, or absence of sexist billboards, someone remind me to point them to this:
“The prostitution of teenage females is rampant, which has forced the security services of Chongjin to dispatch plain-clothed security officers to the station to crackdown on it. But the cleverly disguised prostitution of female university students is increasing, and some of them have close relationships with the same security officials who are participating in the crackdown. These conditions have made the situation uncontrollable.” [Daily NK]
Eventually, the system will be destroyed by the corruption it has forced on everyone else. The problem is, North Korean women who are reduced to this won’t ever completely recover from it, and their society won’t recover from it for decades.
In Part Three of my capitalist manifesto, I’d documented North Korea’s efforts throughout 2009 to destroy the markets on which most of the North Korean people had come to rely on for their survival.
The efforts included with bans on imported goods, the closure of large markets, the imposition of restrictions on who could sell in others, and finally, the Great Confiscation, which wiped out the savings of millions of families, along with the working capital of the traders who supplied those markets with food, clothing, and consumer goods.
But now, those anti-market measures are said to have resulted in more than the ordinary, acceptable level of starvation, so the regime is backing off:
Bowing to reality, the North Korean government has lifted all restrictions on private markets — a last-resort option for a leadership desperate to prevent its people from starving.
In recent weeks, according to North Korea observers and defector groups with sources in the country, Kim Jong Il’s government admitted its inability to solve the current food shortage and encouraged its people to rely on private markets for the purchase of goods. Though the policy reversal will not alter daily patterns — North Koreans have depended on such markets for more than 15 years — the latest order from Pyongyang abandons a key pillar of a central, planned economy. [Washington Post, Chico Harlan]
This is not the first report that the regime was backing off in its restrictions on markets. While these images suggest that the original crackdown on markets emptied the shelves, since then, there have been reports that local authorities in Ryanggang and Hamgyeong Provinces had already quit enforcing restrictions and that at least some of the markets had recovered quickly. This may be little more than a case of the central government, or local authorities closer to the capital, acknowledging what local authorities had already done in North Korea’s more remote regions:
As of May 26, the government no longer forces markets to close at 6 or 7 p.m., has dropped the rule restricting customers to women older than 40 and has lifted a ban on certain goods being sold. An official in the city of Pyungsung informed the Good Friends humanitarian group that the living standard had “drastically decreased since the currency exchange, and the government cannot provide distribution so they have to bring the market back up.”
The regime obviously saw markets as a threat to its control, and for once, I agree. Markets circumvented the regime’s control over the food supply and delivered such subversive goods as DVD players, DVD’s, radios, and even MP4 players. In fact, I believe that the full subversive potential of markets remains untapped. And they have now proven to be the one structure within North Korean society that the regime cannot destroy, and can only partially control.
With November’s currency revaluation, Kim wiped out his citizens’ personal savings and struck a blow against the private food distribution system sustaining his country. The latest policy switch, though, stands as an acknowledgment that the currency move was a failure and that only capitalist-style trading can prevent widespread famine.
“The North Korean government has tried all possible ways [for a planned economy] and failed, and it now has to resort to the last option,” said Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “There’s been lots of back and forth in what the government has been willing to tolerate, and I cannot rule out the possibility of them trying to bring back restrictions on the markets. But it is hard for the government to reverse it now.”
In other times, the regime might have simply tolerated the outbreak of another famine and a few million more dead, but this time was different. Why did the regime sacrifice control for the sake of avoiding famine? You might choose to believe that this is motivated by sincere concern for the welfare of the people, and despite the overwhelmingevidence that compassion for starving kids is a matter of little consequence for the central authorities in Pyongyang, I’ve seen fragmentary evidence over the years that at the local level, some officials really do strive to provide for the people as much as they can. Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that these officials have much influence in the making of national policy. Consequently, the more likely explanation, at least to me, is that the regime is afraid of unrest, like the unrest we saw after the Great Confiscation.
That would mean that the regime has finally seen the limits of its absolute power, and that it finds itself in a losing power struggle against its own people. And at a time when the regime is purging its own leadership and trying to transfer power to a new emperor, this is a struggle it can ill afford. Still, I have to suspect that the regime sees this as nothing more than a temporary pause to complete the transfer of power, assure the stability of its power structure, and accumulate the resources needed to restore its control at some future date.