Archive for the ‘UN World Food Program’ Category

Life Without Money

Tuesday, September 6th, 2005

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

For decades, money did not really matter in the North Korean economy and society. Levels of consumption were not determined by money expended, but rather by access to goods. Everything was distributed, and almost nothing was actually sold, at least from the 1970s when the Public Distribution system reached the height of its power.

Indeed, the history of the North Korean retail industries between 1948 and 1975 was one of a gradual demise of trade as it is generally known elsewhere. By the late 1940s most employees of state enterprises were being issued ration coupons. These coupons allowed them to buy goods at heavily subsidized prices. If they were not happy with them, they could go to the market.

In 1958 private trade in grain and cereals became illegal. For a while vegetables and meat were not rationed, but the number of items subject to distribution kept increasing, and by around 1975 the state shops had actually become nothing but outlets of the PDS. It was legal to buy and sell most goods on the market (grain and liquor remained an exception), however the North Korean economy was so structured that few goods could be produced outside the official economy. For this reason few goods could be channeled to the private markets. Thus, market prices were exorbitant, and people had to survive on what was supplied through the PDS.

However, the economic disaster and famine of 1996-2000 changed this situation. Markets began to spread across the country with amazing speed. In the years 1995-1997 nearly all plants and factories ceased to operate. In the worst period, in early 1997, the average utilization of major plants was reportedly a mere 46 percent of their capacity.

In most areas people still received ration coupons, but these coupons often could not be exchanged for food. Only in Pyongyang and some other politically important areas did food continue to be distributed through the late 1990s, but even here the norms were dramatically reduced: from the pre-crisis level of 500-700 grams a day (depending on one’s perceived value to the state) to merely 150-250 grams daily in the worst days of the famine. Even such small rations were not available to everybody. According to research by Meredith Woo-Cumings, as few as 6 percent of the entire population relied on the PDS in 1997.

Thus, many people, including myself, came to the conclusion that the PDS had died. This impression was reinforced in 2002 when the `economy improvement measures’ (never officially called `reforms’) were introduced. Then it was normally supposed by outside observers that consumption needs would be satisfied through markets.

But in 2004 and early 2005 new data emerged from the ever secretive North. It became clear that the Public Distribution System had not been dismantled. Indeed, it made a moderate comeback, largely due to foreign food aid which was largely channeled through the PDS.

Of course, the PDS does not even remotely reach its earlier ubiquitous levels. According to the FAO, the U.N. food and agriculture agency, in early 2005 the Public Distribution System was “the main source of cereals for the 70 percent of the population living in urban areas.’’ Farmers do not get food from the PDS. During the period November 2003 through October 2004, the average actual allocation through the PDS was about 305 grams, representing about half of a person’s daily needs. According to the World Food Program, in early 2005 rations were cut down to 250 grams per person per day — 40 percent of the internationally recommended minimum.

In October 2005 the North Korean government told its populace that the PDS would be re-started soon. So far, it seems that in Pyongyang the PDS indeed works at the 1990 level, but outside the capital the market remains the only place to find food.

In such a situation, the ability and willingness to engage in private business became a major guarantor of physical survival. A witty local observer described the situation in post-famine North Korea: “Those who could not trade are long dead, and we are only left with survivors hanging around now.’’

The major coping mechanisms are support from relatives in the countryside, wild food collection, and kitchen garden production. According to an FAO survey undertaken in late 2004, 57 percent of the PDS dependent population and “nearly all’’ farmers have kitchen gardens; about 60 to 80 percent of PDS dependents and 65 percent of coop-farmers gather wild foods; and 40 percent of surveyed households receive some support from relatives in the countryside (either as gifts or as part of barter deals).

It is important that farmers are allocated far larger rations, about 219 kilograms of cereals a year or 600 grams a day. They also have larger kitchen plots and can sometimes hide some additional food from hillside cultivation which is less strictly controlled by the state. According to the FAO estimates, kitchen gardens alone give the average farming household some 10 percent of its income.

As has been the case for decades, only a part of rations come as rice. Barley and maize, far less nutritious, comprise a large proportion of cereal consumption. The North Koreans’ approach to maize is clear from the fact that the rice/maize barter ratio is 1/2: for one kilogram of rice one expects to get two kilos of maize, and vice versa. In the period from September 2003 to September 2004 maize accounted for about half of all cereals distributed through the PDS.

But why is the PDS necessary, or why is it not possible to get rid of it altogether? The answer to this question is largely political and, as our readers guess, this will be another story.


Trading Ideals for Sustenance

Monday, July 4th, 2005

Los Angeles Times
Barbara Demick

For most of her life, Kim Hui Suk had spouted the sayings of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung and never for a moment harbored a doubt: Capitalists were the enemy. Individualism was evil.

But then disaster rained down on her hometown, Chongjin, on North Korea’s remote east coast. Factories ran out of fuel. Food rations stopped. Watching her family slowly succumb to the famine — her mother-in-law, husband and son eventually would die of starvation — Kim realized she had to change.

Once a stickler for following the rules, she bribed a bureaucrat so she could sell her apartment. Then, with no business skills other than the ability to calculate on an abacus, she used the proceeds of the sale to set herself up in a black market business, hawking biscuits and moonshine she brewed from corn.

Kim could have been sent away for life for such crimes. But obeying the rules would have meant a death sentence.

“The simple and kind-hearted people who did what they were told — they were the first to die of starvation,” said Kim, a soft-spoken grandmother who now lives in South Korea and has adopted a new name to protect family members still in the North.

The famine that killed 2 million North Koreans in the mid-1990s and the death of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 sparked vast changes across the secretive communist country.

Markets are springing up in the shadows of abandoned factories, foreign influences are breaching the borders, inflation is soaring and corruption is rampant. A small nouveau riche class has emerged, even as a far larger group has been forced to trade away everything for food.

This is the picture of life in North Korea as painted by more than 30 people from Chongjin, the nation’s thirdlargest city. Some are defectors living in South Korea. Others were interviewed in China, which they had entered illegally to work or beg. Accounts of aid workers and videos taken illegally in Chongjin by disgruntled residents were also used to prepare this report.

Although the North Korean regime has a reputation as the ultimate Big Brother, people from Chongjin say the public pays less and less heed to what the government says. There is little that might be called political dissent, but residents describe a pervasive sense of disillusionment that remains largely unspoken.

“People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation,” said a 39-year-old coal miner from Chongjin who was interviewed late last year during a visit to China. “We all know we think that, and we all know everybody else thinks that. We don’t need to talk about it.”

Kim Sun Bok, a 32-year-old former factory worker who came to South Korea last summer, said the country was “changing incredibly.”

“It is not the same old North Korea anymore except in name.”

Just a decade ago, when people in Chongjin needed new trousers, they had to go to government-owned stores that sold items mostly in drab browns or a dull shade of indigo. Food and other necessities were rationed. Sometimes the government permitted the sale of home-grown vegetables, but even a hairbrush was supposed to be purchased from a state-run shop.

Today, people can shop at markets all over Chongjin, the result of a burst of entrepreneurship grudgingly allowed by the authorities. Almost anything can be purchased — ice cream bars from China, pirated DVDs, cars, Bibles, computers, real estate and sex — for those who can afford the high prices.

The retail mecca is Sunam market, a wood-frame structure with a corrugated tin roof that is squeezed between two derelict factories.

The aisles brim with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, scallions, watermelons and cabbage, as shown by rare video footage taken last year by the Osaka, Japan-based human rights group Rescue the North Korean People. Everything else comes from China: belts, shoes, umbrellas, notebooks, plates, aluminum pots, knives, shovels, toy cars, detergents, shampoos, lotions, hand creams and makeup.

Each of Chongjin’s seven administrative districts has a state-sanctioned market. Sunam, the city’s largest, is expanding, and some say it has a wider variety of goods than the main market in Pyongyang. Many vendors wear their licenses pinned to their right breasts while the obligatory Kim Il Sung buttons remain over the heart.

Although markets have been expanding for more than a decade, it was only in 2002 and ’03 that the government enacted economic reforms that lifted some of the prohibitions against them. Most of the vendors are older women such as Kim Hui Suk, a tiny 60-year-old with short, permed hair and immaculate clothing.

She was working in the day-care center of a textile factory in the early 1990s when production ground to a halt. Men were ordered to stay in their jobs, but Workers’ Party cadres at the factory started whispering that the married women, or ajumas, ought to moonlight to provide for their families.

“It was clear that the ajumas had to go out and earn money or the family would starve,” Kim said.

She first tried to raise pigs, locking them in a shed outside her downtown apartment building and feeding them slop left over from making tofu. But the electricity and water were too unreliable to keep the business going.

In 1995, Kim sold her apartment in the choice Shinam district and bought a cheaper one, hoping to use the proceeds to import rice from the countryside. But that too failed when she injured her back and couldn’t work.

The family’s situation became dire. Her husband’s employer, a provincial radio station, stopped paying salaries, and food distribution ended. In 1996, her mother-in-law died of starvation, and her husband the following year.

“First he got really, really thin and then bloated. His last words to me were, ‘Let’s get a bottle of wine, go to a restaurant and enjoy ourselves,’ ” Kim recalled. “I felt bad that I couldn’t fulfill his last wish.”

In 1998, Kim’s 26-year-old son, who had been a wrestler and gymnast, grew weak from hunger and contracted pneumonia. A shot of penicillin from the market would have cost 40 won, the same price as enough corn powder to feed herself and her three daughters for a week. She opted for the corn and watched her son succumb to the infection.

But Kim did not give up. She swapped apartments again and used the money to start another business, this time baking biscuits and neungju, a potent corn moonshine. If buyers didn’t have cash, she would accept chile powder or anything else she could use.

“We made just enough to put food on the table,” said Kim.

Much of Chongjin’s commerce is still not officially sanctioned, so it has an impromptu quality. Money changes hands over wooden carts that can be rolled away in a hurry. Those who can’t afford carts sell on tarpaulins laid out in the dirt.

Fashion boutiques are slapped together with poles and clotheslines, enlivening the monochromatic landscape with garish pinks and paisleys. Some clothes have the labels ripped out and vendors whisper that these items came from araet dongne or the “village below,” a euphemism for South Korea, whose products are illegal in the North.

Shoppers can buy 88-pound sacks of rice emblazoned with U.S. flags, and biscuits and corn noodles produced by three factories in Chongjin run by the U.N. World Food Program — all intended to be humanitarian handouts.

Some people cut hair or repair bicycles, though furtively because these jobs are supposed to be controlled by the government’s Convenience Bureau.

“They will bring a chair and mirror to the market to cut hair,” Kim said. “The police can come at any moment, arrest them and confiscate their scissors.”

Another new business is a computer salon. It looks like an Internet cafe, but because there’s no access to the Web in North Korea, it is used mostly by teenagers to play video games.

More products are available, but inflation puts them out of reach for most people. The price of rice has increased nearly eightfold since the economic reforms of 2002 to 525 won per pound; an average worker earns 2,500 won a month — about $1 at the unofficial exchange rate.

World Food Program officials in North Korea say the vast majority of the population is less well off since the economic changes, especially factory workers, civil servants, retirees and anybody else on a fixed income. But there are those who have gotten rich. Poor Chongjin residents disparage them as donbulrae, or money insects.

“There are people who started trading early and figured out the ropes,” said a 64-year-old retired math teacher who sells rabbits at the market. “But those of us who were loyal and believed in the state, we are the ones who are suffering.”

If Chongjin’s economic center is Sunam market, its political heart is Pohang Square, a vast plaza dominated by a 25-foot bronze statue of Kim Il Sung.

The grass here is neatly mowed, the shrubbery pruned and the pavement in good repair. Even when the rest of the city is without electricity, the statue is bathed in light. Across the street, a tidy pink building houses a permanent exhibit of the national flower, a hybrid begonia called Kimjongilia, named for current leader Kim Jong Il.

Since the practice of religion is barred, Pohang Square stands in as a spiritual center. Newlyweds in their best clothes pose for pictures, bowing to the statue so that their union is symbolically blessed.

