Archive for the ‘Agriculture’ Category

North Korea’s 2018/2019 harvest and food shortage

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The UN has officially compiled and published the estimated harvest figure for North Korea during the 2018/2019 marketing year, and as we already knew, it lands at 4.95 million tonnes. AFP:

North Korea recorded its worst harvest for more than a decade last year, the United Nations said Wednesday (Mar 6), as natural disasters combined with its lack of arable land and inefficient agriculture to hit production.

The isolated North, which is under several sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes, has long struggled to feed itself and suffers chronic food shortages.

But last year’s harvest was just 4.95 million tonnes, the United Nations said in its Needs and Priorities assessment for 2019, down by 500,000 tonnes.

It was “the lowest production in more than a decade”, the UN’s Resident Coordinator in the North Tapan Mishra said in a statement.

“This has resulted in a significant food gap.”

As a result 10.9 million people in the North needed humanitarian assistance – 600,000 more than last year – with a potential for increased malnutrition and illness.

It is equivalent to 43 per cent of the population.

But while the number of people needing help rose, the UN has had to cut its target for people to help – from 6.0 million to 3.8 million – in the face of a lack of funding.

Only 24 per cent of last year’s appeal was met, with Mishra describing it as “one of the lowest funded humanitarian plans in the world”.

Several agencies had been forced to scale back their programmes and some faced closing projects, he said, appealing to donors to “not let political considerations get in the way of addressing humanitarian need”.

“The human cost of our inability to respond is unmeasurable,” he said, adding that sanctions had created unintended delays and challenges to humanitarian programmes, even though they are exempt under UN Security Council resolutions.

[…]

It was hit by a heatwave in July and August last year, followed by heavy rains and flash floods from Typhoon Soulik. As a result, the UN said, rice and wheat crops were down 12 to 14 per cent.

The figure is significantly larger than in the South, where rice production was down only 2.6 per cent last year, according to Seoul’s statistics, even though it experiences similar weather and climate.

The North’s soybean output slumped 39 per cent and production of potatoes – promoted by leader Kim as a way to increase supplies – was 34 per cent down, the UN said.

Last month Pyongyang told the UN that it was facing a shortfall of 1.4 million tonnes of food this year.

Full article and source:
North Korea food production ‘lowest for a decade’: UN
AFP
2019-03-06

A few thoughts on this:

The UN figures must have been updated and adjusted over the past few years, because according to the data I have at hand, 4.95 million tonnes is not nearly the worst production figure in a decade. I’m assuming that the 4.95-figure refers to the “milled tonnes equivalent” number. According to the World Food Program’s November 2011 estimate, for example, the equivalent figure for 2011/2012 was 4.66 million tonnes. But again, the numbers might have been adjusted since they were first calculated.

Like I wrote a few weeks ago, there is little to suggest a true food emergency of massive proportions. Market prices for rice, for example, have barely moved over the past few weeks, and are actually down quite a bit in the latest observation, from 4,600–4,870, to 4,200–4,210 won/kg. This might not mean much, but still, these prices tell us something. Usually, prices seem to only climb in reaction to shortages as the market gets closer to the next harvest season, and food availability becomes increasingly scarce. Expectations aren’t easy to calculate or project. It may be that the market as such isn’t even fully aware of the shortages.

While current prices alone aren’t necessarily a sufficiently certain indicator of the food situation, however, were the situation completely disastrous, we should have seen prices rise already, as farmers and others hoard grains to store up for worse times to come. Instead, prices remain stabile.

Again, that’s not to say that things aren’t bad. A ten percent decrease in the harvest, even though not disastrous, is still a notable decrease. The view from the ground in North Korea seems to unequivocally be that yes,  this year’s harvest is much worse than those of the past few years, mainly due to the dry, hot weather in the summer and fall of last year. News outlets with sources inside North Korea, such as Daily NK, have also reported – independently of the North Korean government, unlike the UN – that harvests have been notably poor.

Conditions also vary a lot between different regions and socio-economic groups. Though there’s been no wide-spread starvation in North Korea since the early 2000s, some particularly vulnerable groups do likely rely on humanitarian assistance for their sustenance.

It really is striking and strikingly problematic how little we know though. The fact that the international community isn’t even allowed to monitor the markets, the most important source of sustenance for most North Koreans, is problematic. To my knowledge, international humanitarian organizations are not allowed to survey the market system in any comprehensive way.

