On Wednesday I attended a panel discussion featuring Marcus Noland, co-author (with Stephan Haggard) of Famine in North Korea, and three North Korean defectors. Here is the video of the event. Below is the information on the event from the Peterson Institute website:
Press release (slightly updated w/ comments from the talk)
North Korea is once again headed toward widespread food shortage, hunger, and risk of outright famine. According to Peterson Institute Senior Fellow Marcus Noland, “The country is in its most precarious situation since the end of the famine a decade ago.”
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Calculations by Noland and Stephan Haggard, University of California, San Diego, indicate that the country’s margin of error has virtually disappeared. For technical reasons, estimates produced by the United Nations’ World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization (total demand) probably overstate demand implying recurrent shortages year after year (figure 1 above). Noland and Haggard argue that in recent years available supply has exceeded more appropriately calculated grain requirements (adjusted total demand) but that this gap has virtually disappeared. “This is a yellow light about to turn red,” says Noland.
Food prices have almost tripled in the last year, skyrocketing at a rate faster than either the overall rate of inflation or global food prices (figure 2 above). Anecdotal reports describe a breakdown in institutions and increasingly repressive internal behavior. Noland and Haggard forecast that the North Korean regime will ultimately weather this challenge politically by ratcheting up repression and scrambling, albeit belatedly, for foreign assistance.
The North Korean food crisis, now well into its second decade, presents a difficult set of ethical choices. North Korea is critically dependent on food aid, but the government has recklessly soured its relations with the donor community. Yet in the absence of vigorous international action, the victims of this disaster will not be the culpable but the innocent. As of this writing, it already may be too late to avoid at least some deaths from hunger, and shortages of crucial agricultural inputs such as fertilizer are setting the stage for continuing food problems well into 2009.
Noland discussed two recent papers, written with Haggard and Yoonok Chang, Hansei University, which are based on a pathbreaking survey of more than 1,300 North Korean refugees in China (11 different cities). The survey provides rare and extraordinary insight into both life in North Korea and the experiences of the refugees in China.
Paper 1: Exit Polls: Refugee Assessments of North Korea’s Transition
Results from a survey of more than 1,300 North Korean refugees in China provide insight into changing economic conditions in North Korea. There is modest evidence of slightly more positive assessments among those who exited the country following the initiation of reforms in 2002. Education breeds skepticism; higher levels of education were associated with more negative perceptions of economic conditions and reform efforts. Other demographic markers such as gender or provincial origin are not robustly correlated with attitudes. Instead, personal experiences appear to be central: A significant number of the respondents were unaware of the humanitarian aid program (40%) and the ones who knew of it almost universally did not believe that they were beneficiaries (96%). This group’s evaluation of the regime, its intentions, and accomplishments is overwhelmingly negative—even more so than those of respondents who report having had experienced incarceration in political detention facilities—and attests to the powerful role that the famine experience continues to play in the political economy of the country.
Paper 2: Migration Experiences of North Korean Refugees: Survey Evidence from China
Chronic food shortages, political repression, and poverty have driven tens of thousands of North Koreans into China. This paper reports results from a large-scale survey of this refugee population. The survey provides insight not only into the material circumstances of the refugees but also into their psychological state and aspirations. One key finding is that many North Korean refugees suffer severe psychological stress akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. This distress is caused in part by their vulnerability in China, but it is also a result of the long shadow cast by the North Korean famine and abuses suffered at the hands of the North Korean political regime: first and foremost, perceptions of unfairness with respect to the distribution of food aid, death of family members during the famine, and incarceration in the North Korean gulag, where the respondents reported witnessing forced starvation, deaths due to torture, and even infanticide and forced abortions. These traumas, in turn, affect the ability of the refugees to hold jobs in China and accumulate resources for on-migration to third countries. Most of the refugees want to permanently resettle in South Korea, though younger, better-educated refugees prefer the United States as a final destination.
Other speakers: Several North Korean defectors also spoke as part of North Korean Freedom Week here in Washington DC. Comments and biographies below:
Kim Seung Min: Founder and Director of Free North Korea Radio, the broadcasting program providing news and information to North and South Korea and China. Kim attended both elementary and high school in Pyongyang before serving in the North Korean Army. He escaped from North Korea to China in 1996 but was arrested and repatriated. While traveling from Onseong to Pyongyang to face punishment for leaving the country without government permission, he jumped from a moving train to escape to China again and eventually made his way to South Korea. He worked as a laborer at a coal factory in Yenji, China, until his uncle in South Korea helped him to escape to South Korea. He attended Yonsei University and Graduate School at Joong Ang University, where he received a Master of Arts degree. After serving in leadership roles in the North Korean defector groups, he founded Free North Korea Radio, which was available on the internet beginning April 2004 and began broadcasting on shortwave in December 2005 with regular daily broadcasting beginning in April 2006. (Born 5/6/62 in Jangang Do, North Korea)
*Mr. Kim was a captain in the KPA for 16 years. He talked about how soldiers were no better off in terms of access to food than ordinary North Koreans. Starting in 1986, the DPRK state limited food supplies to the military to only rice, leaving the generals up to their own devices for feeding the army. This led to a break-down in discipline and now people resent the personal behavior of many soldiers who are looking for food.
Kang Su Jin:Founder and Representative of the Coalition for North Korean Women’s Rights, the only organization focused specifically on increasing awareness of the horrors facing North Korean women in China, the role of women in democratizing North Korea, empowering and encouraging North Korean women who have resettled in South Korea, and building cooperation with other organizations. Kang was a member of the elites from Pyongyang and was the Manager of Supply from 1991 to 1998 of the Bonghwasan Hotel in Pyongyang, the biggest hotel in Pyongyang, which catered to high-ranking party and army officials and was used for special events. When food distribution stopped in Pyongyang in 1996, the regime announced that all hotels had to operate on their own, and conditions became very difficult for the workers. Kang visited China and saw how much better off the people were and decided to defect to South Korea. (Born 10/23/66 in Pyongyang, North Korea)
Kim Young-il:President and Founder of People for Successful Korean Reunification (P-SCORE), an organization founded in the fall of 2006, specifically to ensure the successful reunification of the Koreas would not adversely affect the South Korean economy. To that end, PSCORE, chiefly composed of young people, studies other reunification models, informs about the human rights conditions in North Korea, and prepares and educates young North Koreans to be ready to help lead a reunified Korea. Because Kim was not born into an elite family in North Korea, he was not allowed to attend university and was destined to become a coal miner after serving his mandatory military service. While in the military he witnessed many people including soldiers dying of starvation. His own uncle died of starvation and his cousins were left to wander the streets. His family made the decision to defect to China in August of 1996 instead of starving to death in North Korea. They survived there for five years bribing the police not to turn them in until they safely defected to South Korea in January 2001. Lim received a BA in Chinese from Hankook University of Foreign Studies in August 2006. (Born 4/10/78 in Hamheung, North Korea)
*Mr. Kim still communicates with people in the DPRK on a regular basis. He said that the price of rice inside the DPRK is sensitive to external supply shocks (or even the rumors of external supply shocks). This means that reports of aid cut offs could result in temporary domestic price spikes even if aid is delivered.
UPDATE: Photo and coverage in the Daily NK.