When Kim Il Sung died on July 8, 1994, half a million people came to Pohang Square to pay their respects in the pouring rain and stifling heat. But among the adoring multitudes, there were malcontents.

One was Ok Hui, the eldest daughter of entrepreneur Kim Hui Suk. Though she dutifully took her place in the throng, any sadness she felt came from a foreboding that Kim Jong Il would be worse than his father.

“I went day and night along with everybody else. You had to…. But there were no tears coming from my eyes,” recalled Ok Hui, now 39, who did not want her family name published.

Ok Hui worked for a construction company’s propaganda unit, a job that entailed riding around in a truck with a megaphone, exhorting workers to do their best for the fatherland. But she didn’t believe what she preached.

Her father had taught her to doubt the regime. As a reporter and member of the Workers’ Party, he knew more about the outside world than many people and realized how far North Korea lagged behind South Korea and China.

“He and his friends would stay up at night when my mother was out, talking about what a thief Kim Jong Il was,” Ok Hui said.

Her mother, though, remained a firm believer. “I lived only for the marshal. I never had a thought otherwise,” said Kim Hui Suk. “Even when my husband and son died, I thought it was my fault.”

Ok Hui and her mother frequently clashed. “Why did you give birth to me in this horrible country?” Ok Hui remembers taunting her mother.

“Shut up! You’re a traitor to your country!” Kim retorted.

“Whom do you love more? Kim Jong Il or me?” her daughter shot back.

The regime was probably less beloved in Chongjin than elsewhere in North Korea. Food had run out in its province, North Hamgyong, earlier than in other areas, and starvation rates were among the highest in the nation.

Chongjin’s people are reputed to be the most independent-minded in North Korea. One famous report of unrest centers on the city. In 1995, senior officers from the 6th army corps in Chongjin were executed for disloyalty and the entire unit, estimated at 40,000 men, was disbanded. It is still unclear whether the incident was an attempted uprising or a corruption case.

Chongjin is known for its vicious gang wars, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish political unrest from ordinary crime. There were increasing incidents of theft and insubordination. At factories, desperate workers dismantled machinery or stripped away copper wiring to sell for food.

Public executions by firing squad were held outside Sunam market and on the lawn of the youth park, once a popular lover’s lane.

In a village called Ihyon-ri on the outskirts of Chongjin, a gang suspected of anti-government activities killed a national security agent who had tried to infiltrate the group, former kindergarten teacher Seo Kyong Hui said.

“This guy was from my village. He had been sent to inform on a group that was engaged in suspicious activities,” she said. “They caught him and stoned him to death.”

Work crews went out early in the morning to wash away any anti-regime graffiti painted overnight, according to human rights groups, but most people were too scared to express their discontent. Badmouthing the leadership is still considered blasphemy.

To discourage anti-regime activity, North Korea punishes “political crimes” by banishing entire families to remote areas or labor camps.

“If you have one life to live, you would gladly give it to overthrow this government,” said Seo, the teacher. “But you are not the only one getting punished. Your family will go through hell.”

Even as Kim Jong Il’s regime weakens, many of its stalwarts are growing richer. Many of Chongjin’s well-to-do are members of the Workers’ Party or are connected to the military or security services. In the new economy, they use their ties to power to trade with China, obtain market licenses, extract bribes and sell bureaucratic favors.

“Those who have power in North Korea always figure out ways to make money,” said Joo Sung Ha, 31, who grew up in Chongjin and now works as a journalist in Seoul.

Joo was the pampered only son of a prominent official, and his family lived in Shinam, in the city’s northern hills overlooking the ocean. By the standards of South Korea or China, the single-family homes with lines of fish and squid drying from the roofs are nothing special. But for North Koreans, these are mansions.

The Joo family had a 2,000-square-foot cement-block house and a walled garden about twice that large. The garden proved crucial in protecting the family against the famine, though they had to contend with hungry soldiers who would scale the walls and steal potatoes and cabbages.

North Korean families like to measure their status by the number of wardrobes they own, and Joo’s family had five — plus a television, a refrigerator, a tape recorder, a sewing machine, an electric fan and a camera. They didn’t have a phone or a car — at that time those were unthinkable even for a well-off family — but they did have a bicycle.

“The appliances were of no use after the electricity ran out,” Joo said. “The bicycle was the most important thing, because the buses and trams stopped running.”

Joo attended the best elementary school in Chongjin, the city’s foreign language institute, and eventually the country’s top school, Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. He never met a native English speaker in the North, or any foreigner for that matter, but he trained his ear with videotapes of the BBC and banned Hollywood films.

“I sometimes watched ‘Gone With the Wind’ twice a day. Anybody else would have been arrested for watching Hollywood movies,” he recalled.

Joo’s glimpses of Western culture eroded his loyalty to the system. “I saw myself 20 years down the road in the prime of my career and North Korea would be collapsing,” he said.

While many of his classmates went to work for the regime’s propaganda news service after graduating, Joo arranged to return to Chongjin, where he taught high school until he escaped in 2001.

“The people from our neighborhood couldn’t understand,” said Joo, who stays in contact with his family. “They thought I had everything.”

Kim Hye Young, an actress, was also a child of privilege. Her father, Kim Du Seon, was an official of a trading company that sold mushrooms and fish in China. He learned how to navigate the bureaucracy, using his connections with the army and security services.

“If one of [the officials] had a wedding in the family, they would come to me for a couple of cases of wine,” the older Kim said.

As trade with China became more important, the family prospered. They took drives in a company car and ate at Chongjin’s nicest restaurant.

Growing up, Kim showed a flair for theater, and through her acting became a member of the elite in her own right. Her best-known role was in a play called “The Strong and the Righteous,” in which she portrayed a spy who sacrifices her life for North Korea.

When the production won first place in a Pyongyang drama festival in 1996, she got to meet Kim Jong Il. Still breathless with the memory, she said the leader shook her hand and gave her a fountain pen.

“I knew that I, as an actress, had an important role to promote the ideology of my country,” Kim said.

Kim and her sisters were largely oblivious to the famine, and their mother said she took pains to shelter them.

“My daughters don’t know to this day how many children in our neighborhood starved to death,” said her mother, Choe Geum Lan. She also didn’t tell them that their father, as a result of his business trips to China, had become increasingly pessimistic about North Korea’s future.

In 1998, when Kim was home from Pyongyang on vacation, her parents told her the family was going to visit an aunt in Musan, a city near the Chinese border. It was not until they had crossed to the other side that Kim and her teenage sisters, were told they had defected.

Kim, now 29 and advertising toothpaste on South Korean television, is one of the few defectors who says she didn’t want to leave.

“I was content with my life,” she said.

Today, North Korea’s elites are even better off, buying telephones for their homes and even cars.

“For $4,000 or $5,000, anybody can buy a car now. It used to be that you weren’t allowed to register your own car. We couldn’t dream of it,” said Kim Yong Il, a defector from Chongjin who lives in Seoul.

Recently, he arranged to have a computer smuggled from China to his relatives in Chongjin. North Korea’s state-run companies don’t have computers, so they’re eager to hire people who do. “If you have a computer, you can get a job,” he said.

Visitors have been shocked to glimpse the new conspicuous consumption in Chongjin.

Jeung Young Tai, a South Korean academic who was in Chongjin delivering South Korean government aid, noticed a paunchy man standing in front of the Chonmasan Hotel next to a new Lexus.

And at a hot spring in Kyongsong, on the city’s outskirts, he saw a woman carrying a lap dog — a striking sight in a country where there is so little food that the only pets usually are goldfish.

“You get the sense that there is a tremendous gap between rich and poor and that the gap is growing,” Jeung said.

The flip side, of course, is that the poor are getting poorer.

In Chongjin, those at the very bottom of the heap can be found at the train station.

The cavernous building boasts a large portrait of Kim Il Sung above the entrance and a granite-faced clock that rarely tells the right time. In front is a vast plaza crammed with people waiting for trains — sometimes for days, because the trains have no fixed schedules — and people waiting for nothing at all.

These are the homeless, many of them children. They’re called kotchebi, or swallows, because they wander the streets and sometimes between towns in search of food. Many gravitate to Chongjin station, because it is a major hub and the travelers have more to give.

A video shot last year by a military official and sold to Japan’s NTV television captured barefoot children near the station in torn, filthy clothing fighting over a nearly empty jar of kimchi. One boy scooted along the pavement on his buttocks; the narrator said his toes had been eaten away by frostbite.

Kim Hyok knows how easy it is for a child to end up at the station; he spent the better part of two years living there.

“If you can’t find somebody or they left their home, chances are you can find them at the station,” said Kim, now 23 and resettled in South Korea.

Kim’s mother died when he was a toddler, and he was raised by his father, a party member and an employee of a military unit that sold fish in China. During his early childhood, Kim, his father and elder brother lived in relative comfort in a high-rise apartment in the Sunam district.

When the government stopped handing out rations in 1993, Kim’s father used his connections to place his sons in an orphanage 60 miles away.

Kim, who was about 12 at the time, wasn’t sorry to be sent away. It was considered a privilege because the orphanages had food.

In 1997, just before his 16th birthday, Kim “graduated” from the orphanage. He caught a train back to Chongjin, but when he got to his neighborhood, things looked unfamiliar. The electricity was off. Many apartment buildings had no glass in the windows and appeared vacant.

Climbing the eight flights in pitch dark to his family’s unit, he heard a baby crying and wondered whose it might be. Confused and scared, he knocked on the door.

A young couple opened the door and told him his father had moved long ago but left a message: Look for him at the train station.

The phenomenon of vagrancy is testament to how much North Korea has changed. Before the famine, the government controlled people’s movements so strictly that they could not dream of visiting a relative in a nearby town without a travel permit, let alone selling their homes. Not showing up for work could bring a visit from police.

But as people embarked on increasingly desperate hunts for food, families broke apart. With few telephones and a barely functional postal service, parents and children became separated.

“People just started wandering around because they were hungry,” Kim said. “They would sell their apartments for a few bags of rice.”

Kim never found his father. He also never found his brother, who had left the orphanage a year earlier.

With no place to go, Kim ended up at the train station. By night, he slept squeezed into a narrow space designed for a sliding iron gate. By day, he loitered near the food vendors on the plaza. He often worked with a gang of other kids — a few would topple a vendor’s cart and the others would scoop up whatever spilled.

“If you’re not fast, you can’t eat,” said Kim, who even today in South Korea bears the signs of chronic malnutrition, with a head that looks oversized on a shockingly short frame.

Kim began hopping the slow-moving trains that pass through Chongjin on their way to the Chinese border. Once on board, Kim would scramble up to the top of a car, flatten himself to avoid the electric lines above and, using his pack as a pillow, ride for hours.

At the border, he would wade across the river to hawk the items in his pack: household goods on consignment from Chongjin residents, who were selling off their possessions.

In 1998, Kim was arrested by Chinese authorities, who do not recognize North Koreans as refugees. He was sent back to North Korea and spent two years in a prison camp before escaping again in 2000 to China, where he was eventually taken in by missionaries and brought to South Korea.

For every homeless person who survived, many more likely died. Kim Hui Suk recalled a particularly ghoulish scene at the train station.

“Once I saw them loading three bodies into a cart,” Kim said. “One guy, a man in his 40s, was still conscious. His eyes were sort of blinking, but they still were taking him away.”

Although the ranks of the homeless have thinned since the height of the famine, North Korean residents say their numbers are still considerable.

“If somebody disappears, you don’t know whether he dropped dead on the road or went to China,” the coal miner said.

About 100,000 North Koreans have escaped to China in the last 10 years. Many have ended up returning to North Korea, either because they were deported or because they missed their families. They often bring back money, goods to trade and strange new ideas.

Smugglers carry chests that can hold up to 1,000 pirated DVDs. South Korean soap operas, movies about the Korean War and Hollywood action films are among the most popular. Even pornography is making its way in.

This is a radical change for a country so prudish that until recently women were not permitted to ride bicycles because it was thought too provocative. Seo Kyong Hui, the kindergarten teacher, said that when she left North Korea in 1998, “I was 26 years old, and I still didn’t know how a baby was conceived.”