There’s also an important overarching question we should be asking: what about the long term? Food insecurity in North Korea did not arise with “maximum pressure” or the sanctions. It’s been a fact since the late 1980s. Humanitarian international institutions are,  I am sure, doing their best. Hopefully, they continuously to ask North Korean regime representatives what institutional, systemic changes the government is undertaking to alleviate the problem. Giving humanitarian aid without making demands for systemic change would be to let down the people in greatest need of help.

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Is North Korea’s food situation as bad as the government says? Probably not.

Friday, February 22nd, 2019

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

(Updated 27/2: see below for clarification on the nature of the North Korean memo; the appeal was never meant to be publicized. Another minor clarification below done on 11/3.)

During the past week, both the UN and the North Korean government has made claims that its food situation is bad enough for the country to need international emergency aid. AP:

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday that food production figures provided by North Korea show “there is a food gap of about 1.4 million tons expected for 2019, and that’s crops including rice, wheat, potato and soybeans.”

Dujarric says the U.N. has “expressed and will continue to express our concern about the deteriorating food security situation” in North Korea.

He says the U.N. “at various levels” is consulting with the North Korean government “to further understand the impact of food security on the most vulnerable people, in order to take early action to address the humanitarian needs.”

A few days ago, North Korea’s UN ambassador distributed a memo (presumably to UN officials) saying that because of sanctions and unusually warm and dry weather last summer, this year’s harvest was worse than expected. NBC reported some of the contents:

Kim’s claims are difficult to verify, and his government has not always been a reliable source of internal statistics. He said a food assessment, conducted late last year in conjunction with the UN’s World Food Program, found that the country produced 503,000 fewer tons of food than in 2017 due to record high temperatures, drought, heavy rainfall and — in an unexpected admission — sanctions.

The food agency could not immediately confirm that the organization conducted an assessment with North Korea or the conclusions the country shared in the memo.

In a plea for food assistance from international organizations, however, the memo states that sanctions “restricting the delivery of farming materials in need is another major reason” the country faces shortages that has forced it to cut “food rations per capita for a family of blue or white collar workers” from 550 grams to 300 grams in January.

“All in all, it vindicates that humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies is terribly politicized and how barbaric and inhuman sanctions are,” the memo says.

The memo is worth reading in its entirety.

There are a lot of things that are strange about this memo and its contents. I’ll try to deal with as many of them as possible here. But first: how bad is the food situation, really?

This question is virtually impossible to answer accurately, because no one really knows how much food is being produced in North Korea. The World Food Program that works with the North Korean government to estimate harvest yields does what it can under difficult circumstances to accurately measure harvest yields in the country. But these measurements are severely restricted by the fact that much of food supply and production in North Korea still completely lacks transparency. For one, we know that most citizens get the majority of their food through state-administered private markets.

International agencies, however, still cannot survey these markets or study their role in food provision, because the government’s attitude to the market’s very existence remains somewhat ambivalent. The crop surveys conducted with the North Korean government simply cannot answer how much food is available throughout the system, because the markets, the most important node, cannot be assessed and studied accurately. Surveying the markets would let the WFP study the situation in its entirety,  since that way, they could take into account both imports, private plot farming, and the like.

But taking the numbers provided by North Korea and the UN at face value, it’s clear that if these numbers reflect reality, domestic food production is down since the past couple of years, but not by disastrous amounts. There’s no second “arduous march” lurking behind the corner, judging from these figures. In fact, harvests have been growing for several years, largely thanks to changes in agricultural management under Kim Jong-un.

Food production in North Korea, in millions of tons. Harvest data is usually given in “marketing years”; figures here partially based on full-year estimates earlier in the respective year. Data source: World Food Program/Food and Agriculture Organization. Graph by North Korean Economy Watch.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, market prices for rice have remained stabile. So the markets don’t seem to think there really is a true food shortage coming, even though things do seem to have gotten more difficult due to the drought. I cover this in more detail in this post, but the following graph speaks its clear language.

Average rice price for three North Korean cities, spring of 2017–early 2019. Data source: Daily NK.

At the very least,  had there been major signs of stark shortages, it would have been visible in the price data. Reports from North Korea do confirm that food production seems to be down overall, but remember, that’s from a fairly high level and after several years of increases. Over the past few years, the North Korean government and UN agencies have made similar appeals, but in the end, fortunately, no major crises seem to happen.

