Archive for December, 2011

Worker’s Party elders given honorary membership

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

According to the Daily NK:

It has been confirmed that over one month in February and March this year, the Chosun Workers’ Party replaced the membership of all male party members over 60 and women over 55 with ‘honorary membership’.

It reportedly took just a month for the plan to be implemented from the Central Party down through provincial, city and county levels.

Honorary members are not required to attend weekly, monthly and quarterly self-criticism sessions in their areas of residence. In addition, honorary membership grants the right to absent themselves from frequent official meetings including study sessions, Party lectures, meetings for the dissemination of Party orders etc.

Honorary members are also exempt from a 2% deduction from wages for Party membership dues. Hitherto, cadres were still required to pay their Party dues even when the enterprises to which they had been dispatched were not operating due to shortages of raw materials, and even in retirement (usually after turning 60) Party members were still required to pay dues to local Party organizations.

On the other hand, honorary membership does still mandate presence at important events including reporting meetings or events to commemorate the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Many newly-honorary members are understood to have welcomed the new measure. One source from Pyongan Province told Daily NK, “When they heard it, elder Party members were calling it ‘another act of kindness from the great General’.”

However, some of the targeted cadres are less happy with having their wings clipped. A source from North Hamkyung Province said that some irritated elderly members of the Union of Democratic Women are leaving before being pushed, putting in minimum effort or simply not attending events at all.

Elsewhere, while senior Central Committee, Cabinet and other central government organ staff are holding onto their administrative duties for now, many apparently believe they know which way the wind is blowing.

Looking at the situation today, one high level official who defected to South Korea in May this year commented to Daily NK, “It is a message to all the veterans that they need to leave because this is the Kim Jong Eun era.”

Read the full story here:
Party Elders Handed Honorary Membership
Daily NK
Lee Beom Ki and Choi Song Min


Fuller Center to building new village in DPRK

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

UPDATE 3 (2011-12-6): Accoridng to the Associated Press, six Americans from the Fuller Center are returning to the site to continue construction (just as the winter begins):

A group of Americans is in North Korea to kick off a project to build 50 homes for families working at a tree farm outside Pyongyang.

Six volunteers affiliated with the Fuller Center for Housing arrived Tuesday. Their trip comes at a time of improving relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

The 50-unit project will house the families of workers at a tree nursery in Osan-ri.

Participants with the nonprofit Fuller Center say they’ll be working side by side with North Koreans to build the homes.

They’re aiming to finish three homes this week, and other volunteers are expected to arrive in coming months to help complete the project.

In Americus, Georgia, Fuller Center President David Snell called the project a “true mission of peace.”

The United States and North Korea fought on opposite sides of the Korean War and do not have diplomatic relations. Diplomats from the two countries recently held talks about resuming six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

Below is the most recent Google Earth image of the Fuller Center’s Osan-ri project dated (2011-5-3):

I have tagged the facility on WikiMapia and you can see it here. The satellite image shows that some progress has been made since the last photo was published in September 2010 (below).

Previous reports of USA-DPRK engagement in 2011 can be found here.

UPDATE 2 (2011-7-13): Google Earth released new imagery of this area today (July 13).  The imagery is dated 2010-9-14, and it shows quite a bit of progress on the Fuller Center’s project:

UPDATE 1 (2010-3-28): Radio Free Asia has reported (in Korean) that the development of the Fuller Center’s housing project in Osan-ri has been delayed.

After running the story through Google Translate it appears that the delay is due to bureaucratic hurdles with getting resources from China into the DPRK (please correct me if I am wrong).

Satellite imagery from March 2010 (Google Earth) shows that the project has been launched, but it has moved from its initial location to the east (just a tad):

A reader named “Bobby” wrote in, however, and told me the following:

The Google Translate version is a little wack but that’s pretty much what happened. The Korean version says that David Snell was originally going to buy the construction materials in China and deliver them directly to North Korea by truck but because there is too much to move they have to ship it by train. The delivery has been delayed because shipping it by train requires a lot of extra paperwork and customs obstacles. The workers can’t get visas until the materials arrive safely so they aren’t even able to enter the country yet.
(Also, I think you accidently blocked my name for commenting before.)

ORIGINAL POST (2009-12-18): The Fuller Center for Housing is a religious organization based in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) which seeks to provide adequate shelter across the globe.  The Fuller Center’s mission statement can be found here.

On November 11, the Fuller Center broke ground on their new project in the DPRK. According to Global Atlanta:

With help from U.S. volunteers, the Americus-based Fuller Center for Housing will work with the North Korean government to construct a 50-unit complex in a small farming community outside the capital city of Pyongyang.