Even today, women are prohibited from wearing short skirts or sleeveless shirts, and both sexes are forbidden to wear blue jeans. Infractions bring rebukes from the public standards police.

But it is a losing battle to maintain what used to be a hermetic seal around the country. Just a few years ago, ordinary North Koreans could make telephone calls only from post offices. Dialing abroad was virtually impossible. Now some people carry Chinese cellphones and pay for rides to the border to pick up a signal and call overseas.

Smugglers also bring in cheap Chinese radios. Unlike North Korean radios, which are preset to government channels, the Chinese models can be tuned to anything, even South Korean programs or the Korean-language broadcasts of Radio Free Asia.

In the past, being caught with such contraband would land a person in political prison. Nowadays, security personnel will more likely confiscate the illicit item for personal use.

When a policeman caught Ok Hui, the entrepreneur’s daughter, with a Chinese radio in 2001, the first question he asked was, “So how do you work this thing?”

She wrote down the frequencies for South Korean radio stations.

“Don’t you have earphones so you can listen without anybody hearing you?” the officer then demanded.

North Korea instructs its citizens that the country is a socialist paradise, but the government knows outside influences can puncture its carefully crafted illusions.

“Bourgeois anti-communist ideology is paralyzing the people’s sound mind-set,” warns a Workers’ Party document dated April 2005. “If we allow ourselves to be affected by these novel ideas, our absolute idolization for the marshal [Kim Il Sung] will disappear.”

Among those who make it to China, many describe a moment of epiphany when they find out just how bad off North Koreans are.

Kim Ji Eun, a doctor from Chongjin, remembers wading across the partially frozen Tumen River in March 1999, staggering to a Chinese farmhouse and seeing a dish of white rice and meat set out in a courtyard.

“I couldn’t figure it out at first. I thought maybe it was for refrigeration,” recalled Kim, who now lives in South Korea. “Then I realized that dogs in China live better than even party members in North Korea.”

Many Chongjin residents who are caught trying to flee the country end up back in the city, behind the barbed wire of Nongpo Detention Center.

It sits near the railroad tracks in a swampy waterfront area. Prisoners are assigned back-breaking jobs in the nearby rice paddies or brick factory, where the workday begins at 5 a.m.

Ok Hui was one of those who served time in Nongpo. A rebel by nature, she had become fed up with North Korea and a difficult marriage.

In September 2001, during one of several failed attempts to escape, she was arrested in Musan and brought back to Chongjin by train. Guards tied the female prisoners to one another by tightly winding shoelaces around their thumbs.

In Nongpo, the inmates bunked in rows of 10, squeezed so tightly together that they had to sleep on their sides. Newcomers sometimes had to bed down in the corridor near overflowing toilets. Meals consisted of a thin, salty soup, sometimes supplemented by a few kernels of raw corn or a chunk of uncooked potato.

“The walls were very high and surrounded by wire,” Ok Hui said. “One woman tried to climb the wall. They beat her almost to death. You can’t imagine. They made us stand and watch.”

One day, when she was assigned to work in the fields, she spotted an old woman. She took off her underwear and offered it to the woman in exchange for sending a message to her mother. Underwear is scarce in North Korea, so the woman accepted and agreed to send a telegram to Ok Hui’s mother.

With her market earnings, Kim Hui Suk bought 10 packs of cigarettes for a security official to arrange her daughter’s release.

Some days later, the prison administrator came to talk to Ok Hui and other female prisoners who were picking corn. They were all due to be freed shortly, and the administrator urged them to resist the temptations of capitalism and imperialism, and to devote themselves to North Korea.

Then, he asked for a show of hands: Who would promise not to run away again to China?

Not a single woman raised her arm.

“We were all just thinking that our whole lives we had been told lies,” Ok Hui recalled. “Our whole lives, in fact, were lies. We just felt this immense rage toward the system.”

The prison administrator looked at the women squatting sullenly in silence in the cornfield.

“Well,” he said, “if you go again to China, next time don’t get caught.”

Forty days after her release, Ok Hui escaped again to China and made her way to South Korea. She used $8,000 in resettlement money from South Korea’s government to pay a broker to smuggle her mother out of North Korea. Today Ok Hui works in a funeral home and her mother as a housekeeper.


North Korea applies new knowledge in water management

Thursday, April 21st, 2005


North Korea (DPRK) is applying knowledge gained from a forestry project on sustainable development of upland water catchments and use of marginal agricultural land to help reduce soil erosion, protect natural resources and increase agricultural output in the country, FAO said today.

“In a country that largely depends on agriculture for self-sufficiency and has seen its agricultural production devastated by floods and droughts in the recent past, an integrated and participatory approach to watershed management is essential,” said Thomas Hofer, an FAO forestry expert.

“Applying watershed management throughout the country, planting trees in the uplands and developing integrated approaches to the use of natural resources will help diminish soil degradation and the dangers of downstream sedimentation,” Hofer said.

Trees help retain water in the soil, preventing water from flowing downstream all at once during heavy rains and keep moisture in the soil during low rainfall. Their roots also cling to the soil, making it more difficult for soil to erode.

Forests, soil erosion and agricultural output

Soil erosion and sedimentation from floods and droughts between 1994 and 2000 have caused massive destruction and reduced the country’s agricultural output in the last decade. In 1995 and 1996 alone, 16 percent of its arable land was damaged by floods The floods also destroyed irrigation and transportation infrastructure as well as 30 out of 90 tree nurseries.

To compensate for the drop in agricultural output, forests have been extensively exploited and converted into agricultural land on steep slopes of marginal lands, which are vulnerable to soil erosion. Forests were also felled for fuelwood and to earn foreign currency from the sale of forest products.

As a consequence, one quarter of North Korea’s non-agricultural land on hills and mountains is bare today.

Tree nurseries and training

To put an end to this vicious cycle and offset the progressively diminishing forest quality and agricultural output, in 2001 FAO launched at the request of the government a watershed management project to reverse degradation of upland resources by addressing the decline of natural forest cover.

FAO has also helped the government to analyze the situation of upland resources, to collect data on forest land degradation and to identify measures to conserve and develop forest and other natural resources. It has rehabilitated damaged nurseries and established new ones for reforestation. Two small-scale pilot and demonstration sites for long-term management of watersheds have been established and country people have been trained to apply their newly-gained knowledge from the sites for replication elsewhere.

Based on the experience of the project, North Korea is now developing a watershed management plan for the Taedong River, which flows through the capital, Pyongyang.

“By applying elsewhere what we have learned from the pilot sites, we hope to see sustainable use of natural resources and greater agricultural output in the country,” Hofer said.


WFP on DPRK Food Aid

Wednesday, April 6th, 2005

NK Zone
Scott Bruce

Tony Banbury, WFP Regional Director for Asia, said: “There were three main themes that emerged in my mind from this trip. The first is that the people in the DPRK are still in great need of food aid … The second main theme I’d like to share with you is that the situation, in terms of the amount of WFP food aid going into the country these past several months, has been very good…. The last issue that is very important to touch upon is the issue of monitoring, and WFP’s operating conditions…. they [the DPRK government] started putting more limits, as of September of last year, on our operating conditions, on our monitoring.”

Tony Banbury: I’m very happy to have a chance to meet you again, and pass on some reflections on the World Food Programme’s operation in the DPRK, and some of the observations from this visit that I’ve just completed. It was the third visit I’ve made to the country. The purpose this time was, as always, to observe the WFP operation, see for myself first-hand what the situation is like, not just in Pyongyang but also on the ground among the 6.5 million WFP beneficiaries. And also to have discussions with the government on the WFP operation and how we might be able to improve it.

We met of course with government officials – senior government officials – donors, NGOs, UN agencies; then in the field with local officials, beneficiary institution leaders, beneficiaries themselves in their homes, etc. So in a relatively brief period we were able to meet with a wide cross-section of people, international and Korean, and see a lot. So I think we were able to get a pretty good impression about what the situation is like now.

We spent a couple of days in Pyongyang, but then also did a field trip to Chagang province – primarily Huichon city. This is a province that WFP had been working in for quite some time, but then access to the province was cut off by DPRK officials at the end of last year, and its just been re-established. Its again open, we’re again able to monitor our food aid there. When access was cut off we of course stopped delivering food aid – we have a consistent “no access, no food aid” policy. Now that access has been restored our food aid is again going back in. We ourselves brought a small amount of assistance with us, to a “baby home”. We brought some Rice Milk Blend, which is a highly fortified blended food that, mixed into porridge, is primarily for young children. Much more assistance will be again flowing in the coming days.

While there, we were also able to visit a Public Distribution Centre, which is not something we’re often able to do, and that was a positive thing. In fact, more and more frequently, we are able to visit PDCs now. And we visited a co-operative farm, and met with the vice-chairman of the farm. That also is a rather unusual event for WFP. Normally we are not able to visit co-operative farms. We had a very good visit there on this trip.

There were three main themes that emerged in my mind from this trip. The first is that the people in the DPRK are still in great need of food aid – particularly the most vulnerable people whom we’re trying to help. We have a lot of statistical data to back that up, as a result of the hundreds and hundreds of monitoring visits we do, as well as a nutrition survey that was carried out by UNICEF and WFP in the DPRK last October. Perhaps you’re familiar with those statistics – we can provide them for you if you want.

But my observation that people are still in need was based on much more sort of individualistic circumstances, on people that I saw. We met one woman who had a newborn baby and a four-year old daughter. We went to her home. And she had stopped sending her four-year to the nursery school because WFP assistance had been stopped. And now that WFP assistance was starting again, she said she would start sending her daughter back to school. In the meantime, though, the family was existing essentially on maize porridge and acorn meal. They find acorns in the forest and dry them and boil them into meal. It’s a very sour, bitter taste that they don’t particularly like. But its one of the few options they have at this time of year. This family had no access to meats of any kind, except on major holidays or special occasions. They had run out of vegetable oil, which is an important source of fat – nutritious fat – especially for young children and nursing women. Occasionally they were able to get some beans from their in-laws. The husband’s parents live in a rural area and occasionally send beans, but at the time we visited there was none in the household. So this one family was clearly in a very difficult circumstance.

We met with another family, another woman, and her food situation was more or less the same: no chicken, no meat, no eggs etc. And we asked: “do you raise any livestock – pigs, chickens, etc?” She replied that they could not afford to raise a pig, they were so poor. They had no left-over food to give a pig. This is an indication of the condition of your average family in an average North Korean city now.

On the drive up to Huichon city, the river was still frozen over at a certain part, hard-frozen. People were walking across it, riding bicycles across it. Then, a few kilometres further on, the river was running freely, but obviously still very cold. And there were people in the river with their pant-legs rolled up, trying to catch fish. I promise you that water was very, very cold, and it would have been hard simply to walk in. And these people were working, barefoot, with their pant-legs rolled up, trying to catch fish. That’s one small indication – nonetheless a very telling indication – of the lengths to which people in North Korea are going to try to get some food.

On top of this, the Public Distribution System has just recently cut its ration size for the average North Korean from 300 grams a day to 250 grams a day. This glass here [holds up small glass containing rice] has 250 grams of rice. That is what people are living on in North Korea, day after day. Without any meat, proteins, vegetables – except perhaps what they’re able to hunt in the forests or get from relatives in the countryside.

They are obviously suffering from, in many cases, severe malnutrition. The statistics from the nutrition survey are quite clear in that respect. More than a third of the population is chronically malnourished. About a third of the mothers in North Korea are malnourished and anaemic. So there is a continuing, very serious food crisis in the country. That’s clear from the statistics, and its very clear based on observations. And it’s hard to imagine anyone visiting the country would conclude differently.