The strangest part about the North Korean memo is that it speaks of reduced rations of grains to  “a family of blue or white collar workers” as a result of the drought  and  sanctions. The thing is, only relatively few people and almost no civilians in North Korea actually get  their food through these government rations. The Public Distribution System (PDS, or 식량배급제도) essentially only operates for the military, shock work brigades (돌격대), and within the judicial administration (more accurate would be to say “government administration”; this is a rather nebulous category in North Korea, including large numbers of civil servants within both the central state, local government level, and policing organs). So this “white or blue collar worker” likely wouldn’t necessarily get her or his rations anyway. As far as we know, they’d go and buy their food at the market with cash instead, in most cases.

It’s often believed that North Korea doesn’t admit weaknesses such as food shortages out of political principle, but over the past few years, the government have been very public with claims of shortages on the horizon, and in asking for aid. Not because the state can’t afford to compensate for the shortfall, but because it simply has other priorities.

Reading the North Korean memo, it’s easy to suspect a connection with next week’s summit in Hanoi and the sanctions situation. By getting news stories out that civilians are starving because of sanctions – a highly questionable claim of causality – the North Korean government may be trying to create more bad press for the sanctions as such.* How can the US argue that they should be preserved, if they’re even preventing North Koreans from getting access to food? There are certainly troubling humanitarian aspects of the sanctions, but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have directly caused the harvest to dwindle.

None of this is to say that North Korea shouldn’t get food aid, that’s a different question. But the government’s basis for the appeal is rather dubious, to say the least. Hopefully, one day international humanitarian agencies will have good enough access to actually get to evaluate the country’s food situation, without constraints.

*Apparently, the memo from North Korea’s UN ambassador was leaked, not intentionally distributed. A person with insight into the issue and appeals process tells me the appeal was never meant to be publicized. This makes my interpretation above far less likely, though the direct impacts of sanctions on the harvest is still questionable.

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Popular mobilization for manure collection in North Korea

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Daily NK reports that large-scale mobilization is underway in North Korea, for citizens to gather manure for agricultural use:

The North Korean authorities have launched a new “battle” to support the aims of Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Address, and are moving to restrict residents from engaging in private business.

The country held a massive rally on January 4 at Kim Il Sung Square to garner support for the aims set out in the address. Another rally was held outside Pyongyang where Kim Jong Un pledged to continue North Korea’s economic development.

“The government decided that the first ‘battle’ of the New Year in support of Kim Jong Un’s address was to be held from January 4-10,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on Sunday. “Orders for the battle were handed down on January 5 and mobilization began thereafter.”

The new battle focused on the annual drive to collect manure (including night soil) for biological fertilizer from farms in the country’s agricultural regions, while city residents focused on improving their collection rates. The “manure collection” in rural areas also involved organizations and people from the cities.

In an effort to ensure that an atmosphere of total mobilization was created, local police actively restricted freight trucks, vans and other vehicles transporting goods and people from driving on the streets during the course of the battle.

“The authorities threatened to send private business people violating the order to disciplinary labor centers (rodong dallyeondae),” a source in South Hamgyong Province reported.

Local provincial governments generally engage in “battles” at the beginning of each year in tandem with the annual New Year’s Address, but it’s unusual for the whole country to hold a battle for an entire week.

Full article:
North Korea’s population mobilized for manure collection
Kim Yoo Jin
Daily NK
2019-01-15

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Mobilization for manure collection after KJU’s New Year’s Speech

Tuesday, January 15th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

“The government decided that the first ‘battle’ of the New Year in support of Kim Jong Un’s address was to be held from January 4-10,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on Sunday. “Orders for the battle were handed down on January 5 and mobilization began thereafter.”

The new battle focused on the annual drive to collect manure (including night soil) for biological fertilizer from farms in the country’s agricultural regions, while city residents focused on improving their collection rates. The “manure collection” in rural areas also involved organizations and people from the cities.

In an effort to ensure that an atmosphere of total mobilization was created, local police actively restricted freight trucks, vans and other vehicles transporting goods and people from driving on the streets during the course of the battle.

“The authorities threatened to send private business people violating the order to disciplinary labor centers (rodong dallyeondae),” a source in South Hamgyong Province reported.

