Archive for the ‘Arduous March’ Category

Narco-capitalism grips North Korea

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

In early March, the United States State Department made a statement that attracted surprisingly little attention worldwide, estimating that government-sponsored narcotic production in North Korea seemed to have decreased considerably. At the same time, the statement made clear that the private production of drugs was on the rise.

This fits with what the present author has heard recently – often from sources inside North Korea; it seems that North Korea’s drug industry is changing, and this change might have important consequences for the outside world.

The story of North Korea’s involvement with the international narcotics trade began 35 years ago. In 1976, Norwegian police intercepted a large shipment of hashish in the luggage of North Korean diplomats. The same year, another group of North Korean officials was found in possession of the same drug by Egyptian customs; they had 400 kilograms of hashish in their luggage.

In both cases, diplomatic passports saved them from any formal investigation. Next year, North Korean diplomats were caught trying to smuggle drugs into Venezuela and India. In India, quite friendly to North Korea in those days, the 15 kgs of hashish was transported by the ambassador’s secretary. After that, such seizures became regular occurrences, usually once every year or two, and usually involving North Korean diplomats.

North Korea’s narcotics program has always appeared strange to outside observers – “strange” even if judged by the standards of Pyongyang, whose leaders do not care much about legal niceties and international reputation, and perceive international politics as a cut-throat, zero-sum game. On balance, state-sponsored drug production has done much more harm than good to Pyongyang.

Available estimates agree that the North Korean government didn’t earn much from pedaling illicit drugs. It is even possible that these risky operations were largely waged to sustain North Korean missions overseas – from the mid-1970s such missions were required to pay for their own expenses.

At the same time, the existence of this program inflicted serious damage on Pyongyang’s international standing, which was at rock-bottom anyway. Despite all denials of official involvement, the program could not really be hidden because seizures of narcotics carried by North Korean diplomats and officials happened far too often and sometimes in countries that were relatively sympathetic to the North.

So, if analysts at the State Department are to be believed, North Korea seems to have come to its senses and stopped or, more likely, significantly reduced its narcotics production. Indeed, this program seems to belong to the strange and slightly bizarre world of the foreign policy of North Korea in the 1970s. After all, those were the times when North Korean agents were busy kidnapping Japanese teenagers to become living tools for the training of agents (and when US$200 million was spent propagating the juche(self-reliance) ideology in the Third World).

However, this doesn’t mean the world should heave a collective sigh of relief and write off North Korea as a potential source of dangerous narcotics. If anything, the situation has become worse over the past five to six years. But this time, the North Korean regime seems to have little or no responsibility for the new boom in drug production.

The change in the North Korean drug industry essentially mirrors the wider changes that in the past two decades have occurred in the North Korean economy and society at large. The state-run Stalinist economy essentially collapsed whilst private business took over – usually unrecognized by the state, technically illegal in most cases, completely absent from official statistics, but powerful nonetheless. This happened in all industries, and drugs production was not an exception.

The author interacts with North Koreans quite frequently and most of my contacts are people from the northernmost part of the country, from areas adjacent to the Chinese border. They are unanimous: around 2005 to 2006, these areas experienced a sudden and dramatic upsurge in drug usage, hitherto almost unknown to the common public.

It’s true that some opium productive capacity existed in the northeastern parts of Korea since the early 1900s. This is also the region where secret state-run plantations were rumored to be located in the 1980s or early 1990s. However, in the North Korea of the Kim Il-sung era, surveillance was tight and exceptionally efficient, so drug problems were for all practical purposes non-existent within the country. The drugs were produced for export and medical purposes only.

Things began to change around 2005; by that time North Korea had undergone what is usually described as “grassroots capitalism” or “marketization from below”. The old state-run economy had come to a complete standstill, so most North Koreans started to make a living through all sorts of private economic activities – from cultivating private fields and working at private workshops to smuggling.

Official corruption became endemic, so officials became more than willing to turn a blind eye to all sorts of illegal activities as long as they received their cut. Arguably, North Korea nowadays might be described as the most corrupt country of East Asia: every interaction with authorities requires payment, and if the payment is sufficient, almost everything is possible.

