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?