Archive for Famine & Food Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chosun Ilbo has a picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Good Sanctions and Bad Sanctions

Weeks before North Korea’s latest nuclear test, it was clear that the political climate surrounding North Korea policy was ready for a big shift away from honor-system diplomacy and toward tougher sanctions.  This test is likely to mean a major legislative push here in Washington — not just to punish North Korea, but to craft and enact sanctions that attack the regime’s structural weaknesses, with the intent of either coercing its disarmament or destroying it.  For all the tension that will prompt in the short term, it is the only plausible non-military path to a long-term solution.

Republicans in Congress will start by pushing to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.  Opponents of such a move are fond of arguing that this would be be motivated by factors unrelated to terrorism, but those people either don’t know the facts or are hiding them.  It was the Bush Administration that de-listed North Korea for political reasons, in spite of North Korea’s refusal to acknowledge, end, or renounce its past and ongoing terrorism.  Opponents of re-listing North Korea should read the legal definition of “international terrorism” at 18 U.S.C. 2331, and then explain why the abduction and murder of the activist and rescuer, the Rev. Kim Dong Shik, doesn’t count.  Or the attempted assassination of defector-dissident Park Sang-Hak.  Or the attempted assassination of defector-dissident Hwang Jang-Yop.  Or all of those other poison needle assassination attempts against human rights activists North Korea’s agents were behind, whether in China or South Korea.  Or its calls for its supporters to slit Lee Myung Bak’s throat, or its threat to shell the Blue House.  Or its threat to shell the offices of newspapers that criticize the regime.  I could go on, and on.  North Korea has never sponsored more terrorism in its dreadful history than in the period since George W. Bush removed it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008.

This is only a start. I also expect to see a much broader, more comprehensive sanctions effort aimed at North Korea’s proliferation and money laundering, certainly in Congress and perhaps Read more

North Korea Perestroika Watch: Kim Jong Un’s Border Crackdown Is Working

The most superficial things you’ve probably heard about Kim Jong Un are the closely related ideas that he is, or must be, a latent reformer because he (a) appreciates aspects of Western culture, (b) has a fashionable wife, and (c) had a Swiss education. As examples, I’ll cite this report by Jean Lee, this and this from Joohee Cho of ABC, and this exercise in straw-grasping by John DeLury. The problem with this theory is that it isn’t supported by any evidence that the regime has become less brutal, menacing, controlling, or confiscatory in the last year.

Leave aside the foundational question of whether Kim Jong Un is more than a figurehead, an assumption I am underprepared to accept. During his schooling abroad, he didn’t exhibit many signs of intellectual curiosity, enlightenment, or strength of character. Even the word “education” is a stretch; Jong Un didn’t graduate from his expensive foreign school.

Historically, the exposure of dictators’ sons to foreign culture has not moderated them; it was just another place for them to be everything they were at home except above the law and shielded from our sight. Because little tyrants eventually become big tyrants, what they became  was self-indulgent, impulsive sociopaths. Nicu CeausescuUday Hussein, and Hannibal Qaddafi never lacked for access to Europe’s fleshpots. Nicu and Uday (both of whom were serial rapists at home) are rumored to have palled around together in Switzerland, and both Uday and Hannibal share the distinction of being expelled from it for violent assaults (so enraging the elder Qaddafi that he demanded that the entire country of Switzerland be abolished; Hannibal later got in trouble in Denmark and the U.K. for other assaults). Like his peers before him, Kim Jong Un was privileged enough to be whisked off to a bacchanalian playground. Unlike his peers, he spent his time there torturing animals and masturbating to bondage porn alone in his room. But he loves Disney characters! Yes, and so did Hitler. It’s at least as plausible to theorize that Jong Un combines the self-restraint of Nicu and Uday with the poisonous inadequacy of Goebbels and Hitler.

I’ve already drawn the comparison between how Lee and Cho covered Ri Sol Ju’s fashions to how Vogue covered Asma Assad’s. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Don’t the first ladies of most impoverished banana republics love high fashion? I’ll say this much for Asma — the long list of her husband’s crimes doesn’t include starving his people while telling the world he can’t afford corn.

