North Korea stoic in the face of famine

Andrei Lankov is the first in the media to construct a narrative which details the series of decisions that have led to North Korea’s current food crunch.

From his article:

Merely a year ago, North Korean leaders were optimistic. The good harvest of 2005 persuaded them that food shortages were behind them, and that North Korean agriculture had begun to recover. The 2005 harvest was merely 4.6 million tons, well below the 5.2 million tons which are necessary to keep the entire population alive. Still, it was clearly an improvement.

Lankov’s assertion that 5.2 million tons of grain are needed to sustain the DPRK population comes from the UN.  Recent work by Marcus Noland estimates that this number is closer to 4.6, although exact figuress are not possible because the actual size of the DPRK population is unknown.

In addition, for a decade South Korean administrations have maintained their Sunshine policy of unilateral concessions and unconditional food aid. Since 2000, about 450,000 tonnes of food have bee delivered to North Korean granaries from the South every year, free of charge. Its distribution was almost unmonitored. Pyongyang leaders came to believe that such aid would continue for the foreseeable future. Additionally, increasing Chinese involvement with North Korea, while not necessarily welcomed by Pyongyang, was seen as a sign that additional food would be coming – and Chinese shipments were roughly equal to those of South Korea. Finally, the basic agreement with the US on the nuclear issue was perceived in Pyongyang as a sign of Washington’s willingness to pay generously for rather minor concessions.

As noted by many besides Lankov (here), this good fortune prompted the DPRK government to reimpose elements of the planned economy which failed long ago: 

In 2005, authorities claimed that the public distribution system would be completely revived, and banned private trade in grain. This ban was generally ignored and eventually failed, but subsequent moves were more successful. In late 2006, authorities banned male vendors from the country’s marketplaces. In 2007, women under 50 years old were also prohibited from engaging in business in markets. The assumption is that every able-bodied North Korean should go where he or she belongs, specifically to the state-run factories of the Stalinist economy.

The government also staged some campaigns against semi-legal private businesses that had been tacitly tolerated since the late 1990s. After 2005, authorities successfully cracked down on the trafficking, smuggling and illegal labor migration occurring on the border with China. There was also a remarkable increase in the volume of anti-market rhetoric in the official Pyongyang propaganda.

The economic problems they were attempting to achieve at home through these policies, however, were only the first of several shocks to hit the DPRK economy in the last year: 

1. Low harvest numbers

First of all, the 2007 harvest was a failure. It was estimated at only 3.8 million tons, well short of the critical 5.2 million ton benchmark [and Noland’s 4.6 benchmark]. As usual, floods were officially blamed (as if the impoverished North does not share the same small peninsula with the prosperous South, where no signs of food shortage have been seen in decades).

2. Drop in aid from South Korea

The presidential elections of December 2007 led to a change of leadership in Seoul. The new government, led by right-of-the-center pragmatist Lee Myong-bak, said that the era of unconditional concessions to the North was over.

3. International food prices rising

The situation was aggravated by the explosive rise of international food prices. The North Korean press has reported the trend widely obviously in an attempt to,place the blame for the current crisis on factors clearly beyond the government’s control. On April 20, Nodong Sinmun, the major official daily newspaper, ran an article that described food supply difficulties worldwide and mentioned a dramatic increase on food custom duties in “certain countries”.

4. Cold shoulder from China

The worldwide price hike means that the amount of food coming to North Korea via foreign aid channels is likely to decrease. China, preoccupied with the Summer Olympic Games in August, and increasingly annoyed by North Korean antics, is not too willing to help the North out of its trouble which, as some people in Beijing believe, were brought on Pyongyang by its own stubborn resistance to the Chinese reform model.

So what is Lankov’s prediction?

In North Korea, the domestic food situation is deteriorating fast. The sudden hike in food prices seems to be a sign of deepening crisis. There were reports about farmers who refuse to toil the state-owned fields, stating that they are too weak to work (but still willing to work on their private plots). There are rumors of villagers starving to death even though observers believe the food shortage has not yet developed into a famine. If the shortage of fertilizer damages this year’s harvest, a famine may develop by the end of this year.

The political consequences are unclear. Knowledge about the situation inside North Korea remains grossly inadequate. If the past is an indication, however, nothing of great political significance will happen if a few thousand fresh graves appear in the hills of North Hamgyong province. In all probability, Kim Jong-il’s government will use its time-tested tactics: the political elite and the best units of the army will receive full rations; the residents of major cities, police and common soldiers will get barely enough to survive; and the “politically unreliable”, largely villagers from the remote northwest, will be left to their sorry fate.

There is hope the government will momentarily halt its counter-offensive against free market economics, and will ease its border controls to allow more people to China – but even such moderate measures are unlikely. Isolated revolts are possible, but the government seems to be supremely confident. After all, the disorganized, isolated population, deprived of any opportunities to organize or even communicate between themselves, is not capable of challenging the system.

Read the full story here:
North Korea stoic in the face of famine
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov
4/30/2008

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