Reforms Turn Disastrous for North Koreans

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


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