We know very little about Kim Jong Un’s personality; in fact, we don’t even know how important it is to know about it. All we can judge is the regime’s performance on matters of substance since his coronation. Maybe one day, the regime will make some pragmatic or humane reforms, although there’s scant evidence for that now. Last fall, for example, there was a lot of excitement outside North Korea when the regime announced agricultural reforms that would have allowed collectives to keep more of their crops.  Never mind that the move was accompanied by the seizure of privately cultivated land, which had become a major source of food and income for less-privileged North Koreans. The reforms were quickly forgotten as the harvest came in.

Politically, the regime has cracked down on information flows and defections. The area around Camp 22 is a particular target for warnings to citizens against telling what they’ve witnessed inside North Korea. Judging by new statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the crackdown is working.

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 9.49.47 AM

[Source: ROK Ministry of Unification, via Stars and Stripes.]

Although the crackdown began during Kim Jong Il’s rule, it has been redoubled since his death.

Under North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, human rights activists and South Korean officials say, it has become increasingly difficult to smuggle refugees out of the country, contributing to a sharp drop in the number of North Koreans reaching South Korea in the past year. [NYT]

Notwithstanding the explanation by the Times that this decline is the result of a crackdown, it’s appropriate to ask ourselves if there might be other reasons for this decreased flow. Foreign observers are seeing more cars, cell phones, and luxury goods in the elite reservation of Pyongyang, but are most North Koreans better off now than they were in 2009? The answer is probably not. North Korea’s economic recovery from the Great Famine of 1993 to 2000 appears to have peaked around 2005, when it was reversed by a series of confiscatory measures. As recently as last year, there were reports of microfamines in Hwanghae, the rice bowl of North Korea, as a direct consequence of crop seizures.  Unfortunately for the people of Hwanghae, it is all but impossible for most of them to make it all the way across North Korea to the Chinese border, to say nothing of crossing the border and evading Chinese police. (I suppose these things are especially hard to do while starving.)

Noland NK GDP growth

[Source: Noland, Witness to Transformation]

The decline in refugee flows also coincides with the disastrous December 2009 currency revaluation that I like to call The Great Confiscation. This action not only caused tremendous financial hardship for many North Koreans, it did lasting damage to North Korea’s black-market economy and unprecedented public disturbances, even resulting in an apology by North Korea’s third-highest official and, so it is rumored, the execution of at least one scapegoat. I’ve stopped hearing reports that the regime is closing down markets or banning the sale of foreign goods, as it had been in 2009, but the existence of these markets, on which most North Koreans depend for their survival, remains tenuous.

In other words, economic conditions in North Korea probably got worse for most North Koreans during the period between 2008 and 2011 (I don’t have enough information to extend that trend through 2012). North Korea looks like an even more miserable place when compared to South Korea’s rapid GDP growth:

North Korea vs. South Korea FIXED

[Source:  Washington Post]

The Wall Street Journal‘s Kwanwoo Jun Evan Ramstad actually asked the question of whether improved economic conditions might explain the drop in defections. He gets an answer, and two more plausible explanations:

Few in Seoul see the latest data as a sign of North Korea turning into a better place to live in under Kim Jong Eun, the new leader who took power after his father Kim Jong Il died in late December 2011.

“That falling number doesn’t mean that economic conditions are getting better in North Korea,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University. “A number of people, who could no longer bear the hardship up in the North, have already fled the country, and those who have stayed behind are probably immune to the difficulties or able to find a way to survive the ordeal.”  [Korea Real Time]

Ramstad also points to China’s crackdown on the other side of the border, and notes that North Koreans who had intended to defect to South Korea (or perhaps return with money or goods to North Korea) may be stranded in China.

One dynamic that intrigues me is the tendency of defections to ventilate political pressures by allowing the most discontented and ambitious dissenters to escape.  Now that only the very rich can hope to escape North Korea, what alternative stands between the discontented and lives lived in misery?

Correction: I mistakenly attributed the Korea Real Time post to Evan Ramstad. I apologize for the error.

