Archive for May, 2008

North Korea on the Precipice of Famine

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Peterson Institute for International Economics Working Paper
May 2008
Stephan Haggard, University of California, San Diego
Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Erik Weeks, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Download the paper here: haggard_noland_weeks_pb.pdf


North Korea is on the brink of famine. As detailed [in this policy brief], the margin of error between required grain and available supply has virtually disappeared. Local food prices are skyrocketing even faster than world prices. Aid relationships have been soured and the regime’s control-oriented policy responses are exacerbating distress.  Hunger-related deaths are nearly inevitable and a dynamic is being put in place that will carry the crisis into 2009, even if as expected, the US announces that it is sending 500,000MT in return for a signed nuclear declaration.
The US can provide aid in ways that maximize its humanitarian impact while limiting the degree to which aid simply serves to bolster the regime.  We know that aid is diverted.  Yet given the fragmented nature of markets in North Korea, diverted aid often finds its way into markets in the catchment area where it is delivered.  Geographically targeting aid to the most adversely affected regions and providing it in forms such as barley and millet that are not preferred by the elite can increase the ameliorative impact of assistance.  The Bush Administration has taken up the first part of this equation–requiring that most of its contribution to the World Food Program be targeted at the worst affected regions–but it could do more on the second part: providing aid in forms less preferred for elite consumption. It can also encourage others such as South Korea to follow suit.
The US should also exercise quiet leadership with respect to the refugee question as well. The Chinese government’s practice of returning North Korean refugees may reflect a natural self-protective response against the threat of a flood of migrants and even the breakdown of the North Korean regime; it was, after all, the notorious “hole in the fence” that helped precipitate the collapse of the Eastern European regimes. But the policy of returning refugees does not conform with China’s obligations under the refugee treaty and does not in the end serve the country’s underlying political objectives either; it simply serves to cutoff another escape valve, however small, that has contributed to taking pressure off of a rapidly deteriorating situation.


Cricket comes to Pyongyang

Monday, May 5th, 2008

UPDATE: photos from North Korea’s first cricket game:

cricket1.JPG cricket2.JPG cricket3.JPG



The venue: Mt. Taesong Park.
Click on image for larger view.

This week Pyongyang hosted its first ever cricket match.  I hope to get an update on the game when the team returns to China.  Until now, here is what we know from the Telegraph:

The three visiting teams for the Twenty20 tournament will be largely expatriates from England, Australia, South Africa and Holland who are based in Shanghai.

The North Korean side will be boosted by staff from the Indian and Pakistani embassies.

The tournament was planned by Bryan Clark, a British employee of the logistics firm DHL, which has an office in Pyongyang, and the Shanghai Cricket Club, which has been leading attempts to develop the game in China.

Read the full story here:
North Koreans take on the English at cricket
Richard Spencer


Kumgang/Kaesong tourism strong in first quarter of 2008

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

Although business seems to have stalled in the Kaesong Industrial Zone, Hyundai Asan’s tourism projects have picked up this year.

From Yonhap: 

As many as 100,300 South Koreans toured Mount Geumgang so far this year, up from 58,000 a year earlier, according to a spokesman for Hyundai Asan, Hyundai Group’s arm dealing with business with North Korea.

Hyundai Asan officials expect more than 500,000 South Korean to visit the North’s mountain resort this year alone, up from last year’s 350,000.

A total of 40,090 South Koreans also visited the North’s medieval capital city of Kaesong during the first four months this year, Hyundai officials said, adding they recently increased the daily quota for South Korean visitors to Kaesong to 500 from 300.

Read the full article here:
More South Koreans toured North Korea despite chill in ties


North Korea launches anti avian flu procedures

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

UPDATE: From the Associated Press (Printed in the Herald Tribune):

The North’s Korean Central News Agency quoted quarantine official Ri Kyong Gun as saying all poultry in provinces near the border with the South have received emergency vaccinations, citing a bird flu outbreak in southern South Korea.

Ri was quoted as saying the North has also set up 1,600 observation posts along the east and west coasts to monitor the movement of migratory birds — which he said are a key way the virus spreads.

Bird flu hit North Korea in 2005, leading to the killing of about 210,000 birds, but no new cases have been reported since then.

Original Post:
North Korea sets up emergency body to fight  bird flu

From the article:

North Korea said on Wednesday that it has set up an emergency unit to tackle possible bird flu outbreaks after the disease spread widely in South Korea.

“The emergency state quarantine committee was formed to work out national plans to prevent a possible outbreak of bird flu,” said a television channel.

The committee will coordinate quarantine measures by local governments, the TV said, adding that it was set up on the instructions of leader Kim Jong-Il.

The North has reported no new case since it destroyed 210,000 chickens during an outbreak in 2005.

It has since actively taken part in anti-epidemic programmes offered by the World Health Organisation.

Several days ago, the DPRK banned South Korean poultry from the Kaesong Industrial Zone.

Read the full articles here:
North Korea sets up emergency body against bird flu

North Korea inoculates poultry against bird flu following outbreak in South Korea
Associated Press


North Korea stoic in the face of famine

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

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


South donates anti-malaria supplies to North

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Even as realtions sour between North and South Korea, the South plans to donate US$1.18 million worth of anti-malaria supplies to the North via the UN World Health Organization.

Seoul has made similar anti-malaria donations since 2001, reducing the DPRK’s malaria cases to about 7,500 last year from some 300,000 in 2001.

Read the full article here:
South Korea to provide anti-malaria supplies to North Korea
Associated Press


Peterson Institute event featuring Marcus Noland

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

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.”


Click for larger view

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.

Click for larger view

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.

Paper presentation
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.


German Red Cross asked to continue in DPRK

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

North Korea has requested that the German Red Cross continue providing medical aid beyond ithe 2009 deadline.

The request was made when Rudolf Seiters, president of the German Red Cross, visited Pyongyang on April 22-26 and met with Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly to discuss his group’s overrall programs to aid the communist state.

The German group has sent medical kit that includes pain-killers, antibiotics and nutritional injections, as well as medical equipment such as blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes to some 2,000 local hospitals and clinics across North Korea since April last year. About 8.8 million North Korean residents benefited from the aid, Koch said.

The German government has provided 4 million euros (US$6.2 million) worth of aid to the North every year since 1997, the spokeswoman added.

Read the full article below:
German Red Cross asked to continue helping N.K.: report 


US Commission on International religious Freedom analysis of DPRK

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

The Commission on International Religious Freedom has worked actively since its inception to draw the world’s attention to ways that the internationally guaranteed right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief is consistently—and severely—violated by the North Korean government. The Commission has devoted considerable resources to helping voices that are heard all too rarely—the voices of North Koreans—to reach policymakers far beyond the DPRK’s borders. The reality of life for the people of North Korea can perhaps best be summarized by the words of one former government official, “The only reason the North Korean system…still exists is because of the strict surveillance system… North Korea is a prison without bars.”

Here is their latest publication:
“A Prison Without Bars”: Preface

“A Prison Without Bars” (Complete PDF)

Here is all their North Korea information.