One last comment on the food situation: the economic reforms, which I imagine you’re all familiar with, are having an impact – in fact a big impact. As a result, some people are doing very, very well. In Pyongyang you can see more and more cars – imported cars. And restaurants, and people eating in restaurants, where a meal may cost the equivalent of five to seven times an average monthly wage. Some Koreans are doing very well, and are able to afford that. But that is a very thin stratum of society, at the very top. The large numbers, the masses of the people in the country, are living on an average wage of 2,000-3,000 won per month, more or less one euro. So the people who have that wage, and are obliged to go into the markets to buy – or try to buy – commodities to supplement what they get from the PDCs [Public Distribution Centres], to supplement this bit of rice [holds up glass containing rice], are ill-able to afford, for instance, vegetable oil, which as I mentioned a moment ago is such an important part of a diet. A litre of oil is a month’s wage, or two months wages – I’m sorry, but I forget the exact statistic now, but it’s far beyond the affordability of the average working family. So they’re highly dependent on either humanitarian assistance, or, if they have close relatives living in the countryside who are producing excess food in their kitchen gardens and are able to transfer it.

It was very clear talking to the local officials and the people in Chagang province that they were extremely pleased that WFP food was returning. They had obviously suffered. A local official spoke in very clear and direct terms about the difficulties experienced after the WFP assistance was cut off. And he was literally ecstatic that the assistance was being resumed. The families that we spoke to were likewise very pleased. I mentioned the food aid is influencing the decisions of households, such as the woman’s decision to take her daughter out of school and to send her back. So the food aid is highly appreciated by local officials and the population.

The second main theme I’d like to share with you is that the situation, in terms of the amount of WFP food aid going into the country these past several months, has been very good. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve been in a position to feed all 6.5 million intended beneficiaries – that’s about a third of the population – as a result of generous donations from Japan, ROK [Republic of Korea], others; we have had a very good what we call “pipeline” – stocks of food. That’s the good news.

The bad news is those stocks are close to running out. In fact, we have already had to make some cutbacks. We’ve stopped giving vegetable oil to 900,000 elderly people. As of next week we’ll have to stop providing vegetable oil rations to kindergarten children, nurseries and pregnant and nursing women. This vegetable oil is enriched with vitamins; it’s an extremely important part of the diet for people in the situation that they are in in North Korea. Withdrawing it doesn’t just make cooking more difficult; it actually has a very significant nutritional impact on the recipients. And that’s happening now.

In May, WFP will stop providing pulses to 1.2 million women and children; and in June, we’ll stop providing cereals – our main commodity – to about one million primary school children, pregnant and nursing women, elderly people and particularly vulnerable urban households. This is assuming we don’t get additional contributions very soon.

So, as good as things have been these past few months, they’re about to get much, much worse. The supplies from the crops that come in at the end of the year last a bit, but the lean season – the hardest season for people in North Korea in terms of food supply, when they have very little left over from the previous year’s crops – is just about to start. So it’s a very bad confluence of events where we’re about to run out of food, and they’re about to run out of their own food. Unless we get on a very urgent basis new contributions in the coming weeks, we’re going to face these very serious cuts that I was just mentioning. And in my view the impact of those cuts could be extremely tragic, truly tragic, for the families, the children, the elderly, the very vulnerable people who WFP is trying to reach.

The last issue that is very important to touch upon is the issue of monitoring, and WFP’s operating conditions. WFP has struggled with this issue from the first day we started working in the country in the mid-90s. It is a perpetual quest of ours to improve the monitoring conditions. In the course of 2003 and 2004 we had, in fact, made some great progress. We steadily increased the number of monitoring visits we were able to conduct. On average, over the years, it went from the low 200s to more than 500 visits per month. We were able to access much different kinds of information, a much wider variety of information. Not just how much food you need, but what your sources of income are, your sources of food – where else do you get food – what you are consuming, what you go forage for in the forest.

This gave us a much better understanding of household-level food security. WFP used to look at the food security issue from a national perspective: what’s the total national requirement, what’s the total national production, and then we’d look at helping to fill the gap. Now we are much more focused on household-level food security. What are individual households’ experiences, who are the most vulnerable – is it the elderly, is it the urban poor, is it the children, is it the pregnant women? And as a result of the improvements in our monitoring in 2003-2004, we have developed a much better understanding of that. So we are better able to target our assistance to the people who need it the most.

It seems, though, that as a result of the improvements in our monitoring, there were certain segments of the North Korean authorities that were uncomfortable with WFP activities: the very large number of visits we were making, the intrusiveness of those visits – our visits into households, the very detailed questions we were asking. We were told by the North Korean authorities that this was making the people uncomfortable, and some parts of the government itself uncomfortable. So they decided to change our operating conditions. And they started putting more limits, as of September of last year, on our operating conditions, on our monitoring. And, for instance, reduced the number of visits we’re able to make from more than 500 a month to down to around 300 a month. They also closed off some counties, although as I said our access to most has been re-established. They also told us we should not ask certain types of questions which were not directly related to food aid.

We understand their concerns. I understand if I was living in my country and some foreigner decided to come up unannounced to my front door and say “let me into your kitchen, I want to ask you a half-an-hour’s worth of detailed questions about you and your family and your family’s practices”, I’d have some doubts. So I understand that.

But we have also worked very hard to try to explain to the North Korean authorities the importance of having confidence that our food is reaching the people who need it. There are different ways to have that confidence. One way is to follow the type of practices we had in 2003-2004. But there are other ways. And in the past few months we have been having very intensive discussions with the North Korean authorities about different ways to develop the same or even greater confidence about how food aid is being used, where its going, instead of the past practice of these rather intrusive visits.

So, for instance, we are looking at having much more frequent visits to Public Distribution Centres. I indicated a few moments ago that those have been very limited. Now if we can go and observe people receiving assistance directly, and talk to them at the PDCs about their situation – similar types of questions but in a more public setting – that’s one way we can get information.

Another way we can get the required information is to have focus group discussions, where, instead of one person in her living room with three government officials and three WFP people there – a rather intimidating setting – we can gather a larger number of beneficiaries and talk to them in a group setting and allow them to talk among themselves, where they might be more confident in sharing common experiences.

Another important way that we expect to have this greater confidence in where food aid is going is through baseline surveys. Where, instead of doing household visits on a regular basis across the entire year, we would do three surveys a year. We would have household visits, but a rather intensive number over a short period.

The fourth and perhaps most important element of this new system that we are discussing with the government is a commodity tracking system, where we would use an internal technical logistics commodity tracking system that includes software – in WFP we call it COMPAS and use it around the world – that helps us track a bag of food aid from the point it enters the country to the point its distributed to the beneficiary. Technical logisticians can explain how this system works using computer tracking methods, where we know where the food is the whole way through the system.

We have discussed all of this with the North Korean authorities. They agree in principle on the need for us to have the confidence we demand on how the food aid is being used. They agree in principle to develop this new system, where we would have improved quality of monitoring, even if the quantity of visits is reduced. And they agree in principle with the elements that I have just mentioned. We are now in the process – our country team there, the country director Richard Ragan who I think some of you have met – are in the process now of trying to roll this out at the provincial level. Starting in April, officials from all the 158 counties where we deliver our assistance, where we have access, will be getting training from WFP on this new approach.

So it’s not a done deal yet. We have still to implement the agreement in principle. But I’m very pleased that the government has extended its agreement in principle, has shown its understanding of our need to have confidence in the use of the food aid. It’s a point that we have stressed in very explicit terms. And we have likewise stressed that if we do not have that confidence, WFP and our donors will perhaps not be in a position to provide the type of assistance we have been providing. But there is a high level of understanding, I would say, in the government on WFP’s position, and I’m cautiously confident, cautiously optimistic, that in the coming weeks and months we will have successful implementation of this new monitoring system.

I am also equally sure that there will be some adjustments and changes to it on the ground as we go into implementation. That’s to be expected, even desirable, if we can make some improvements on the ground. The key point, though, is whether WFP will in the end be able to say with confidence “we know how the food aid is being used”. If we are successful in implementing the agreement in principle, we will have a better understanding of the use of this food aid than before, as a result primarily of this commodity tracking system. We’ll have a better picture of the food aid from its entry into the country to its final consumption. What appeared to us to be a big problem in the latter part of last year has in fact turned into a very good opportunity for WFP. And I think we’ll emerge in a stronger position as a result of the changes.

I’d like to make two final comments and then open it up to you all for questions. In my conversations with the government we discussed the issue of OCHA, the [UN] Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It was reported in the press a few weeks back that the government had decided to close the OCHA office in Pyongyang. I was assured categorically and repeatedly by authoritative officials from the foreign ministry that there has been no decision to close the OCHA office in the DPRK. They made that very clear to me and asked me to pass that on to our colleagues at the UN in New York, Geneva and Rome, and also to all of you. The OCHA office in the DPRK is not being closed.

The DPRK government had said that they didn’t see a need for the OCHA official in Pyongyang, whose contract ends in August, to continue, because they thought that his role was just tied to the CAP [Consolidated Appeals Process], which the DPRK government has said they no longer want. When the acting Humanitarian Coordinator, Mr. Ragan, explained in greater detail to the government that the role of OCHA went beyond the CAP, they expressed understanding, and an openness and a willingness to allow an OCHA presence to continue in the country. This is an issue that will be discussed when a new UN Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator arrives in the country in April. But as of now there is an OCHA official and there is no decision to close the OCHA office.

The last point I’d like to make is on issue which I’m frankly surprised continues to appear again and again in the press: reports of WFP food aid in the markets, and pictures of WFP food aid bags in the markets. This is nonsense. The economy in North Korea is so bad that they re-use everything. And the bags that WFP uses for food aid are very sturdy, heavy-duty bags that are designed to last a long time so they won’t burst open and have the food aid spill out and get wasted. These bags can last years and years. They are being used for all kinds of things in the DPRK. They are being used for tablecloths. Does this mean that WFP is providing tablecloths to the people of North Korea? No.

We saw in a warehouse a WFP bag that said “Wheat – Gift of Russia to the people of North Korea”, and it was filled with locally produced beans. They re-use these bags, and the fact that a WFP bag shows up in a market in North Korea or any other country does not in any way suggest WFP food aid is being diverted to the markets. And it is frankly irresponsible for people to suggest it does. Because it is ignoring completely the reality and the facts of how the economy works and the habits of people – which are to use every last item of value in the country they can. And these bags are, frankly, valuable items and do get re-used. I’m pleased they get re-used. It would be nonsensical to think that as soon as the food is consumed they’re somehow throwing these bags out. It’s simply not the case. So, for NGOs who constantly repeat this, I encourage you to ask any of them to go to North Korea and see for themselves – or you to see for yourselves – that this is just utter nonsense. And if any of you have a report and think this is happening, or are tempted to report it, please contact Mr [Gerald] Bourke [WFP Public Information Officer in Beijing] or myself and we’ll be happy to repeat that this is just not happening.

I’d be happy to answer any questions anyone might have. Thanks.

Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten (Denmark): I noted you said that people in the cities have to rely either on food aid or relatives in the countryside. Does this mean that people in the countryside are better off than those in the cities?

Banbury: It’s a multi-tiered economy in North Korea. There is this thin stratum of elite that I referred to who are doing quite well. There then are the workers, basically, who were employed in factories and live in urban environments. Many of these factories are no longer producing anything. And these workers used to be able to rely upon a guaranteed state salary. That state salary is often no longer coming – they have to rely on the production of the factory to pay their salaries. If the factory is not producing, the salary’s not there. Many of these factories are sitting idle and the workers are in fact no longer even employed. These people are indeed very vulnerable. They’re a new category of vulnerable people that WFP started paying close attention to about a year ago, or 18 months ago, after these economic reforms.

In the countryside, it’s a real mixed story. The farmers tend to be better off, at least in terms of their food situation. We do not generally provide food assistance to farmers. Their daily ration from the government is 600 grams, compared to the 250 grams, or in some cases 200 grams, that other people get. 600 grams a day is probably still much less than any of us in this room consume, particularly if you consider all the commodities we consume – not just grain. But relative to other people in North Korea, the farmers tend to be better off. However, there’s an interesting dynamic occurring now, and this became apparent to us during our visit to the co-operative farm and talking to others: there is such a thing as a cash crop in North Korea now. That never existed in the past. Farmers can get more money producing vegetables, fruits, and selling those in the market, than in producing the staple grains such as maize or rice or potatoes.