This social and economic situation has made the large-scale private production of drugs possible. The new North Korean drug scene is dominated by “Ice” (crystal meth), a synthetic substance produced in numerous small workshops. It is frequently mentioned by defectors, while references to other drugs are quite rare.

Most of my North Korean interlocutors, some former Korean People’s Army officers, believe that methamphetamines were initially produced officially, but not so much as a drug in the strict sense, rather as a stimulant for elite military units. This seems to be plausible – after all, it was used as such during World War II by both the Axis and the Allies.

However, after around 2005 private production of Ice began and soon became large-scale. There are rumors about occasional state involvement with illicit production of drugs for export, but even if those rumors are true, the state-sponsored labs clearly produce only a small fraction of the total. Most of the labs are private nowadays.

Raw materials are often imported from China, and China has also become a major market for North Korean drug manufacturers. Since law-enforcement in North Korea is so lax (at least when no political issues are involved), it is easier and safer to run a drug workshop there, on the southern banks of the Tumen River.

The Ice-producing labs are difficult to hide since the production is smelly. Usually, such labs operate at some distance from living quarters, somewhere in the mountains or at a non-operational factory. (Admittedly, such factories are not in short supply in post-crisis North Korea).

In many cases, there are joint operations of Chinese and North Korean criminal groups: the Chinese provide the necessary supplies while the North Koreans use their territory as a safe haven to process drugs that are later shipped to China.

However, some narcotics remain in North Korea, where drug usage has increased dramatically. My interviewees say that at least in the cities of the borderlands a significant proportion of younger people have had some experience with Ice. A schoolteacher from a borderland city of Musan recently told me that in 2008-09 most of the students in their final years of high school tried Ice.

But the problem is not limited to the borderlands. A few months ago, a colleague of mine whilst visiting a prestigious college in Pyongyang spotted a poster that warned Pyongyang students about the dangers of drug use. Merely a few years ago, such a poster would be both unthinkable and unnecessary.

It seems this development has begun to worry the Chinese. In the past few years, Chinese media occasionally write about crackdowns on drug dealers in China’s northeast, often explicitly mentioning their Korean connection. Last summer, Chinese media reported that a fleet of high-speed boats, operated by the Chinese police, had begun to patrol the rivers on the border with North Korea. The task of this squad is specifically to fight drug smuggling.

The “new” North Korean drug problem is relatively local and small in scale, although it might have sufficiently grave consequences for North Korea itself, as well as for some adjacent areas of China and Russia. It also might be seen as an indication of a new type of problem that North Korea might create.

In the past, most troubles related to North Korea were caused by the North Korean government that demonstrated an inclination to flout international laws and conventions (sometimes this inclination was strengthened by remarkable adventurism). Nowadays, problems are increasingly caused by the inability of this government to control what is happening in the country – at least outside of Pyongyang and some major cities. In the long run, the lawlessness of uncontrolled private profiteers might prove more dangerous than the Machiavellian adventurism of dictators.

Read the full story here:
Narco-capitalism grips North Korea
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov


Marcus Noland on NK’s refugees and economy

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

Evan Ramstad at the Wall Street Journal: Korea Real Time interviews Marcus Noland:

Only a handful of outside economists spend the enormous time required to delve into the mysteries of North Korea.

Marcus Noland is one of them. With his research and writing partner Stephen Haggard, Mr. Noland has written several books about the North, including a definitive study on the famine that gripped the country from the mid- to late-1990s and resulted in the death of at least 1 million people and perhaps upwards of 2 million.

In a new book published this week, called Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, Messrs. Noland and Haggard produce the results of interviews they and their researchers conducted with more than 1,600 North Koreans who fled the country. The interviews took place from 2004 to 2008 and involved people who left North Korea as early as 1991.

The book documents the remarkable changes inside the North through the eyes of people who lived through them. Of course, it’s a group that holds negative views of North Korea. But the economists do their best to take that into account.