Reform Watch: North Korea can now afford to bury its orphans in Snoopy T-shirts

As a vibrant market economy arises from an underdeveloped one, it does not lift all boats as a rising tide would.  Some get very rich fast, and some stay very poor.  Such periods of rapid development are politically risky times, as uneducated masses are drawn away from their hardscrabble farm lives and packed into factory dormitories, slums, and shanty towns in the cities.  Those places become hothouses of envy and radicalism that can bring down the political systems in which wealth and poverty coexist uneasily.  It’s no coincidence that Marxist ideas rose as societies industrialized, and waned as most of the world entered a post-industrial phase.   Marxism is an ideology built around an emotion — envy.  To survive the political turbulence of industrialization, a strong state must have the means and the will to suppress lawlessness, but it must also inspire enough faith in The System that the masses harbor real hope that their lives will continue to improve under it.

On the surface, the coexistence of wealth and poverty in North Korea can resemble what we see in developing societies.  But in what sense can it be said that North Korea, a place where the government wraps an iron fist around most commerce and predetermines the potential of its citizens before they’re even born, is “developing?”  Are we really seeing the rise of a capitalist class in Pyongyang, or is the same old elite-class hoarding just becoming more ostentatious?  The great irony of North Korea is that its most destabilizing force today is the same kind of class envy that propelled most of the Marxist revolutions of the last century.  Two excellent news stories this week contrast the superficial trappings of wealth in Pyongyang with an exacerbation of poverty and continued starvation everywhere else.  While the elite in Pyongyang have never had it so good, children continue to starve and die in the markets of other North Korean cities.

Food prices have spiked, the result of drought and North Korea’s defiant launching of a rocket in April that shut down new offers of food aid from the United States. Development organizations also blame speculators who have hoarded staples in anticipation of reforms that have yet to materialize. The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.

“People were hopeful that Kim Jong-un would make our lives better, but so far they are disappointed,” said a 50-year-old named Mrs. Park, who like Mrs. Kim spoke on the condition that only her last name be used, fearing retribution when she returned home.

A member of the ruling Workers’ Party from a major city, Mrs. Park said that to feed her family, she sells cornmeal cakes from a market stall, but she complained of sluggish sales and famished children who snatch her wares from beneath a protective swatch of fabric. More than once this year, she said she walked by the lifeless bodies of those who were too weak to steal.

“I would have given them food if I had any,” she said, looking away with shame.  [N.Y. Times, Andrew Jacobs]

This is some of the best journalism the Times has produced about North Korea in my memory.  I hope we’ll see more of Mr. Jacobs’s work.  Another giant, Barbara Demick, writes:

Women wearing fancy shoes, miniskirts and trousers, fashions popularized by the chic wife of North Korea’s not-yet 30-year-old leader. Brand new high-rise apartment buildings, which she’s heard have washing machines and refrigerators. People walking down the street yammering into cellphones stuck to their ears.

All things that, for now, at least, seem beyond the reach of the 52-year-old Kim, who, although she counts herself among the privileged as a resident of the North Korean capital, can barely afford to eat rice.

“Of course, they’re showing off with their cellphones. Who wouldn’t?” she snapped.

[....]

“There is more construction, more people building things, more to buy in Pyongyang. But day to day, our life is actually harder,” said Kim, who like many North Koreans working outside the country uses a pseudonym.

[....]

“Maybe 1 out of 10,000 North Koreans can afford to eat white rice every day like the people in China,” said a 58-year-old man from Suncheon, 30 miles north of Pyongyang, who has been working in a brick factory in China.

At North Korea’s state-owned factories, wages are so low (often less than $1 per month) that people will pay for the privilege of not showing up to work. They use their time instead to collect firewood or edible greens or to trade something on the market.

As for the vaunted North Korean military, rank-and-file soldiers have so little to eat that their parents have to send money and food for them to survive. Cornfields have to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent thievery, with many of the culprits being hungry soldiers. [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

Both articles are absolute must-reads.  Also not to be missed, and on the same theme:  this piece in The Atlantic, and this one by Laura Ling, although five points shall be deducted from Slitheren for all references to “Kangnam Style.”