There are people who are not in a good situation. This is particularly true of children, or elderly people. When we visit hospitals or “baby homes” [orphanages] and identify the particularly malnourished and ask where they’re from, it surprises us to find that sometimes they come from co-operative farms, farming families. And it’s a little unclear to me what is the explanation for that. Oftentimes malnutrition is as much a result of care practices as food availability. Its hygiene, its the diet itself – what is fed, not just the total quantity – but also are you trying to ensure that the children get some protein, some animal fat. So, as a general matter, farmers are the best off in terms of food. But it’s a mixed picture.

Public Radio International: The areas where WFP was cut off from monitoring: any idea why those particular areas were chosen? Do you think it was arbitrary, that the government was trying to make a point that it didn’t want you doing as much visiting as you had done? Or was there some reason why those particular areas were chosen?

Banbury: The short answer is we don’t know. We heard all kinds of speculation. None of it was based on reality as far as I could tell. It was a brief period of cut-off, and one of the interesting points that I should have mentioned earlier is that when WFP assistance was no longer being provided to those counties, the assistance was not made up by state authorities. We asked about that: How did you get by? Did you reduce the ration? Did you get more food? And, in fact, they just had to do with less. Which also tells you something. This area where we were is known for its production of tools. They don’t produce much food. It’s a very hilly, mountainous area, it’s a very food insecure area, and they trade tools with other provinces in exchange for grains. But they were not able to make up the difference at all, and they really suffered as a result. Which raises real concerns for us – they’re longstanding concerns – about the food security situation in the counties to which we don’t have access.

Public Radio International: Are you at all concerned that food aid is going to become a political tool as the United States and other countries start putting more pressure on North Korea to come back to negotiating table? You’re running out of stocks at the moment. How confident are you that the US and other major donors are going to continue to give the way they have been?

Banbury: WFP is of course always concerned if food aid is used in any way in a political manner. We believe strongly that decisions on food aid should be made on purely humanitarian grounds. The US has consistently said – the President of the United States has said, the Secretary of State has consistently said – they will not use food aid as a weapon. And I believe that is the United States policy. In our discussions with the US, they have repeatedly, repeatedly stressed the monitoring issue. As there have been problems, the US contributions have reflected those problems. I’m quite hopeful that, as we’re able to implement this new monitoring system I was talking about, the US will have the confidence that we have that its improved and they’ll give more than they have been giving. That’s certainly our hope and expectation.

Asahi Shimbun: North Korea cut the PDS ration from 300 to 250 grams. Why? Did North Korean officials give you an explanation?

Banbury: Its simply because they do not have enough food. Its lack of availability of food – food supply.

Asahi Shimbun: But according to WFP reports, harvests are better, no?

Banbury: There were also cuts last year. There are cuts basically every year, depending on the time of the year. It’s no surprise that they’ve cut it to 250. I think that’s something we more or less expected. It was just a question of when. And as I mentioned, in some cases the ration has been cut to 200 grams a day. That’s a very clear indication of the continued food shortages in the country. If they had the food – particularly now during the winter months, and its very cold there – they would be giving the food, I believe.

Asahi Shimbun: We can see this ration cut transferred to the army?

Banbury: WFP did not see that. I believe that the army is being well fed. It’s only natural to assume that the North Korean authorities are providing adequate food to their army. There’s a standing policy to put the needs of the army first. That’s the North Korean policy. So it only makes sense to assume that the army is being well fed.

One thing that’s very important for all of us to keep in mind is that food is needed in the country right now very badly. But it’s the people who need the food, not the government, and not the army. The government’s going to be okay; the army is going to be okay. I’m not worried about them. I am very worried about the people in North Korea, these very poor people in rural areas, in urban areas. Imagine eating maize porridge and dried acorn meal every day, day after day, and not having anything else to feed your child. Imagine not having fat or protein to feed your child. They’re in a very difficult situation.

EFE (Spanish news agency): You mention that North Korea is running out of food. Is WFP preparing any campaign to get more food from private donors? Are you going to call for more donations from the West – Europe, America – or other main donors like China, Japan, South Korea. My second question is: do you think the nuclear crisis is directly affecting the lives of the North Koreans?

Banbury: WFP will be appealing to a very wide cross-section of donors and potential donors to urgently provide new donations to our operation in North Korea. We particularly need cash donations, because we need cash to buy food in the region in order to get it into the country in time to avoid the looming cuts that I was talking about. We will be appealing to traditional donors. Though you mentioned China as a traditional donor, China has never provided any assistance through WFP to North Korea. But we will be talking to the main donors that we have traditionally relied upon. That’s the United States, South Korea and Japan. We have also received important donations in the past from the European Union, from Australia, from Italy and a number of others. So we will be appealing to the big donors, the medium donors, the little donors, and those who have not donated in the past.

And we will be appealing to the private sector in South Korea. We have started a campaign in South Korea to raise resources for the programme in North Korea. We believe that there is a strong sense of solidarity between the people in South Korea and the people in North Korea, and a concern among the people in South Korea for the situation of the average person in North Korea. His Excellency President Kim Dae Jung, former president of South Korea, has agreed to serve as the honorary chairman of the World Food Programme’s Senior Advisory Council in South Korea. This is a private sector grouping that will be working to raise funds from the private sector, and President Kim Dae Jung’s role in that is obviously a very important one.

With respect to your second question, it would really be political speculation for me, and I prefer to avoid the realm of politics as well as speculation, so I don’t feel comfortable answering your question. Just perhaps to make an appeal that, in making decisions on providing assistance to North Korea, humanitarian concerns take precedence, because as I said a moment ago, its not the government that needs the food, it’s the people of North Korea who need the food.

Associated Press: Two questions. The first is: we’ve heard about these economic reforms, and you mentioned them again today. Can you tell us whether you see that they are having an effect on the average North Korean, say, in food terms, the bottom 90 per cent? Do they appear to be having an influence on food production, food availability to the general public? Second, on the new monitoring system: it sounds as if you’re settling in for the very long term. Do you see this situation in North Korea just becoming a decades-long situation where the outside world is going to have to continue to feed ordinary North Koreans? Or do you see a time when North Korea can produce enough or buy enough from abroad to feed its people?

Banbury: With respect to your first question, there clearly is a very significant impact. In fact, there are many different kinds of impacts. The main one, though, is that salaries of workers, government officials etc. have risen, giving them more income. But prices of basic commodities – foodstuffs – have risen much more dramatically. So their purchasing power has decreased. They’re less able to buy things. That’s very clear. The prices of foodstuffs have doubled, tripled, quadrupled. The prices of staples, vegetable oil, meat, the high-value items. For people who are able to benefit from the economy somehow – the winners – they’re able to make money, whether its from working in a restaurant, or through trading, then they’re doing okay. But for people who are relying upon traditional income sources, they’re clearly in a worse position. And that’s making us think that – and in fact this relates to your second question – maybe instead of 6.5 million people, WFP should be feeding 7.5 or 8.5 million people in North Korea. Because the number 6.5 million more or less is the same as we were providing assistance to when the reforms were implemented. And the number of winners compared to the number of losers in the economy as a result of these reforms is much smaller.

With respect to your second question, it’s always the happiest day of WFP’s involvement in a country when it’s no longer needed there. In the case of China – we have been providing assistance in China for 25 years – assistance will end this year. WFP will no longer provide humanitarian assistance in China after 2005. And that’s a great thing. In the case of DPRK, one day we will stop providing assistance there. In some countries – Ethiopia, for example – it’s gone on for decades and decades. I hope that won’t be the case in the DPRK. But until there are significant changes in the economy that allow people to earn a living wage and provide for their families, I think our assistance will be required. And its absence would be a very serious hardship on literally millions and millions of people. I hope its not long, I hope its next year that we can leave. My guess is it’ll be a little more than that.

Danish Radio: You said maybe you should be feeding 7.5 million, or 8.5 million. Why is the number still 6.5 million?

Banbury: The number this year is in fact larger than last year. The number is based on our best assessment of the economic conditions in the country and the most vulnerable people. We are providing assistance now to especially vulnerable urban households, which is a new category of beneficiaries for WFP. Two years ago we were not providing assistance to them because they had this guaranteed state salary, and prices were flat. So our numbers do change according to circumstances. Each year we come up with a new programme for the next year on how many people we think need our assistance. Depending on developments this year, and on our assessment that will be done in September-October, we may well change that.

But it will also depend to a very large degree on the government. And as I repeatedly stressed to the officials there, they need to help us help them – help their people. They have to create the necessary conditions to allow us to operate with confidence. And if they do not do so, then it would be harder to justify continued increases in the numbers of people. It would be easy to justify in terms of their need. It would be harder to justify to our donors why we would want to continue to expand if the North Korean authorities are trying to constrict our operating conditions. But, based on my cautious optimism that we will have a better monitoring system in place in the coming weeks and months, and the changing economic conditions, next year we may well try to provide assistance to more.

Danish Radio: How many more?

Banbury: It’s too early to tell. It’s a very technical assessment. It’s based on visits to all the provinces, it’s based on a crop assessment, its based on analysis of all the household visits we do. We don’t just whistle it up – it’s a scientific assessment.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur (German news agency): Two questions: Do you have any numbers now for the inflation rate? And what about the exchange rate – black market and official rate, the difference? And the second question: last year Japan gave a very generous donation to the WFP programme, I think because of the Koizumi visit at that time. So at that time I think somehow political considerations influenced WFP in a very positive way. But that also means that maybe political considerations can influence WFP’s programme this year in a negative way.

Banbury: We have some pretty good statistics on inflation that we can share with you after the meeting. I don’t have them in front of me. And it varies very much according to the commodity. Some commodities have seen very steep rises; some have seen more moderate rises. But we can give you the specifics.

In terms of the [market] exchange rate, I think it’s about 3,000 won per euro, and the official rate is 180 won to the euro.

The average salary for a worker or mid-level government official is about 2,000 won per month – less than a euro at the market rate. Think about getting by on a euro a month. Okay, prices are lower there, but they’re not that much lower. A euro a month, and that rice a day [points to glass of rice] – these people are suffering. People have talked about how the situation is improving, they’re producing more food – but the people we saw, their situation is not improving.

With respect to your second question: the government of Japan announced a very generous donation last year – 250,000 tonnes, which is equal to basically half our annual requirement. They have so far provided 125,000 tonnes, half of what they promised. We hope very much that they will soon be in a position to provide the other half. Obviously we’re having discussions with them about that, the second half of the contribution.

Different governments decide to provide assistance for different reasons. For WFP – a humanitarian organisation, with only humanitarian considerations – we are very grateful for Japan’s contribution. We understand that the Japanese government and the Japanese people have certain concerns and sensitivities with respect to their bilateral relations and the issue of Japanese people who are missing, who have been abducted. Those are very understandable, legitimate concerns, and it’s not for WFP to question them. We respect whatever decision the government will take. But we hope they will provide the second half of the contribution.

Agence France Presse: I’m wondering why the market-driven reforms for the agricultural sector don’t lead to an increase in production, since now they’re also allowed to raise cash crops and sell in the markets. It’s a little bit the same thing that happened in China 20 years ago. But then, at the same time, why is production of food in general not increasing?

Banbury: I can guess, and give you my best sense. I may be wrong, though. It’s my impression that there’s not necessarily increased production, but a diversified production. The grain supply may be more or less stable, but where there is an ability to produce more, farmers are increasingly interested in producing cash crops – something they can go sell in the market and don’t need to turn over to the state at a lower price. I think farmers are also, if they’re able to meet their quota – this is just sort of common sense, based on human nature – rather than put in more effort to produce additional stocks for the government that they’ll get little benefit from, they’ll diversify and produce cash crops either on the co-operative farm, that keeps some of it, or on their own family plots. There are a lot more family gardens now than there used to be, where families, anyone who has a little land, are growing something. For their own consumption, or to sell in the market if they have enough. The production is being diversified and channeled into the private markets. As I said earlier, the total grain supply, I don’t think, is growing. I don’t know if it’ll shrink, but there’s more attention into these other areas.