Local provincial governments generally engage in “battles” at the beginning of each year in tandem with the annual New Year’s Address, but it’s unusual for the whole country to hold a battle for an entire week.

Full article:
North Korea’s population mobilized for manure collection
Kim Yoo Jin
Daily NK
2019-01-15

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North Korean government orders farmers to supply more food to the military

Friday, January 11th, 2019

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK:

The North Korean government and the nation’s farmers have long harbored issues over food supplies. The government’s aim is to increase the volume of rice that farmers sell while farmers try to retain as much food as they can. However, tensions had subsided until recently due to an overall increase in food production to around 5 million tons over the past four years.

Due to various factors, this year’s harvest has been lower than expected and food supplies for the military are consequently insufficient. This has led the authorities to mobilize government agencies like the Prosecutor’s’ Office to ensure that farmers are compelled to sell the required volume of produce to the government (at significantly below-market prices).

“Production fell due to floods and droughts last year, so government purchases of rice for the military didn’t happen on time. The authorities have turned to the state’s legal apparatus to force the farmers to fulfill the quotas they are required to sell to the government to make up for the shortfall,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on January 7.

“Farm managers argue that they cannot sell the government any more rice due to the various taxes and farming costs they have to pay along with preparing seed grains, but the Prosecutor’s Office is demanding that the government receives the reserve supplies of food produced by the farms.”

Farmers who have received plots of farmland are required to provide 70% of their production to the military, and are facing harsh difficulties due to the government’s demands.

“Local prosecutors in Pukchang, Sukchon, Yangdok County and other places are visiting farms and even the homes of farmers to search for grains that have been hoarded in secret,” said a separate source in South Pyongan Province. “The prosecutors are telling farmers that if they are caught hiding grains, they’ll be tried in court and sent to correctional facilities.”

Full article:
State orders farmers to supply more food to the military
Kim Yoo Jin
Daily NK
2019-01-11

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First rally in 19 years honoring enthusiastic farm workers

Monday, December 17th, 2018

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports:

North Korea has designated the week of December 17, the seventh anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death, as a “week of mourning,” and will hold national events to commemorate the late leader’s death. In parallel to these events, the authorities have selected “model workers” from the country’s farms that have completed their yearly production and will feature them in an upcoming rally honoring “enthusiastic workers”, multiple sources in North Korea have reported.

[…]

The North Korean authorities have tended to announce such rallies only after the participants have arrived in Pyongyang and the rally is poised to begin.

That the rally is being held during the mourning period for Kim Jong Il is a rare turn of events, and the South Hamgyong Province-based source suggested that Kim Jong Un decided to avoid delaying the event due to the importance the regime places on agricultural production. North Korea suffered from an onslaught of natural disasters ranging from intense heat waves to typhoons this year, leading to a poor harvest.

“The production of food this year fell as international sanctions continued and Kim Jong Un may have felt like he was pressed for time,” Seo Jae Pyong, secretary-general of the Association of North Korean Defectors, told Daily NK.

Full article:
Rally honoring enthusiastic farm workers to be held after 19-year hiatus
Kim Yoo Jin
Daily NK
2018-12-17

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Does North Korea need to import 641,000 tons of grain, like the UN says?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

That’s what the FAO says in a recent estimate. Here’s the Yonhap summary of the FAO report:

North Korea requires about 641,000 tons of grain this year as the impoverished communist nation produced a below-average yield, a U.N. food agency said in a recent report.

This would not be prohibitively expensive for the government to import.

The shortfall, which must be made up with foreign assistance and imports, is up from 458,000 tons estimated for 2017 in the quarterly Crop Prospects and Food Situation report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Full article:
N. Korea needs 641,000 tons of grain: U.N. report
Yonhap News
2018-12-12

I have my doubts about the accuracy of these estimates. It’s highly unclear how the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has conducted any recent food production surveys in North Korea to generate these new figures. Even when they did  such surveys on a regular basis, conditions were difficult as they were (at least to my knowledge) not able to freely visit farms and markets. The role of the markets in agricultural distribution is still not fully or officially acknowledged by the North Korean government. I’ve emailed FAO with questions about the basis for these numbers, and will update the post if or when they respond.