Separately, other reports are claiming that North Korea’s food situation is as bad as it’s been at any time since the Great Famine.  I’m a committed agnostic about any statement that claims to represent the true food situation in North Korea, given the restrictions on access to reliable data and the substantial variations that probably exist from region to region.  It’s clear, however, that North Koreans don’t think their lives have improved during the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth or since the coronation of Kim Jong Un.  The perception of declining living standards is bad news for any ruling regime, but it’s fatal when it’s so easily contrasted to the rising and conspicuous wealth of a privileged few.  As a consequence, class envy in North Korea is almost certainly both deep and wide, and it’s turning North Korea into a Brechtian dystopia where the masses live by the laws of Erst kommt das Fressen and Der Mensch lebt durch den Kopf.

Hat tips to several readers.

UPDATE:  But then, the Kim Dynasty has become less Marxist with each generation, and more an expression of Emmanuel Goldstein’s oligarchical collectivism (I’m not the first one to be astonished by how much Goldstein’s criticism of Oceania sounds exactly like North Korea, but don’t take my word for it).  That’s why it shouldn’t surprise us that even the statues portraits of Marx and Lenin have been removed from Kim Il Sung Square.

North Korean Reform Watch 6

We don’t know how extensive North Korea’s agricultural reforms are meant to be, but we do know that North Korea wants us to think that it’s instituting big reforms in its agricultural sector, because it took the AP’s Jean Lee on a show tour of a collective where the “farmers” were primed to tell her it was so. Is it too cynical of me to tend to disbelieve any fact that North Korea wants me to believe is true? Props to Lee for her hard work at getting this sentence past her “colleagues” at KCNA:

North Korea has a per capita GDP of $1,800 per year, according to the U.S. State Department, far below that of its neighbors in Northeast Asia, and its rocky, mountainous terrain and history of natural disasters has long challenged the Kim regime to provide enough food.

Yes, that is all! Nineteen consecutive years of drought-slash-flood that for some reason target all parts of North Korea, exclusively, but which never seem to impede the flow of rice or Omega watches to Pyongyang! I love officially approved news, don’t you?

Meanwhile, we are reminded again why we ought to be skeptical of all that optimistic speculation, like this example from The New York Times. And then, a day later, Yonhap reports, “North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament closed its session Tuesday, the country’s state media announced without making reference to economic reforms widely expected to come from the unexpected meeting of legislators.” So there’s that. Not that there’s a particularly strong causal link between legislation and policy in North Korea, but given how rare it is for North Korea to put on this puppet show twice in a year, does the absence of any major legislative initiatives suggest that some of the strings have become tangled?

Meanwhile, on the more tangible side of North Korean economic policy, fewer things have changed than some would have us think:

After nearly two years of interrogations while imprisoned in the inhumane Yodok camp, also called simply “No. 15,” Jang became aware he was there because he had earned so much foreign currency, the defector recalled in a meeting in Seoul of North Korean survivors of the country’s political prison camps.

Jang said hundreds of other hard-working foreign-currency earners were sent to the political prison for the same reason.

While North Korean authorities assigned an annual foreign currency target of more than US$1 million to each foreign income unit, completing the assignment drew suspicion from the government because they assumed that achieving the ambitious goal must involve irregularities, Jang explained in a package of written recollections released at the meeting. [Korea Times]

Lest you wonder if I’m the only one asking for stronger evidence to support this wildly optimistic speculation, there more here, from Luke Herman.

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.

Interview: Marcus Prior of the World Food Program, on Food Aid to North Korea

wfp-logo.pngThis week, the Christian Science Monitor’s veteran Korea correspondent, Don Kirk, reported that U.S. and South Korean officials disagree with the World Food Program’s assessment that North Korea is on the verge of a food crisis:

“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.

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Clandestine Footage Shows Starving Soldiers in N. Korea

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.

Tapdancing to the Graveyard

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.

And in completely unrelated news:

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:

4.1 million in 2009,
4.21 million tonnes in 2008,
– just 3 million tonnes in 2007, in part because of particularly severe flooding,
– about 4 million tonnes in 2006,
4.5 million tonnes in 2005, and
4.24 million in 2004, and so on, and so forth

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.