In addition, there are still very severe shortages of inputs into the farming sector. Fertiliser is a big problem this year. Fuel for tractors: big, big problem. Tractors themselves certainly a big problem, for lack of spare parts. And even when they produce, their post-harvest losses tend to be very high because of lack of equipment to move the crops from the field into the storage facilities, and lack of adequate storage facilities. So, to produce more and more grain, they might have a point of diminishing returns because they’re frankly not able to get it into storage facilities, and store it. That’s my impression. I’m not an expert. I may be wrong, as I said. But I think that’s what’s happening.

Kyodo News: My question is regarding North Korea’s attitude towards international aid. I’ve heard that from September they began calling for longer- term development aid, and that may be why you have problems with monitoring. Did you notice any changes in their attitude, or is that still what they’re saying?

Banbury: The North Korean authorities still say that they would like to transition to more long-term development assistance. However, at the same time, they reaffirm their commitment to humanitarian assistance – certainly WFP humanitarian assistance. They want us to meet the entire target that we have for the year; they want us to bring in all the food that we’ve said we will try to bring in. They are trying to improve our operating conditions. So they remain quite committed to the WFP programme, even though I think it would be their preference to transition to more development assistance. But to achieve that, they’re going to have to convince some donors that that’s the way to go. I think they’re going to continue receiving humanitarian assistance – and wanting to receive it – until they successfully make that transition. And so far, the development assistance isn’t there.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur: Do you think that in the next couple of months the Public Distribution System will maybe run out of stocks?

Banbury: I don’t think the Public Distribution System will entirely run out. I think it’s entirely possible that the ration will be reduced further: 250 grams down to 200, or whatever; fewer commodities. But I think its unlikely, in my experience, to my knowledge of the past, they’ve never totally stopped. So that’s probably unlikely. But WFP assistance, that could completely run out. So much of that assistance is going to really vulnerable populations. Kids who should not be eating only maize; kids who really need protein. You go to these “baby homes”, these orphanages and schools, and you know…Someone once said “a hungry child knows no politics”, and its clear that those kids need assistance. And the elderly too. I mean, my goodness, these elderly people…it breaks your heart to see them…eating maize and acorn meal.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur: One more question, on the nuclear issue. There’s been a kind of hardening of the political attitude of the North Korean government. In your talks with the North Korean side, did you discover a similar hardening? Is the political climate different now than before?

Banbury: The climate for WFP, I think, is better now than it was eight months ago, or seven months ago. There was a period in the latter third of last year, where, as a result I think of several factors, the overall climate became more difficult. And WFP was impacted by that. But as a result of very determined efforts on the part of WFP and our team in Pyongyang, the government understands that we are not a political actor; we are a humanitarian actor with a humanitarian agenda, who is really trying to help needy North Korean people. And they appreciate that, I believe. As a result, we enjoy quite good support from our interlocutors in the government. Of course, we do not meet with all segments of the government. There are different parts of the government with different responsibilities. But with the part that we’re working with, I think, the relationship is better. They were a bit caught, perhaps, in the past. The fact that they’re now able to work in a more constructive manner with us on technical matters suggests that perhaps there’s a generally improved climate.

Thank you very much.


North Korea’s stunted policy stunts children

Tuesday, March 15th, 2005

Asia Times
Aidan Foster-Carter
March 15, 2005

It’s a cliche to complain how little we really know about North Korea. Hard facts, and especially figures, are indeed hard – as in hard to come by.

In some fields this is perfectly true. The military, obviously. Does North Korean leader Kim Jong-il have the bomb or bombs? How many? Where is he hiding them? All countries keep that kind of information secret.

But no other nation in the world fails to publish any regular statistics about its economy. This 40-year silence should temper hype about market reforms. Without numbers, neither local enterprises nor external donors or (they wish) investors can do more than gamble in the dark. They really do need to know. Providing accurate numbers is a basic prerequisite of being a modern state.

Yet North Korea possesses a Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), and it is not idle. No doubt the Dear Leader demands economic data – for his eyes only. But in some fields, the CBS does publish its work. One example was North Korea’s 1993 census, its first ever.

More recently the CBS has worked with international aid agencies to collect information that the latter need in a key area: hunger and its human consequences. The latest fruits of such cooperation have just been published in the “DPRK 2004 Nutrition Assessment Survey”, a joint product of the Central Bureau of Statistics and North Korea’s Institute of Child Nutrition (ICN), with financial and technical help from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). The two chief consultants were from Australia and Vietnam, so this was a regional Asian effort. It follows earlier surveys carried out at two-year intervals, in 1998, 2000 and 2002.

It was the WFP that released this report, at a press conference in Beijing on March 7. It is in fact dated November 2004; the survey itself was carried out in October. The delay wasn’t explained. Perhaps the lag was attributable to translation time and to make sure it was fit for publication generally.

I’m often critical of North Korea, so all the more reason to give credit when it’s due. This is an impressive, highly professional report comprising 104 pages, five chapters, 46 tables, 24 figures. The sample was 4,800 children, ages up to six, and 2,109 mothers of children under two, drawn evenly from seven of North Korea’s nine provinces plus the capital, Pyongyang.

Having taught social science research methods in a former life, I get a kick out of reading about random and cluster sampling (sad, I know). Then I pinch myself. This is North Korea. An official document! All these numbers! And on a potentially very sensitive subject, too.

For what this survey measures, with grim precision, is what years of hunger have done to the bodies of small children – and I do mean small – and their mothers in North Korea.

To be technical, there are three main criteria:

*Underweight (for age) is self-explanatory;
*Stunting, low height for age, signals chronic malnutrition;
*Wasting, worst of all, is low weight relative to height, indicating acute malnutrition. Each of these categories is sub-divided into mild and severe cases. For the mothers, a fourth measure was used: MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference). Less than 22.5 centimeters means they aren’t eating enough.

So how are Juche’s (juche is the policy of self-reliance) children faring? The WFP’s press release tried to look on the bright side. Since the last survey in 2002, the proportion of young children chronically malnourished (stunted) is down from 42% to 37%. Acute malnutrition (wasting) eased from 9% to 7%. But those underweight rose from 21% to 23% – though for children under the age of two, those most at risk, this fell from 25% to 21%. One in five children had diarrhea, and one in eight showed symptoms of acute respiratory infection. But mothers have made no progress: a third were anemic and malnourished, the same figure as two years ago. Vitamin A deficiency is common.

Much depends on where people are living. Things are less bad in Pyongyang and in the southwestern Hwanghae farming region than in bleak northeasterly Hamgyong and Ryanggang provinces. Ryanggangites get to eat meat, fish or eggs just once every three weeks on average. Chagang in the far mid-north is bleaker still, but North Korea doesn’t allow access to this area – probably because of military bases located there. Thus, no survey was conducted in Chagang, which means no food aid either; the WFP is strict about that – surveys first.

Even at the national level, the few slight improvements offer scant comfort. The more than one-third (37%) of North Korean’s under six who are stunted – and especially the one in eight (12%) who are severely stunted – will grow up stunted and stay that way. Even once Korea is reunified politically, they will stand out physically: dwarfed by their Southern peers.

Seoul, meanwhile, has different – nay, opposite – child health issues. With uncanny timing, the very same day as the WFP released its survey on the North, education officials in the Southern capital reported that one in 10 schoolchildren in Seoul is overweight. Obesity rates are growing fast, too. As the old adage has it, the rich slim while the poor starve.

Back in the North, the WFP doesn’t appear to be leaving any time soon. Richard Ragan, head of the program’s Pyongyang office – and an American, to boot – said he hopes the agency will shut up shop one day, once the government and the private sector can stand on their own feet.

But for now, one anniversary a proud North Korea won’t be celebrating, is that this year marks a whole decade since it first, reluctantly, asked the WFP and other agencies for help coping with flood and famine. While the worst of the famine has eased, food self-sufficiency – in a country so mountainous that this is a ludicrous goal anyway – looks as remote as ever.

So still, in 2005, the WFP has extended the begging bowl for Kim Jong-il – whose own priorities evidently lie elsewhere. Ever prickly Pyongyang has bitten the kind hand trying to feed it, forbidding UN agencies to launch their usual formal consolidated aid appeal this year. Nonetheless the WFP is seeking $202 million with which to buy 504,000 tonnes of food, mainly grains.

And no wonder. In January North Korea cut its Public Distribution System (PDS) rations to starvation level: 250 grams of cereal per person per day, the lowest in five years. Such cutbacks don’t usually happen until March, when last year’s crop typically runs out. This is all the more odd, since 2004’s autumn harvest is thought to have been the best in years.

Luckily, the WFP currently has enough stocks – as it did not, in the recent past – to feed all of its target group: a staggering 6.5 million North Koreans, or nearly one-third of the entire population. The main categories within this group are 2.7 million children from birth to the age of 10 and 2.15 million people in food or work programs. Other beneficiaries include 900,000 elderly, 300,000 pregnant women and nursing mothers, and 350,000 in low-income households. The latter are a new category: victims of the post-2002 reforms that have seen inequalities widen, even as the state retreats ever further from providing any help to the millions of citizens whom its disastrous past and half-baked present policies have starved and stunted.

That’s my take, not the WFP’s. Diplomacy precludes any such critique from a UN body. Yet the raw data, the results – written indelibly on the bodies of innocent children, marked for life – are there for all to see. It’s ironic, but the same regime that branded this suffering on its people is at least now registering and owning up to the outcome: collating and publishing these damning data, putting its name to the survey, and signing off on it. That’s a start.

Where his statisticians boldly go, will the Dear Leader follow? It’s so simple. Ditch nukes; watch aid explode instead. Let the children eat, and grow. If not, what future is there?


North Korea has bigger harvest

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2004


Despite its best harvest in ten years, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will post another substantial food deficit in 2005 and require external aid to support more than a quarter of its 23.7 million people, two United Nations agencies said today.

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) projected domestic cereals availability in the 2004/05 marketing year (November-October) at 4.24 million tonnes, including milled rice and potatoes – a 2.4 per cent increase on 2003/04.

However, it warns that insufficient production, a deficient diet, lower incomes and rising prices mean that 6.4 million vulnerable North Koreans – most of them children, women and the elderly – will need food assistance totaling 500,000 tonnes next year.

Good weather improves 2003 harvest

The 2004 rice paddy harvest was estimated at 2.37 million tonnes, up from 2.24 million tonnes in 2003, thanks primarily to favourable weather, a low incidence of crop pests and diseases, and improved irrigation in the country’s cereal belt. Maize output was unchanged at 1.73 million tonnes.

Forecasting total cereal needs for 2004/05 at 5.13 million tonnes, the UN agencies projected an import requirement of almost 900,000 tonnes. Given anticipated concessional and commercial imports of 400,000 tonnes, the residual gap will be about 500,000 tonnes.

Most of the 16 million people receiving subsidized cereals from the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS) averaging 300 grams per person per day – half a survival ration – cannot make ends meet. They turn to more expensive private markets yet “they are still not able to cover their basic energy requirements,” FAO and WFP said.

Despite good harvest, external food aid needed

The report, which followed a joint assessment mission by the Rome-based food agencies in September and October, says, “the continuing national shortage is still a problem” so “external food aid is in part seen within the context of overall domestic availability.”

It also noted that, increasingly, “the most critical problem for poor households is their lack of access to basic and nutritious food because of declining purchasing power.” As a result, assistance to the food-insecure population “should now be determined more by their household food gap than the national food gap in cereal production.”

“A balanced diet is out of reach for all but a few PDS-dependent households,” the report says. “The situation remains particularly precarious for children in kindergartens, nurseries, orphanages and primary schools, pregnant and nursing women, and elderly people.”

Price of food on new private markets up dramatically

While the prices of state-subsidized rice and maize rationed through the PDS have remained low and stable (at 44 and 24 won a kilo, respectively), prices in private markets have risen dramatically since the introduction of economic reforms in mid-2002.