Mr. Noland, who is based at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, discussed the book with us. Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

WSJ: Most books and studies on North Korea by people outside the country are focused on the nuclear weapons issue and the geopolitics around that. Why have you focused on refugees and the economy?

Mr. Noland: An understudied aspect of the North Korea story, we believe, is the really quite dramatic internal changes that have been going on in North Korea over the last 10 to 20 years. North Korea poses an analytical challenge in that access is limited and the conventional ways that one could go studying a country aren’t available. In this context, the diaspora of refugees leaving the country is an important source of information.

The refugees themselves constitute a first-order crisis. Most of these people, in a clinical setting, would probably be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their mental health issues appear to be related not only to the difficult circumstances they faced in China but their experiences in North Korea.

WSJ: What is the cause of those stresses?

Mr. Noland: Specifically the loss of family members and family separations associated with the famine. The sense among many of them that they were abandoned in their moment of greatest need. The feeling that they were not given access to international humanitarian aid, which many of them believe was diverted to the military. And the experience of many of them of having been arrested and incarcerated in North Korea’s vast and sprawling penal system.

So the refugees themselves are an issue. They also provide us a window into North Korea.

WSJ: What did you learn from them?

Mr. Noland: Our book addresses three broad issues, which they illuminate.

The first is the underlying economic changes in the country. What we find is the economy has essentially marketized over the last 15 years or so, not as any kind of planned reform but rather as a function of state failure. What is extraordinary is the degree of marketization that the refugees portray when describing their daily lives. They describe a situation in which doing business or engaging in corrupt or illegal activities is increasingly seen as the way to get ahead in North Korea. And positions in the state or the party are still highly desired and seen as a way to get ahead, but not out of patriotism because these positions increasingly provide a platform for extortion of the general population.

Which brings us to the second big theme of the book and that is the criminalization of economic activity and the use of this vast penal system not only for its traditional use as a tool of political intimidation but for economic extortion. What we find is that changes in the North Korean legal code have criminalized vast areas of economic life, the sort of economic life that real people actually lead. In their daily lives, most if not all of North Korea’s non-elites run afoul of some of these statutes, which in effects makes everyone a criminal.

The fact that everyone is running afoul of some statute is combined with the fact that the police are given extraordinary discretion in who they arrest and who they incarcerate and for what period of time. We find that the North Korean penal system has four components. The worst and best known are the long-term political prisons, the North Korean gulag that was set up by Soviet advisors. There’s also a set of institutions that are effectively felony prisons, where you put the murderers and the rapists. Then there are a set of institutions that correspond to misdemeanor jails in other societies. What has developed since the famine period of the 1990s is a fourth set of institutions that have been codified. Those primarily house people who have made economic crimes, such as hiring labor for money or selling things in the market that you’re not supposed to be selling. We go through the enormous expansion of articles in the North Korean legal code to cover these crimes, such as illegally operating a restaurant.

This is a fantastic instrument for extortion. It means if you were engaging in entrepreneurial behavior, the police can come to you and say ‘You’re engaged in illegal activity. We can take you, take your spouse, take your kid and put them in this institution where you know horrible things happen.’ So the penal system not only serves its traditional function as a platform for political corruption but we find it is now a platform for economic predation as well.

We discovered something that we call the ‘market syndrome.’ It is a series of characteristics that seem to be linked with engaging in market activities. People who engage in market activities are 50% more likely to be arrested than their counterparts. They are more likely to harbor more negative appraisals of the regime than their counterparts. And in a society where people are afraid to express their opinions, these guys who are engaged in the market, who have been to jail and been released, are more likely to express their views to others. That is to say that the market is emerging as a kind of semi-autonomous zone of social communication and potentially political organizing. And in that sense, the regime is right to fear the market.

And that brings us to the final theme, and that is the political attitudes of these people and nascent dissent. What we find is people have very negative appraisals of the regime. That’s not surprising. We’re sampling from a group of people that have voted with their feet and one would expect them to have negative views, though we go through fairly elaborate statistical exercises to try to control as best we can for the demographic characteristics of the people we’ve interviewed.