The problem is that the marketization of food supply makes it very difficult to create an accurate balance sheet for food needs and production. We don’t know precisely how much private plots produce, for example, or how much is imported outside of what the government reports to FAO. Again, all of this would be much easier to understand if more information was readily available about the FAO’s methods for this estimate.

Here is the actual report by FAO. You can find previous reports here.

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How should we understand North Korean market crackdowns?

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Daily NK reports (in Korean) that a “inspection unit against anti-socialist activities”, is active on Hyesan markets, inspecting goods and confiscating ones deemed either illegally smuggled in from China, or harmful for people’s health, such as narcotics. Such “units” (“그루빠”) are fairly common in North Korea, and typically consist of officials from various public security agencies cooperating to get at a specific, problematic tendency in certain areas or spheres of society.

We’ve seen quite a lot of news over the past few months, and even years, of market crackdowns under Kim Jong-un. On the one hand, this is simply the North Korean state apparatus being itself, and cracking down on “deviant” behavior such as smuggling, and trading of a range of, likely often arbitrarily, forbidden goods, and not least foreign media and information. Unsurprisingly, the agents conducting these searches tend to often quietly disappear if given the right amount of cash or cigarettes:

소식통은 “이 단속 그루빠는 장사꾼들에게 여러 트집을 잡지만 결국 돈이나 담배를 받으면 몇 마디하고 슬그머니 물러난다”면서 “갑자기 그루빠들이 열을 올려서 주민들은 ‘무슨 꿍꿍이가 있느냐, 돈벌이를 하려는 것이냐’며 불평을 한다”고 전했다.

On the other hand, however, one could see this as a process of the state making the market more regularized and based on rules. Kim Jong-un seems to appreciate the stability and wealth brought by the markets, and has worked to integrate them further into the regular economic system. Clamping down on smuggling and trade deemed unsuitable from the state’s perspective, in a way, is part of this process. Clampdowns like this, in a way, seem to go in parallel with increasing regularization of market trade, through the permit regime, designated market buildings, and the like. The North Korean government’s acceptance and institutionalization of the markets has never been driven by an ideological commitment to free-market liberalism, but rather, by the opposite: aspirations for stability, and greater economic control.

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Humanitarian aid, luxury goods and aid diversion in North Korea

Monday, October 29th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein 

North Korea imported luxury goods from China for at least $640 million, says one South Korean lawmaker. Reuters:

“Kim has bought lavish items from China and other places like a seaplane for not only his own family, and also expensive musical instruments, high-quality TVs, sedans, liquor, watches and fur as gifts for the elites who prop up his regime,” opposition lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun said in a statement.

“With the growing loophole, Kim would be able to near his goal of neutralizing sanctions soon without giving up the nuclear weapons.”

Last year, North Korea spent at least $640 million on luxury goods from China, according to Yoon.

China does not provide breakdowns of its customs figures. Yoon compiled data based on a list of banned items crafted by Seoul in line with a 2009 U.N. resolution.

Beijing’s customs agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Beijing has said it strictly abides by international sanctions against North Korea.

The 2017 luxury trade volume was down from the 2014 peak of $800 million, but was only a 3.8 percent drop from $666.4 million in 2016, according to Yoon.

The luxury items accounted for 17.8 percent of North Korea’s entire imports from China last year which totaled $3.7 billion, Yoon said.

Purchases of electronic products such as high-end TVs made up for more than half of the total transactions, worth $340 million, followed by cars with $204 million and liquors with $35 million.

China’s trade with North Korea from January to August this year tumbled 57.8 percent from the year-earlier figure to $1.51 billion, China’s customs agency said last month.

But Yoon’s analysis also shows North Korea funneled more than $4 billion into luxury shopping in China since Kim took power at the end of 2011.

Yoon accused China of loosening enforcement of sanctions, and criticized South Korea’s recent request for U.N. and U.S. exemptions to restart inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Full article:
North Korea bought at least $640 million in luxury goods from China in 2017, South Korea lawmaker says
Hyonhee Shin
Reuters
2018-10-22

Now, none of this means that Kim Jong-un is personally swimming in a sea of handbags and TV-sets in Pyongyang. Rather, it means that North Korea – whether semi-private companies or state entities – has imported a fair amount of so-called luxury goods, despite sanctions that should prevent such imports. The term “luxury goods”, moreover, is too broad in this case and encompasses several items that wouldn’t necessarily be classified as “luxurious” by most.