Last month, rice cost as much as 600 won a kilo in such markets – almost 30 per cent of a typical monthly wage – compared to the 2003 average of 120 won; maize was 320 won a kilo, up from last year’s peak of 110 won. In September, one Euro bought 1600 won on the parallel market.

“The ability of low-income families to obtain food from the market is severely restricted due to their deteriorating purchasing power affected by under- or unemployment and sharp rises in food prices in the market,” according to the report.

An unintended consequence of reform has been the problem of higher food prices, which has been compounded by widespread and steep cuts in already meagre wage earnings as ailing enterprises in predominantly industrial DPRK shed labour.
Food rations meet just half a person’s minimum needs

The typical wage earner’s family now spends one-third of its monthly income on PDS rations that meet only half its minimum caloric needs. Another one-third is spent on non-food essentials – rent, heating and clothing. The remainder is insufficient to purchase enough food in private markets to meet the rest of the family’s very basic needs.

Much of the population, consuming very little protein, fat or micronutrients, suffers from critical dietary deficiencies. Fresh vegetables and fruit are either scarce or very expensive outside of the July-September period.

Traditional coping mechanisms such as animal husbandry, the cultivation of household gardens and hillside plots, the gathering of wild foods and transfers from relatives in the countryside, afford some relief to hard-pressed urban residents. Small-scale income-generating activities, notably petty trade and services, allowed under an easing of restrictions on private and semi-private enterprise are other sources of much needed income.

Better farm machinery and improved soil fertility needed

To deal with the chronic, structural food deficit, the FAO/WFP report recommended that the international community enter into a dialogue with the DPRK government toward the eventual mobilization of the economic, financial, and other resources needed to promote sustainable production and overall food security.

The report also proposed examination of investment projects on soil fertility and better farm machinery to allow further expansion of the country’s double-cropped area.

WFP has provided the DPRK with almost four million tonnes of food assistance, valued at $1.3 billion, since 1995.


Through a glass, darkly

Thursday, March 11th, 2004

The Economist

So far as a visitor can tell in this secretive land, North Korea’s economic reforms are starting to bite. But real progress will require better relations with the outside

COMMUNIST North Korea has started to experiment with economic reform, and opened its door a crack to the outside world. Though its culture of secrecy and suspicion stubbornly persists, it was deemed acceptable for your correspondent to visit Pyongyang’s Tongil market last week. Here, stalls are bursting with plump vegetables and groaning with stacks of fresh meat. You can even buy imported pineapples and bananas from enthusiastic private traders.

But how about a photograph? Most foreigners think of North Korea as a famished nation, and the authorities are evidently keen these days to tell the world about the great strides their economy has made since reforms were introduced in July 2002. Logic might seem to suggest that a snap showing the palpable result of the reforms would be acceptable too. But it is not. The officials were friendly but firm: no pictures of fat carrots.

The July 2002 reforms were ground-breaking for North Korea: the first real step away from central planning since the dawn of communism there in 1945. The government announced that subsidies to state-owned enterprises were to be withdrawn, workers would be paid according to how much they produced, farmers’ markets, hitherto tolerated, would become legal and state enterprises would be allowed to sell manufactured products in markets. Most of these enterprises, unless they produced “strategic items”, were to get real autonomy from state control.

Almost two years on, how to assess the success or failure of these reforms? That climate of secrecy makes it deeply frustrating. Even the simplest of statistics is unavailable. Li Gi Song, a senior economist at Pyongyang’s Academy of Sciences, says he does not know the rate of inflation. Or maybe he is not telling. After all, he says, “We can’t publish all the figures because we don’t want to appear bare before the United States. If we are bare then they will attack us, like Afghanistan or Iraq.” So what follows can be little more than a series of impressions.

The indications are that the reforms are having a big impact. For a start, North Korea has recently acquired its first advertisement (pictured above)—for foreign cars, assembled locally by a South Korean majority-owned company. Or, to be more basic, take the price of rice, North Korea’s staple. Before the reforms, the state bought rice from state farms and co-operatives at 82 chon per kilo (100 chon make one won, worth less than a cent at the official exchange rate). It then resold it to the public through the country’s rationing system at eight chon. Now, explains Mr Li, the state buys at 42 won and resells at 46 won.

North Korea’s rationing system is called the Public Distribution System (PDS). Every month people are entitled to buy a certain amount of rice or other available staples at the protected price. Thus most North Koreans get 300g (9oz) of rice a day, at 46 won a kilo. According to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), that is not nearly enough. Anything extra has to be bought in the market.

In theory, even in the market the price of staples is limited. Last week, the maximum permitted rice price was marked on a board at the entrance to Tongil as 240 won per kilo. In fact, it was selling for 250. WFP officials say that in January it was selling for 145 won, which points to significant inflation, for rice at least. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since it means that the price is coming into line with the market.

The won’s international value is also adjusting. Since December 2002, the euro has been North Korea’s official currency for all foreign transactions. In North Korean banks, one euro buys 171 won. In fact, this rate is purely nominal. A semi-official rate now exists and the price of imports in shops is calculated using this.

Last October, according to foreign diplomats, a euro bought 1,030 won at the semi-official rate. Last week it was 1,400. A black market also exists, in which the euro is reported to be fetching 1,600 won—which implies that the won is approaching its market level. It also means, however, that imported goods have seen a big price-hike. For domestically-produced goods, like rice, prices may well go on rising for a good while longer.

What about earnings? Before the 2002 reforms, most salaries lay in the range of 150-200 won per month. Rent and utilities, though, were virtually free, as were (and are) education and health care. Food, via the PDS, was virtually given away. Now, pay is supposed to be linked to output, though becoming more productive is not easy for desk-bound civil servants or workers in factories that have no power, raw materials or markets.

Rents and utilities have gone up, though not by crippling amounts. A two-bedroom flat in Pyongyang including electricity, water and heat costs just 150 won a month—that is, about a tenth of a euro.

Earnings have gone up much more: a waitress in a Pyongyang restaurant earns about 2,200 won a month. A mid-ranking government official earns 2,700. A worker at a state farm earns in the region of 1,700, a kindergarten teacher the same, and a pensioner gets between 700 and 1,500. A seamstress in a successful factory with export contracts can earn as much as 5,000 won a month. Since that seamstress’s pay equates to barely three euros a month, wages still have a long way to adjust.

The prices of food and other necessities, to say nothing of luxuries, has gone up much more than rent has. According to the WFP, some 70% of the households it has interviewed are dependent on their 300 gram PDS ration, and the WFP itself is targeting 6.5m vulnerable people out of a total population of some 23m. Not all suffer equally: civil servants in Pyongyang get double food rations from the PDS.

There are some encouraging stories. In Pukchang, a small industrial town 70km (40 miles) north-east of Pyongyang, Concern, an Irish aid group, has been replacing ancient, leaking and broken-down water pipes and pumps, and modernising the purification system. This has pushed the amount of clean water available per person per day from 80 to 300 litres. Kim Chae Sun is a manager at the filtration plant, which is now more efficient. Before July 2002 she earned 80 won a month. Afterwards she earned 3,000 won. Now she earns 3,500.

As Mrs Kim speaks, three giant chimneys belch smoke from the power station that dominates the town. All workers have been told they can earn more if they work harder, but certain groups have been told they will get even more money than everyone else. In energy-starved North Korea these include miners and power workers. Mrs Kim says her husband, who works in the power plant, earns an average of 12,000 won a month. Her rent has gone up from eight to 102 won a month, and in a year, she thinks, she will be able to buy a television or a fridge.

A lot of people, in fact, are buying televisions. The women who sell the sets from crowded Tongil market-stalls get them from trading companies which they pay after making a sale. The company price for an average set is 72,000 won, the profit just 1,000 won. After they have paid for their pitch, the traders can expect an income of 10,000-12,000 won a month.

Mystery sales
Which makes for a puzzle. Who can afford a good month’s salary for a locally made jacket in Tongil, costing 4,500 won? How come so many people are buying televisions, which cost more than two years of a civil-servant’s pay? How come the number of cars on the streets of the capital has shot up in the past year? Pyongyang still has vastly less traffic than any other capital city on earth, but there are far more cars around than a year ago. Restaurants, of which there are many, serve good food—but a meal costs the equivalent of at least a white-collar worker’s monthly salary. Many of these restaurants are packed.

Foreign money is part of it. Diplomats and aid workers say many new enterprises seem to have opened over the last year. Nominally they are state-owned, but sometimes they have a foreign partner, often an ethnic Korean from Japan. The majority are in the import-export business. Some have invested in restaurants and hotels and some in light industry. Thanks to the 2002 reforms, these firms have a degree of autonomy they could not have dreamed of before. An unknown number of people also receive money from family abroad, but there are still no North Korean-owned private companies.

Farmers are among the other winners: they can sell any surpluses on the open market. But two out of three North Koreans live in towns and cities, and only 18% of the country is suitable for agriculture. The losers include civil servants, especially those outside Pyongyang who do not get double food rations and have no way to increase their productivity.

Factory workers have it the hardest. A large proportion of industry is obsolete. Though Pyongyang has electricity most of the day, much of the rest of the country does not. Despite wild talk of a high-tech revolution, the country is not connected to the internet, though some high-ups do have access to e-mail service. In the east of the country lies a vast rustbelt of collapsing manufacturing plants.

Huge but unknown numbers of workers have been moved into farming, even though every scrap of available land is already being cultivated. The extra workers are needed because there is virtually no power for threshing and harvesting and no diesel for farm vehicles. This requires more work to be done by hand. Ox-carts are a common sight.

The innocent suffer
Markets are everywhere. But this does not mean that there is enough food everywhere. In Pyongyang, where there are better-off people to pay for it, there is an ever-increasing supply. Outside the capital, shortages are widespread.

No one knows how many died during the famine years of 1995-99; estimates range from 200,000 to 3m. In Pukchang, officials say that 5% of children are still weak and malnourished. In Hoichang, east of Pyongyang, schools and institutions tell the WFP that about 10% of children are malnourished. Masood Hyder, the senior UN official in North Korea, says that vulnerable households now spend up to 80% of their income on food.

And yet some things are improving. Two surveys carried out in 1998 and 2002 by the North Korean government together with the WFP and Unicef showed a dramatic improvement in children’s health between those years. The proportion of children who fail to reach their proper height because of malnutrition fell from 62% to 39%, and the figures are thought to be still better now. However, Unicef says that though children may no longer die of hunger, they are still dying from diarrhoea and respiratory diseases—which are often a side-effect of malnutrition.

To a westerner’s eye, a class of 11-year-olds in Hoichang is a shocking sight. At first, your correspondent thought they were seven; the worst-affected look to be only five. Ri Gwan Sun, their teacher, says that apart from being stunted some of them still suffer from the long-term effects of malnutrition. They struggle to keep up in sports and are prone to flu and pneumonia. They are also slower learners.

Pierrette Vu Thi of Unicef says that North Korea’s poor international image makes it hard for her agency, the WFP and others to raise all the money they need. The country is in a chronic state of emergency, she says, and to get it back on its feet it would need a reconstruction effort on the scale of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such bleak talk is echoed by Eigil Sorensen of the World Health Organisation. He says that health services are extremely limited outside the capital. Medicines and equipment are in short supply, large numbers of hospitals no longer have running water or heating and the country has no capacity to handle a major health crisis.

None of this is likely to change very fast. With no end yet to the nuclear stand-off between North Korea and the United States, American and Japanese sanctions will remain in place. And nukes are only part of it. Last week the American State Department said it was likely that North Korea produced and sold heroin and other narcotics abroad as a matter of state policy. North Koreans who have fled claim that up to 200,000 compatriots are in labour camps. North Korea denies it all.

Reform, such as it is, has plainly made life easier for many. But rescuing the North would take large amounts of foreign money, as well as measures more far-reaching than have yet been attempted. At present, there is no way for the government to get what it needs from international financial institutions like the World Bank. Such aid as comes will be strictly humanitarian, and investment in so opaque a country will never be more than tentative. Domestic reform on its own cannot fix an economy wrecked by decades of mismanagement and the collapse of communism almost everywhere else.