People have very negative views of the regime. They are increasingly disinclined to believe the regime’s meta-narrative, which rationalizes their misery as a function of being held captive by hostile foreign forces. Most of these people hold the government itself as responsible for their plight.

WSJ: You two previously wrote one of the seminal studies on the North Korean famine (Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform), what did the refugees tell you about living through that?

Mr. Noland: Both Steph and I were really struck by was just how the famine experience reverberates. The famine was more than 10 years ago. It ended in 1998. A significant share of the people, I think about a third, reported separation from, or death of, family members during that process. You had people out scavenging to find food. People going to China. Family separation and death of family members just continued to reverberate.

We asked them: ‘Were you aware of the international food aid program?’ The numbers differ in our surveys, but significant numbers of people were unaware of the food aid program. It was astonishing to us.

Then, among the ones who were aware, we asked `Do you believe you were a beneficiary?’ Only a small minority responded yes. And when we run all the regressions, this status of knowing of the existence of the program but believing you were not a beneficiary, this is a profoundly demoralizing experience. These people feel they were abandoned at this time of need, when they were seeing their families and neighbors dying. They believe it’s going to the army and the elites. That group of people, when we run the psychological tests and ask them their views of the regime, this is an embittered group. The effect of that experience is bigger than being in the prisons.

We wrote a book on the famine, so obviously we’re interested in it. But we were surprised and we wouldn’t have guessed that this experience continues to reverberate among the people who lived through it.

Read the full story here:
Marcus Noland on NK’s Refugees and Economy
Wall Street Journal: Korea Real Time
Evan Ramstad


Travel permits in the DPRK

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Andrei Lankov writes in the Korea Times:

The North Korea of the old Stalinist days is gradually dying. In some regards the North is still a Stalinist society, but it is changing even if these changes do not necessarily attract much outside attention. One of the most dramatic transformations of the last year is a great relaxation of the control over movement inside North Korea.

Let’s start from how the system used to work in the past. For decades, no North Korean was allowed to leave his or her native county without special travel permit, to be issued by local authorities. The only exception was that a North Korean could visit counties which had a common border with the county where he or she had official household registration. If found outside his or her native county without a proper permit, a North Korean was arrested and then ‘extradited’ back to their native county for appropriate punishment.

There had to be valid reasons for issuing a travel permit, unless the person went somewhere on official business. In most cases one had to produce an invitation from relatives for a wedding or funeral or other sufficiently important event. Then the paperwork could begin. In most cases the application was first authorized by the party secretary in one’s work unit, then it was sent to police and, finally, to the so-called “second department” of a local government (these departments were staffed with police officers).

There were various types of travel permits. For example, a trip to some special areas, like Pyongyang or districts near the DMZ, required a special travel permit which had to be confirmed by Pyongyang. There were also special types of permits for the military and some very special types for big wigs.

A trip overseas was virtually impossible. North Koreans could go abroad only on official missions and, in a very limited number of cases, they were permitted to visit relatives in China.

The system crumbled in the mid-1990s. The Great Famine made it unsustainable. Around 1996 the public distribution system collapsed, and millions of North Koreans began to move all over the country looking for food. The government turned a blind eye to their activities, and soon the restrictions ceased to be enforced.

It is not clear to what extent the travel control system was officially relaxed, and to what extent the changes resulted from benign neglect. For all practical purposes, from around 1997-98 the North Koreans enjoyed some freedom to travel without permits, with Pyongyang and some sensitive areas being an exception. This sudden relaxation (even collapse) of the domestic controls was a necessary preliminary condition for the explosive growth of private economic activities in the country. People could trade only because they could travel.

North Koreans also began to cross the border and travel to China where they looked for food and jobs. Crossing the border was illegal, but it was impossible for a country with a crumbling economy to enforce border control. Thus, once again, authorities turned a blind eye on everything which was happening in those areas.

In 2001 the system changed again. The Great Famine was over, largely due to the efforts of international relief agencies and the new policies of Seoul busily feeding its “brother/enemy.” Thus, the system of travel permits was re-introduced, but its new version, in operation from 2002, is less restrictive than earlier regulations – and still largely ignored.

