Category Archives: Famine & Food Aid

Another good discussion of North Korea, food aid, and donor fatigue

There are compelling arguments from defectors that suggest it’s time to cut loose, no matter how Machiavellian that may seem. The growing suspicion is that food aid inhibits the population’s ability for self-determinism and profligates the regime’s control. In other words, while we pump $200,000,000 of food aid into the country, Kim Jong-un can spend the national budget on 4-D cinemas, water parks and, you guessed it, nuclear armament (though, that, too, is unfounded hearsay—the kind of scaremongering required to get people to take notice).

The detractors of aid argue that North Korea does not suffer from a lack of food because it can’t afford to import enough, rather, that it does so due to a systematic governmental plan of expenditure that excludes food. The government needs to adjust its own budgets before aid will be invigorated. This is almost certainly correct.

Worse still, the population suffers from dual mismanagement, first from the government and second by the WFP, whose hands are tied by the latter. There isn’t compelling evidence to suggest the aid even breaks the surface of the population. Due to the lack of transparency by the North Korean government, the vast majority of the money donated, for all we know, may have been thrown into a gigantic suitcase under Kim Jong-un’s bed.

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An excellent panel discussion on food aid to North Korea …

here, via the snaggletoothed, rheumy-eyed old Trotskyites at The Guardian.

I’m not sure how representative the sample is, but it’s a much more skeptical sample than we’d have seen even five years ago. At some point, you have to question why, after a decade of aid, more than 80% of the citizens of an industrialized nation with plenty of cash laying around can still be living hand-to-mouth. Clearly, the U.N. isn’t addressing the root cause of hunger in North Korea — the choices and policies of the regime itself.

HT: Dr. Mark P. Barry

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To address hunger in North Korea, the World Food Program must first tell the truth.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the World Food Program may soon suspend operations in North Korea due to a lack of funding. The program’s internal reports claim that as of late 2013, it was feeding just 1.45 million North Koreans, compared to 2.4 million intended recipients, mostly pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. Most of what is distributed now consists of materiel like high-energy biscuits, which (thankfully) are not easily digested by healthy people and thus not easily diverted.

But as the U.N. has also told us, 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, and there are about 23 million people in North Korea today. Clearly, the WFP’s current operations barely dent North Korea’s broader hunger problem. As recently as 2005, the WFP was feeding 6.5 million North Koreans, but Pyongyang forced the WFP to scale that program back dramatically. It has been shrinking steadily ever since.

Unfortunately, as I’ll explain below, the WFP’s compromises with Pyongyang — and consequently, with the truth — are perpetuating and contributing to the regime policies at the root of North Korea’s hunger. That likely means that as configured, the WFP’s work in North Korea does some good, and also, far more harm. The WFP has been operating in North Korea since the Great Famine in 1995, which must make North Korea the only industrialized society on earth to experience such a prolonged famine.

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Starving Bulawayo to feed Pyongyang?

When I traveled in Zimbabwe a quarter-century ago, it was one of the region’s strongest economies and a net exporter of food. In is a miracle of 21st Century government incompetence, President-for-life Robert Mugabe threw Zimbabwe, with some of the world’s best farm land, into a food crisis a decade ago. Zimbabwe must now rely on aid from the World Food Program.

So what business does one starving nation have selling off, or renting out, precious farm land to … North Korea? And how likely do you suppose it is that that food will at least reach the North Koreans who need it most? I suspect that WFP monitors have better access in Zimbabwe than they do in North Korea, where the WFP is so lacking in donations that it may soon end its operations. But in any event, let no one say that North Korea can’t afford to grow food abroad, or import it commercially, if it makes doing so a priority.

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Peter Hahn speaks out about China freezing his accounts and investigating him …

for his humanitarian activities. Hahn says, “We feed 22,000 children every day,” including the most pitiful children of all, the kkotjaebi. While I’m generally skeptical of claims that food aid can reach the intended recipients inside North Korea, Hahn tells a sympathetic and compelling story. Read and decide for yourself.

I’m not sure if Hahn is doing as much good as he thinks he is, but I am sure that China and Kim Jong Un are the villains of this story. How ironic (and typical) that China won’t freeze the assets of North Korea proliferators and money launderers, but does freeze the assets of people who are trying to feed North Korean orphans.

Those who believe that China is ready to abandon His Porcine Majesty, and those who still see any glimmer of hope that Kim Jong Un wants to open North Korean society, should read this story carefully.

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North Korea Perestroika Watch: Crackdowns on food, information, borders intensify

OFK readers likely have offered a diverse spectrum of adjectives to describe the views expressed on this site, but one that most of them would probably affirm is “contrarian.” After Kim Jong Un’s coronation, it was briefly fashionable to perceive him as a reformer. I argued that little substantive evidence supported this theory, and cited evidence that His Porcine Majesty was closing down the border, statistical evidence that refugee flows to the South had fallen dramatically as a result, and that his regime was also cracking down on information flows.