Food Storages at WFP and DPRK

Saturday, February 14th, 2004

According to the Washington Post:

A severe food shortage has crippled the U.N. feeding program that sustains North Korea’s most vulnerable and undernourished people, according to Masood Hyder, the U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator and World Food Program representative in Pyongyang.

He said his organization can now feed fewer than 100,000 of the 6.5 million people it normally does, many of them kindergarten-age children and pregnant women who cannot get what they need to stay healthy from the country’s distribution system.

The food shortages are likely to hang in the air as North Korean, U.S., South Korean, Chinese, Russian and Japanese diplomats gather in Beijing Feb. 25 to discuss North Korea’s incipient nuclear weapons program and respond to its demand for formal security guarantees and more economic aid.

Japan, for instance, used to provide 300,000 tons of food a year but has stopped shipments because of disagreement with Pyongyang over Japanese citizens abducted and taken to North Korea for training as spies in the 1970s and 1980s, the diplomat said.

South Korea and China run government-to-government aid programs for North Korea, outside the World Food Program, but the level of their current shipments is not known. Masood estimated that such aid is roughly equal to the multilateral aid administered by the U.N. agency for the neediest people.

The last shipment arrived in North Korea in September, when South Korea sent a boatload of corn, Masood said. The next shipment, 38,000 tons of corn from the United States, is due at the end of March, he added. The six-month break has dried up a supply chain crucial for more than a fourth of North Korea’s 23 million people, particularly those not given the benefits of the million-strong military and government employees.

“That means people are without food at the worst time, in the dead of winter,” Masood said. “A little slippage in deliveries, and it’s a tragedy.”

The shortages are not expected to produce widespread starvation of the kind that devastated parts of North Korea in the mid-1990s, according to U.N., Japanese and other Asian officials. But Masood predicted they will intensify and spread malnutrition. Food shortages already produce stunted growth in four out of 10 North Korean students and allow pregnant women to gain only half of the 22 pounds they are expected to gain to give birth to healthy babies.

This winter’s shortage is likely to reverse for many people the progress made since the disaster a decade ago.

Some orphanages have started serving two meals a day instead of three because of the shortages, Masood said. Although North Koreans traditionally eat rice as their staple, the U.N. program provides mainly wheat, corn and edible plant seeds, which are used to make bread or gruel.

Normal deliveries of such grains take about three months from the time a government decides to donate to the food’s arrival in North Korea and its distribution to areas where people are going hungry. The World Food Program has asked for 485,000 tons this year but has received less than a third of that in pledges — and a small fraction in deliveries.

Masood said his main hope is that food shipments headed elsewhere could be rerouted to North Korea or that the North Korean government could be persuaded to dip into its strategic reserves of rice and other food.

“Statistically, they have food,” the Asian diplomat said. “It depends on how quickly the North Korean government diverts food from some other groups.”

Reluctance to help North Korea this winter stems in part from donor governments’ traditional end-of-year budget pinches. But it also reflects frustration over Kim’s refusal to abandon the country’s nuclear program and unwillingness to allow U.N. or other outside inspectors to fully monitor what happens to the aid.

The secrecy has caused some donor governments to suspect that the food aid might be diverted to the military or government employees. Monitoring is “less than effective” because of the restrictions, Masood acknowledged. But he expressed skepticism that U.N. food was ending up in army or government cupboards because, he said, officials have first call on government-to-government aid and North Korea’s own rice harvest.

Another problem is that North Korean food shortages have become chronic over the last decade so they no longer cause alarm. As long as Kim’s government clings to a system unable to produce enough food, the Asian diplomat said, people wonder why their tax money should be spent to make up the difference.



North Korean Food Aid

Monday, February 9th, 2004

According to the BBC:

More than six million North Koreans will go without emergency food aid until April, says the UN World Food Programme (WFP).  It has run out of food.

For the next two months food rations will only be given to 100,000 people – mostly child-bearing women and children in hospitals and orphanages. A quarter of the population who normally receive food aid will have to survive winter without normal rations.

Food shortages have plagued North Korea for at least nine years, after floods, economic mismanagement and the consequences of the break-up of chief donor the USSR combined to precipitate the crisis.

WFP Pyongyang representative Masood Hyder said the agency was scraping the bottom of the barrel. “If you’re going to give, please give early,” was Mr Hyder’s message to donor countries. He said the crisis had come at the “wrong time”, when harvest stocks were already depleted and recent economic reforms had forced up prices on farmers’ markets.

Mr Hyder blamed the funding shortfall on an unfavourable political context – a reference perhaps to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, says the BBC’s Louisa Lim in Beijing – and donor fatigue with a country which has received food aid for nine years.

He responded to the charge that assistance from the WFP was contributing to a dependence on aid in North Korea. “Whenever humanitarian action is protracted these kinds of worries arise: ‘Are we the solution or have we become part of the problem?'” he told the BBC World Service’s World Today programme. “I think we’ve got to be quite robust in confronting these issues – so long as there are people in need … there is a strong case for the WFP to assist.”

The WFP representative said the current pattern of stop-go had begun in September 2002.  The worst until now had been an inability to feed half the people on the WFP’s books. “Now we’re talking of a total cutback,” Mr Hyder said. “It’s graver, with deeper consequences.”

“Right now we are in the situation where we will be unable to feed all 6.5million, perhaps we will be able to feed just under 100,000 in February and March, but the vast majority we will not be able to help,” he said.

Mr Hyder described the consequences as a real increase in suffering and malnourishment. “People are not really expected to die because of the short-term deprivations,” he said.  “People in fragile and recovering health… would then again suffer a setback.”

Underweight pregnant mothers were more likely to give birth to poorly developed babies, and many elderly people would be unable to buy food at the markets.

Though the US, Russia and other countries had pledged thousands of tonnes of grain and other food, the next shipments of aid will only arrive in North Korea in April. The WFP says it will face another crisis from June onwards.

From another article in the BBC:

The US gave 40,000 tonnes of food earlier in the year but said that no decision had been made on whether to send an additional 60,000 tonnes.

The WFP wants another $171 to refume the aid.



Reforms Turn Disastrous for North Koreans

Monday, January 27th, 2003

Washington Post
John Pomfret
1/27/2003, Page AOl

Nuclear Crisis May Have Roots in Economic Failure

Six months after North Korea announced unprecedented wage and price increases to jump-start its miserable economy, runaway inflation is emptying millions of pocketbooks and bottlenecks in production are causing widespread shortages, according to Chinese and North and South Korean sources.

The black market price of rice, the staple of the Korean diet, has jumped more than 50 percent over the past three months in most parts of the country while tripling in others, according to North Koreans, Chinese businessmen and Western aid agency workers. Some factories in poorer parts of the country, such as the heavily industrialized east coast, have stopped paying workers the higher salaries that were a cornerstone of the reforms, recent North Korean arrivals to China said. Others have taken to paying workers with coupons that can be exchanged for goods, they said, but there are no goods in the stores to buy.

“Theft new economic policy has failed,” said Oh Seung Yul, an economist at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. “The hopes that were raised in July are today pretty much dashed.”

The apparent failure of North Korea’s attempt to promote economic activity and improve living standards constitutes an important backdrop for its recent threats to resume a nuclear weapons program, according to the sources.

On one hand, Oh and others said, North Korea’s isolated government needed a scapegoat. On the other, according to Chinese sources close to the secretive government of Kim Jong Ii, Pyongyang has determined that it risks economic collapse without security guarantees and access to international lending institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to which the United States holds the keys. So Kim manufactured a crisis to win concessions, they said.

“Now the economic situation is more precarious than before the reforms. They can’t do this halfway,” said Cui Yingjiu, a Chinese Korean economist and adviser to the North Korean government. “They risk social chaos and economic collapse.”

The crisis has been exacerbated by a drop in the humanitarian aid that had kept North Korea on life support since 1995. Because of a shortage of donations, the World Food Program has cut back the number of North Koreans it is assisting this year from 6.4 million to 3.5 million of the country’s estimated 22.6 million inhabitants. In September, the elderly and primary school-age children on the west coast were cut off. In October, kindergarten-age children, pregnant women and nursing mothers there lost out. In November, nurseries were scratched from the list.

“It’s a tough call deciding who has to be deprived,’ said Gerald Bourke, an official with the World Food Program in Beijing. Bourke said the recent “very rapid inflation” of rice prices is “putting food way beyond the pale for a lot of people.”

The World Food Program has 25,000 tons of food in North Korea and pledges of 75,000 additional tons, he said. It needs 511,000 tons this year.

North Koreans traveling over the border to Yanji, about 700 miles northeast of Beijing, said an initial wave of hope triggered by the changes announced in July is gone in almost all parts of the country except the capital, Pyongyang.

Lee Xiangyu, a North Korean refugee in China, was arrested by Chinese border police and returned to North Korea last summer, when the changes began. After a short stint in jail, the 19-year-old returned to her home town, Musan, along the border with China. By October, she said, the lumberyard where her father worked had stopped paying him and other workers the huge raises they had received as part of the effort to promote some aspects of a free-market economy.

But prices continued to rise. “There was no money in my house, and now the prices are so high,” she said. Lee sneaked back into China in December. “It’s not like it was in 1997 when people were starving to death,” she said, speaking of the famine that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. “But it’s worse in a way. Because everybody had hope for a little while and now they are desperate again.”

North Korea’s announcement of economic reforms was front-page news, in part because the measures fit into a series of other moves that led some observers to conclude Kim was ready to lead his country out of isolation. The steps included expression of regret following a clash between North and South Korean naval forces in June, the suggestion that North Korea would hand over Japanese Red Army members wanted in Japan for hijacking a Japanese airliner in 1970, an informal meeting in July between North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun and Secretary of State Cohn L. Powell, transportation links between North and South Korea, a summit between Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and talk of establishing as many as five special zones for foreign investment.

The economic changes included raising prices and wages, devaluing the North Korean won against the dollar and cutting state subsidies for failing businesses. Wages were increased between 900 percent and 1,500 percent. Prices, which are in theory set by the state, went up as well. Rice went up 4,000 percent, corn 3,700, pork 700, diesel fliel 3,700, electricity 5,900, apartment rent 2,400 and subway tickets 900.

The government announced that factories with bloated workforces could effectively lay off unnecessary workers so they could concentrate on making things again — a step North Korean industry had not taken since economic troubles began in 1995.

The main motivation for increasing the price of rice was to prompt farmers to plant more food. But Cui, who attended a conference on North Korea’s economic changes last fall in Pyongyang, said farmers were not happy.

“Grain prices went up, but so did prices for inputs like fertilizers and seeds,” he said. ‘So all gains were canceled out.”

Another issue, Cui said, is electricity. North Korea has good hydropower resources, but as farmers become interested in planting more crops, they will want to use water in reservoirs for irrigation, not for power generation. “There are a whole series of these conundrums and Catch 22s,” Cui said.

He said North Korean factories have yet to begin producing goods people want to buy. That is why trucks rolling into China from the Dandong border crossing, 350 miles southwest of Yanji, now carry clothes, television sets, shampoo and other consumer goods.

The changes befliddled Western and Chinese economists from the beginning. Chinese experts noted that when China undertook its first major economic reform in 1979, it increased the price of grain by only 25 percent. Second, they said, when China began this process, 80 percent of its population lived in rural areas, so there was a huge pooi of potential beneficiaries from the liberalized agricultural policies. But North Korea is highly industrialized: Two-thirds of its people live in cities.

Marcus Noland, at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, speculated that the changes were either a desperate attempt to jump-start a half-dead economy or a backhanded attack against North Korea’s nascent private economy. Increasing prices would reduce the value of currency held outside the state system, breaking the back of private entrepreneurs.

But then again, he said in a recent paper, “the possibility that economic decisions are being made by people who do not grasp the implications of their actions should not be dismissed toohastily.”

Correspondents Doug Struck and Peter £ Goodman in Seoul contributed to this report