Nowadays, the authorities issue travel permits for trips lasting a week or two. Often they can be bribed to speed up the process, and in such a case the permits are produced almost immediately. The amount of bribe varies, depending on the destination: from some $10 for Pyongyang to merely $2 to $3 for a humble countryside destination. Money seems to be paid usually in exchange for speed.

There is something even more remarkable: In recent years North Korean authorities began to issue certificates which allow its bearer to travel to China, crossing the border legally. The procedure is time-consuming, taking about six months. As usual, it requires special security checks by the authorities. However, the outcome of such procedures is not pre-ordained, so generous payments are helpful to steer officials in the right direction. In this case, the bribes are much larger, up to $100 (as opposed to the usual $50). For the average Korean this is a large amount of money, but a majority of the applicants are engaged in the cross-border shuttle activity, and for them $100 is not an exorbitant sum. They are quite happy to get permits. Even if they pay bribes they still feel themselves more secure and more law-abiding. Being Koreans, they obviously prefer to go about business legitimately.

So, the old system is dying, even though the authorities would much prefer to keep it in place. Nonetheless, it might take many years before these changes have meaningful political consequences.

Read the full story here:
Travel permits in N. Korea
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


Recent papers on DPRK topics

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Forgotten People:  The Koreans of the Sakhalin Island in 1945-1991
Download here (PDF)
Andrei Lankov
December 2010

North Korea: Migration Patterns and Prospects
Download here (PDF)
Courtland Robinson, Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University
August, 2010

North Korea’s 2009 Nuclear Test: Containment, Monitoring, Implications
Download here (PDF)
Jonathan Medalia, Congressional Research Service
November 24, 2010

North Korea: US Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation
Download here (PDF)
Emma Chanlett-Avery, Congressional Research Service
Mi Ae-Taylor, Congressional Research Service
November 10, 2010

‘Mostly Propaganda in Nature:’ Kim Il Sung, the Juche Ideology, and the Second Korean War
Download here (PDF)
Wilson Center NKIDP
Mitchell Lerner

Drug Trafficking from North Korea: Implications for Chinese Policy
Read here at the Brookings Institution web page
Yong-an Zhang, Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies
December 3, 2010

Additional DPRK-focused CRS reports can be found here.

The Wilson Center’s previous NKIDP Working Papers found here.

I also have many papers and publications on my DPRK Economic Statistics Page.


The All-North Korean Pig Farming Sector

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Accroding to the Daily NK:

The 8th issue of Rimjingang, the periodical written by North Korean underground journalists, sheds light on North Korea’s private livestock industry.

One article, “Livestock Industry Developing from Private Means of Living into Private Enterprise,” describes how pig farming has developed during and since the famine period. It explains how, under the functioning planned economy, the “livestock industry” amounted to each household unit raising pigs to sell on the side, but now the planned economy is little more than a distant memory and the livestock sector has been specialized and systematized into sectors; breeding, butchery, distribution and sale.

That is why in North Korean markets 90% of goods are Chinese, but 100% of pigs and pork is North Korean.

Under the planned economy, roughly 20% of people in rural areas privately raised pigs and sold them to state meat procurement stores for two kilograms of corn per kilo of meat, the report notes. But from the mid 1980s, procurement stores bought them for cash, so competition grew and eventually the stores had to close due to increasing prices and their own lack of ready cash. Since the 1990s, distribution has stopped and more than 50% of people have started raising pigs in more specialized ways, it adds.

The report goes on to explain that during the March of Tribulation people figured out that their salaries, even when received, represented a mere tiny fraction of the labor value they could realize by trading illegally in the jangmadang. Many were unwilling to put up with it.

“Going through the March of Tribulation, the profit motive through the market has opened the door to new food lives which the Leader cannot open with his slogan, ‘reform food lives with meat,’” the report asserts. “Now, since a powerful supply and demand system has been spontaneously established, anybody can afford to eat meat as long as they can earn money.”

“’Leave us alone!’ is the real voice of the people of Chosun,” the report concludes, adding that the phenomenon of the Chosun pig farming industry implies the clear potential to develop modern industry in North Korea.