The optimistic view of Kim Jong Un became less fashionable after last December’s purge of Jang Song Thaek, although I suspect that much of the reason for this was due to a misplaced belief that Jang himself was a reformer. A better reason would have been evidence of an intensified border-control crackdown following the purge. A new report co-written by recent defector Seongmin Lee tells us that this crackdown continues to intensify, and that the regime is now clearing a 200-meter wide control strip along the Tumen River.

According to South Korean media reports, North Korean authorities are planning to demolish all structures within 200 meters along a 270-kilometer stretch of the border with China.

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In North Korea, flood -> hunger, drought -> hunger, bumper harvest -> hunger

Last year, after two decades of almost interrupted crop failures, North Korea experienced its first good harvest since at least 2005, and possibly since 1992. Unfortunately, it looks like North Korea is regressing to the norm again, with KCNA claiming that North Korea is experiencing “its worst spring drought in more than three decades.”

It’s seldom wise to accept KCNA’s claims at face value, but even if one does, it’s worth remembering that none of the floods and droughts that North Korea reports every year ever caused a famine in South Korea. Do weather patterns stop at the DMZ? By contrast, every weather anomaly that hits North Korea results in a World Food Program appeal for food aid, and every time, we have the same old questions about whether the aid really reaches those who need it.

Will this drought plunge North Korea back into famine? No more than any other drought, flood, or bumper harvest during the last 20 years, since the time when members of North Korean’s expendable classes learned to smuggle and trade and survive through black-market capitalism.

What’s interesting is the extent to which major variations in domestic production have little apparent effect on the domestic food situation, at least as the World Food Program (our least-bad authority) describes it.

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Aid donors give up on North Korea

My friend, Andrei Lankov, is again proclaiming that North Korea has reformed its agricultural sector, which he credits for last year’s improved harvest. I’ve grown comfortable with my pessimism about reform in North Korea, because events have never failed to vindicate it. Regrettably, nothing in my friend’s report dissuades me from adherence to my default view.

First, Lankov claims that these reforms have resulted in a 30% increase in last year’s harvest; however, the most reliable data we have show a 5% increase, but nothing resembling what Lankov’s sources claim.

Second, Lankov’s conclusion appears to rest on “Chinese experts who recently visited North Korea,” which means that this information could be disinformation, unreliable hearsay, unrepresentative of the country as a whole, or influenced by the bias of the “experts.” Aside from Andrei’s report, I’ve seen no evidence of a policy change from the Daily NK, New Focus, and other outlets with sources inside North Korea.

Third, I’m still reading fresh reports of the regime trying to calibrate the level of hunger, compensating for the improved harvest by sending more food to Pyongyang without giving regular rations to people elsewhere. You can’t really call a change of policy “reform” unless it’s reasonably calculated to improve the welfare of the people.

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In North Korea, hunger isn’t a function of production, but of state policy.

In North Korea, malnutrition remains widespread, crops are being seized in the provinces, women are selling their bodies to survive, NGOs say the country is in a state of humanitarian crisis, and a staggering 84% of households still can’t get enough to eat.

So what else is new? The U.N. says North Korea has just had its best harvest in years.

North Korea is still struggling with chronic malnutrition with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption, United Nations agencies said on Thursday, despite a 5 percent rise in staple food output.

Overall production for this year’s harvest is estimated at some 5.03 million metric tons, roughly a 5 percent increase from last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP) said in a joint statement.

“Despite the improved harvest, the food security situation is still unsatisfactory with 84 percent of households having borderline or poor food consumption,” it said. [Yonhap]

Courtesy of Steph Haggard, you can read the WFP/FAO’s complete annual food assessment for North Korea here. Read it skeptically, because it still relies on what the regime shows and tells the U.N. According to maps inside the report, the agencies were only allowed to sample a few tiny tracts of the country, which raises suspicions of selection bias.

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Witnesses: North Korea culpable for famine deaths

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry for North Korea has done excellent and necessary work collecting testimony about the regime’s political prison camps. Michael Kirby, the Commission’s Chairman, has earned the eternal gratitude of the Korean people for his forthrightness, and friends of mine who met him during the COI’s session in Washington last week tell me they were deeply impressed with both Kirby and Sonja Biserko (the third commissioner, Marzuki Darusman, who performed admirably as the U.N. Special Rapporteur, fell ill during his visit and didn’t make as many of the rounds).


Before the COI convened, I had low expectations. I’d grown accustomed to the impotence and incompetence of Ban Ki Moon’s U.N. I’m glad to admit that I was wrong this time. The COI’s report may or may not result in charges before the International Criminal Court, but it matters that the world is hearing the testimony that the COI is taking. Governments will consider it, and the COI’s findings, as they decide how to implement laws and regulations, and companies will consider it as they decide where not to invest. The COI has already imposed a penalty on Kim Jong Un, and that penalty will increase with each hearing, press conference, and finding.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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%.

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