At the same time, UN institutions estimate that 1/4 of children in rural North Korea are underweight. As Chosun Ilbo reports:

The wealth gap between country and city is widening. One in every four rural children is undernourished and underweight and the North has the most serious poverty issue in East Asia, the FAO said.

The wealth gap between country and city is widening. One in every four rural children is undernourished and underweight and the North has the most serious poverty issue in East Asia, the FAO said.

The proportion of underweight children in rural areas is 27 percent but only 13 percent in the cities.

Full article:
1/4 of Rural Kids in N.Korea Underweight
Kim Myong-song
Chosun Ilbo
2018-10-18

The World Food Program (WFP), meanwhile, has only received 27 percent of their funding appeal for 2018:

According to Herve Verhoosel, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN agency is staring at a massive 73 per cent shortfall in funding for 2018, hurting critical programmes such as nutritional support for children.

“We must not wait for diplomatic progress to alleviate the suffering of millions of people – funds are urgently needed now,” said Mr. Verhoosel.

“Any donation we receive today will take at least six months to reach the people who need it, due to the time it takes to purchase and transport food.”

A lack of funding risks reversing small gains in nutrition for mothers and children, made over the past four years, on the back of concerted efforts by humanitarians. Limited funding has also resulted in the suspension of operations to build resilience among disaster-hit and vulnerable communities.

WFP needs $15.2 million over the next five months to avoid further cuts to programmes which help feed around 650,000 women and children each month.

Across the country, which is officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more than 10 million people – almost 40 per cent of the population – are undernourished and in need of support, with one in five children stunted due to chronic malnutrition.

The country is also vulnerable to natural disasters, such as drought and flooding, which affect agricultural production and livelihoods.

Article source:
Critical food programmes in North Korea can’t wait for ‘diplomatic progress’, UN food agency warns
UN News
2018-10-09

So, what is really going on here? Is it accurate to say, like the headlines imply, that North Korea’s leadership is simply buying a bunch of luxury items for millions of dollars and letting children starve in the countryside? Is there a real risk that humanitarian aid can be diverted to the army, and what does this really mean? These are separate questions, but they are interrelated in the sense that they all touch upon Pyongyang’s incentives and policy choices when it comes to its humanitarian situation.

On 38 North, the host website of this blog, Kee Park and Eliana Kim show convincingly that the fear of diversion of aid to the military is exaggerated and unfounded:

International donors and organizations have become increasingly reluctant to provide funds to North Korea. Although five countries—Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, France and Russia—have responded to the UN’s request this year, there is still a funding gap of $88.1 million. Previous donors such as United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Ireland, South Korea and others remain uncommitted. One concern frequently cited for this reluctance is that foreign aid, including critical humanitarian aid, will either be diverted to the military or fund the nuclear weapons and missile programs or take pressure off of the regime to provide for its people.

However, these concerns are based on basic misunderstandings of how and why humanitarian assistance is provided to North Korea. Facts on the ground show that the potential for diversion is minimal and the main benefactors are generally not government or military institutions. Given the mission of UN humanitarian assistance, denying the DPRK this assistance for political purposes is both unethical and inhumane.

Full article:
The Case for Funding the UN’s Request for Humanitarian Assistance to the DPRK
Kee B. Park and Eliana E. Kim
38 North
2018-10-23

One of their most central arguments is that opportunities for diversion are too small to be meaningful. Overhead costs only make up a small percentage of total costs, and little of it could even hypothetically be diverted given that it’s all needed to run UN operations in the country. When it comes to diversion of actual food aid, the authors argue that most diversion that may occur is done towards the markets – that is, the state doesn’t actually take foodstuffs for its own use, and resources that are used elsewhere do not necessarily benefit the North Korean government.

It also seems like diversion was much more of a real concern in the 1990s and early 2000s. The worry was primarily about diversion of food aid to the military and away from society’s most needy, and it wasn’t unfounded at all.  But we have to assume that there’s been a great deal of learning done by NGOs and international institutions present on the ground. They know what they’re doing.