The 8th edition of Rimjingang was published in Korean on June 30th.

Read the full story here:
The All-North Korean Pig Farming Sector
Daily NK
Yoo Gwan Hee


The Moneytocracy of North Korean Higher Education

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Daily NK
Yoo Gwan Hee

Bribery, corruption and overweening power are ubiquitous in many areas of North Korean society, and today’s universities are no different. Instead of cultivating the ability of outstanding individuals, simple materialism rules supreme, teaching that money is the solution to every problem.

Like almost everyone in North Korea outside the elite, the lives of university students changed considerably in the days of the “March of Tribulation.”

Until the early 1990s, the idea of a capable applicant being unable to pursue post-secondary education due to financial difficulties was unheard of. In those days, the regime offered scholarships of 15 won (specialized departments 25 won) to university students. Since the currency swap in 1992, the size of scholarships increased to 50 won, and after the July 1st Economic Management Reform Measure in 2002, they increased again to 900 won.

But the range of recipients decreased markedly. After the ‘March of Tribulation’ in the mid-1990s, scholarships were only offered to those students in central universities like Kim Il Sung University. Students in regional universities had no chance of receiving fiscal assistance.

Before the “March of Tribulation,” students took North Korea’s university entrance exam and successful applicants were selected based on their grades, as they are in most developed, equitable countries. However, as the economic situation worsened in the mid-1990s, those with the money or “background” began to be selected at the expense of better, but poorer, applicants.

Then, after the year 2000, the amount of bribery required began to depend upon a student’s academic record. For example, those students with a much lower score compared to the pass mark who wish to attend average universities have to pay a bribe of $500~600. For leading universities like Kim Il Sung University or Pyongyang School of Commerce, students have to pay between $2000~3000.

Needless to say, students from poor families could not and cannot afford the degree of support required by universities, and so most have to stop their education.

Therefore, since the “March of Tribulation,” students from poor families have lost the chance to attend university. In comparison, students from rich and powerful families attend just so as to secure a cushy job later on, and their school lives are naturally very comfortable. Universities are solely oriented around those with money.

Of course, costs do not stop with admission bribes. In North Korean universities, a quarter of the calendar year is spent on mobilization for public works, marketed as obtaining real-life experience. In such cases, students are mobilized against their wishes. However, those from a wealthy family can avoid such activities by submitting goods or funding to their university.

Regarding spring work in the fields, for example, Mr. Kim (22), who attended Hamheung University of Mathematics until 2007, recently explained to The Daily NK, “Wealthy families submit the necessary funds or goods to the university every year to be exempted from mobilization. In the case of the 2007 farm village support battle, those students who submitted a carton of good quality cigarettes just rested at home.”

Some university students enroll in the military during their studies; however, those with money who wish to join the Party can just buy their way in, and also reduce the period of their military service, with a one million won bribe.

Also, during their university lives, students are duty-bound to take part in 6-months of Local Reserve Force activities. However, if a student offers up $300, he or she can simply rest without interference for the whole time.

That this materialism is even prevalent in public education causes the offspring of wealthy families to believe in the power of money and only money. Skill isn’t cultivated, it is bought, and needless to say the performance of North Korean universities is in a downward spiral as a result.


North Korea between collapse and reform

Friday, December 19th, 2008

Asian Survey Vol. 39, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1999), pp. 287-309
Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig

Download PDF here or download from here

The refusal of North Korea’s letters to institute serious economic reforms has frustrated those who study the country and those who seek to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people.  Two French medical aid organizations have withdrawn from the country complaining that the Pyongyang government interfered with their work.  This is but one sign of a growing donor fatigue.  The muddling through plan that the Kim regime has adopted involves soliciting foreign aid, bargaining with its military and nuclear products, making minimal unofficial changes in the domestic economy, and waiting for the international environment to become more favorable—perhaps even expecting a resurgance of international communism.  Equally important, Kim and his ruling cohorts are willing to sacrifice the economic health of their nation for the security of their regime, just as other dictators, both communist and non-communist have done.  The painful difference in North Korea’s case is that it is half of a divided nation, posing an immediate humanitarian dilemma for the millions of Koreans in the Southern half of the penninsula whose families are suffering in the north.  For this reason more than any other, the future of North Korea cannot be ignored.  


Famine in North Korea Redux?

Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Peterson Institute Working Paper
WP 08 – October 2008
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

Read the paper here

Abstract: In the 1990s, 600,000 to 1 million North Koreans, or about 3 to 5 percent of the precrisis population, perished in one of the worst famines of the 20th century. North Korea is once again poised on the brink of famine. Although the renewed provision of aid is likely to avert a disaster on the scale of the 1990s, hunger-related deaths are already occurring and a dynamic has been set in motion that will carry the crisis into 2009. North Korea is a complex humanitarian emergency characterized by highly imperfect information. This paper triangulates quantity and price evidence with direct observation to assess food insecurity in North Korea and its causes. We critique the widely cited UN figures and present original data on grain quantities and prices. These data demonstrate that for the first time since the 1990s famine, the aggregate grain balance has gone into deficit. Prices have also risen steeply. The reemergence of pathologies from the famine era is documented through direct observation. Although exogenous shocks have played a role, foreign and domestic policy choices have been key.

Keywords: Famine, North Korea
JEL codes: Q1, O1, P2


Venerable Pomnyun at Johns Hopkins

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

UPDATE:Here is V. Pomnyun’s outline: pomnyun.pdf

NKeconWatch notes:
Agriculture: April – June are the lean months.  In July 2008 potatoes helped alleviate food shortage.  Also aid from West. Things began to get worse in August and September.

Earlier this year, the price of rice was up to 5x higher than a year ago.  In June-July it fell to 3x higher.  Now it is creeping back up.

Arduous March: In the 1990s, urban residents of North Hamgyong Province was the worst affected by famine.  Today, the worst affected are the farmers and rural residents of Hwangae (he did not specify north or south).  Shortage as bad as 1st arduous march, but fewer consumers and markets feed cities now.

Markets: protests in Chongjin.  People chanted, “Give us food or let us trade.”  None of the protests are political, just expressions of frustration.

Nukes:Nuclear weapons are a domestic propaganda weapon as well. Not just a matter of foreign policy.

Original Post:
Program details here
Wednesday, September 24
2:00 – 4:00 pm
Rome Auditorium at SAIS
1619 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
RSVP here

The Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, Chairman of Good Friends and The Peace Foundation, will discuss the current political and social climate in North Korea, including the spread of the black market economy and the increase in political control over North Korea’s elite. Joining his discussion, is Dr. Cho Seong-ryoul, Director of the New Security Studies Program at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), who will offer his insights on current and future inter-Korean relations.


Blame it on the weather…

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

As with the famine that struck the DPRK in the 1990’s, known as the “Arduous March,” the North Korean government is again blaming the weather for the food shortage. 

From Reuters:

North Korea’s farm sector will take a hit due to cold weather and low precipitation this planting season, its official media said on Wednesday, after experts had warned the destitute state could be heading toward famine.

“The current spring weather has a bad effect on agriculture in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea),” its official KCNA news agency reported.

“The abnormal weather has seriously affected the growth of maize crops on a vast acreage of fields, cultivation of rice-seedlings and the striking of roots of rice-seedlings in the west coastal areas, the granary,” KCNA reported. 

From the Associated Press (via the IHT):

North Korea’s average high temperature in May has been about 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than in previous years, with temperatures in northern parts of the nation dipping below the freezing point, the official Korean Central News Agency said.

It is true that the weather is a factor, but these effects can be mitigated by better policy solutions.  Cracking down on local markets and chasing after entrepreneurs certainly does not help either.

According to Glyn Ford, member of the European Parliament:

[T]he Vice-Chair of the State Planning Comission said when I met him, “Agricultural reforms proved better than fertilizer at raising productivity.”

Read the full articles here:
Food-short N.Korea says farms hit by bad weather

North Korea says cold weather seriously affecting farming
Associated Press (via Herald Tribune)