Today,  food aid volumes aren’t large enough to be meaningful for the army to try to divert, it seems, even if they would want to. Much of the aid, moreover, consists not of rice and other goods consumed by the general public, but likely of nutritional assistance designed to maximize the caloric intake of vulnerable groups such as children and breastfeeding mothers. We also have to remember that the chain of aid distribution and reception is long and diverse. Park and Kim argue that Pyongyang has invested much more in recent years to meet humanitarian needs. I would add that people who have worked with humanitarian aid delivery on the ground have often commented on how local officials and staff members, regardless of what one might think of Pyongyang’s intentions, are often passionate and genuine in their will and hard work to ensure that food aid reaches their local constituents and intended recipients.

However, this angle misses an important point. Diversion isn’t just about the army grabbing bags of rice intended for malnourished children, it’s also, arguably, about resources in the bigger picture. At the end of the day,  for the North Korean regime, feeding the most vulnerable is a matter of priority. We know it could, should it choose to do so. Even in years when North Korean harvests have likely been lower than this year (which we don’t yet have figures for) given the upward  trend in harvests over the past few years, the deficit left between domestic production and projected need wouldn’t have been that expensive to make up for.

Enter the luxury goods. We don’t know what proportion of the $640 million represent purchases strictly made by the state, and not by individual North Koreans or private enterprises. (The lines in this realm are rarely clear-cut.) But even low-balling it and assuming that only 1/6 is bought by the government to supply Kim Jong-un’s court and patronage networks, that’s still more than what would have been required in food imports to meet the estimated needs of the population in 2012, when, again, production was probably even lower than it is today. The UN appeal of $111 million of this year is also roughly equivalent to 1/6 of North Korea’s estimated “luxury” goods import of the past year.

And that’s just using luxury goods as an illustrative example. We could also look at any one of the massive infrastructure investments by Kim Jong-un and the renovations and new constructions of entire city blocks and streets in Pyongyang, or loft projects such as the Masikryong Ski Resort. The point is that North Korea surely has the funds to cover the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable among its population, but chooses not to and instead counts on the UN to foot the bill for doing so. A form of “diversion”, if you will.

This is not to argue either for or against giving humanitarian aid. That the regime makes certain policy choices seems a morally problematic argument for not funding humanitarian needs. But in the long run, especially as North Korea’s economic health improves, one has to wonder whether it’s sensible for the international community to keep paying for humanitarian needs in a country whose regime could afford to do so, but makes a different policy choice, year after year.

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Where do North Korea’s agricultural policy changes stand?

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Over at NK News, Peter Ward recently published a highly interesting piece on Kim Jong-un’s official endorsement of agricultural policy changes. As Ward notes, one has to read beyond the carpet of propaganda-esque language to really see the subtle but significant changes in how official sources, at the highest level, talk about agricultural management:

Under the system that Kim Jong Un introduced in 2014, the sub-work team leader remains the line manager in charge of day-to-day operations. However, their team now usually consists of 15-20 people, though can sometimes be smaller where the land is better and farm more mechanized.

Kim emphasizes the sub-work team leader’s core role as a conduit for Party agricultural policy and the so-called “Juche Agricultural method.” The sub-work team leader must extol such methods and ensure that production tasks given to them by the party are carried out.

In Kim’s vision, the sub-work team leader is akin to an entrepreneur in charge of their staff: tasked with overcoming issues and implementing party directives in a creative and dynamic fashion in line with circumstances. The sub-work team manager is supposed to lead from the front – “up first in the morning and to bed latest at night.”

Much of this could arguably have been said about production leaders under old institutional arrangements in North Korea as well. Ward, however, points out a significant change:

One point that Kim makes that is revolutionary however, is that the state will take “a certain portion of grain [produced],” leaving “the rest to farmers whose distribution will be decided by the number of days they have worked – the amount they have earned.” This is the essence of the new system: farmers keep anything they harvest beyond their mandatory state quota (planning indicator), the state no longer just takes everything before providing a fixed ration.

Full article here:
Masters of the farm: North Korea’s new agricultural entrepreneurs
Peter Ward
NK News
2018-10-09

One crucial question that seems to remain, however, is around how the state sets its quotas. As Ward points out, farmers get to know ahead of time how much of their output they will get to keep, based on estimated harvests. In a recent dispatch, Daily NK said that no matter the actual production, the state takes its pre-set share in absolute terms even when actual production ends up being lower than anticipated. In other words, there’s still much room for predatory economic governance by the state, especially since the new system may still lack clear and transparent central guidelines by the state. In any case, the new system, judging by all available information, is a step towards greater efficiency.

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