The project will help alleviate a housing shortage caused by a 2006 typhoon that destroyed some 30,000 homes across the country.

North Korea is providing land, labor and heavy equipment for the project, a community of duplexes designed with a variety of measures to boost energy efficiency.

For example, the homes will have a wall of windows on the front. Facing south will allow in the most possible sunlight, reducing the use of electricity to light the homes, said David Snell, the Fuller center’s president.

The Paektusan Academy of Architecture, a government agency responsible for developing much of modern Pyongyang’s cityscape, designed the complex and will manage construction.

The two-bedroom, one-bathroom floor plans include a living room, dining room and an animal shed with multiple stalls on the back of the house. An upper-level attic space is designated as a “greenhouse” on a design posted on the Fuller center Web site.

The center is raising money for the homes from U.S. and European donors. Construction is slated to start in the spring, and the center will begin sending teams of six to eight American volunteers next summer.

Despite many Americans’ negative perceptions of North Korea, the center has started receiving volunteer applications before even officially opening the process, Mr. Snell said.

“The fact that it’s been a forbidden kingdom for all these years adds to the intrigue,” he told GlobalAtlanta.

Mr. Snell, who traveled to North Korea for the third time in the last 18 months to attend the groundbreaking, added that the center’s main mission is to build houses, but it often ends up bridging cultural divides in the conflict-ridden areas where it works.

“Absence of peace seems to be a common thread, so we’re starting to wonder if maybe we have a peacemaking component to our mission,” said Mr. Snell, who stopped in the Philippines and Peru to kick-start projects on his way home from North Korea.

Mr. Snell hopes to have an impact on relations between the U.S. and North Korea at a grassroots level. The nations are currently at odds over a raft of diplomatic issues, most notably North Korea’s evolving nuclear weapons program and belligerent antics on the international stage that befuddle American policy makers.

Such political differences won’t heal until people trust each other, and the housing project will give both countries’ citizens a chance to meet and work together for common good, Mr. Snell said.

“We all demonize our enemies, but I’m finding the Korean people to be just like you and me. We chuckle and laugh and tell stories, and they have the same aspirations for a better life and for peace,” Mr. Snell said. “This notion that we’re bringing peace is shared notion.”

The entire project has so far been an exercise in building trust. The idea came from Don Mosley, who heads Jubilee Partners, a refugee resettlement organization outside of Athens, and Han Park, an international affairs professor at the University of Georgia who has become a trusted unofficial liaison between the two countries.

More information, including YouTube videos of the groundbreaking and a map of the project,  can be found on the Fuller Center‘s web page (HERE).


Noland on DPRK inflation (post currency renomination)

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Marcus Noland has crunched some numbers to some up with an approximate inflation rate for the DPRK won after it was renominated in November 2009. According to his post:

The chart above shows the trajectory of prices for rice, corn, and the US dollar since January 2010 (i.e. after the huge step-jump in real prices in December 2009 following the currency reform). A simple regression of the prices (technically their logarithmic values) against time suggests that since the beginning of 2010, inflation on an annualized basis has averaged 131 percent for rice and 138 percent for corn. The won has depreciated against the dollar at a 136 percent annualized rate. A monthly breakdown of price movements suggests that while remaining high, the rate of inflation has attenuated, declining in 2011 relative to 2010.

The co-movement of the blackmarket exchange rate and grain prices would be consistent with a small, open economy in which prices are roughly constant in hard currency terms, but are skyrocketing in terms of the rapidly depreciating domestic currency. In the extreme this could depict an economy that was effectively becoming dollarized.

He also refers to a recent report that prices have not fallen with the autumn harvest and that that the DPRK had suspended anthracite coal exports to China out of fear of domestic shortages.

In general I think the findings are plausible and I am glad that this number is finally out there for the public to reference.  I have just a couple of additional points of inquiry….

If the price and exchange rate data are from public sources, then they are probably geographically concentrated in the provinces that border China. Since there are significant barriers to arbitrage in the DPRK, I expect a large degree of regional price differentiation.  Hypothetically, what would be the effect on these findings of an increase in observations from the “southern” provinces (if that were possible)? If the data are not geographically concentrated and represent a national sample, what would we expect to see if these regressions were run for each province, and how would they compare to the aggregated findings?

A working paper in the making?

UPDATE: A comment from an individual who works with Mr. Noland:

Thanks for sharing this piece on post currency reform inflation. You raise some good points on the regionality of our pricing data. It is true that we don’t have a lot of observations from southern provinces, but it is not all northern either. We get our price data from a number of sources including, but not limited to, Daily NK Market Trends, NK Today reports, and various NGO publications. This gives us a good mixture of general country level price data as well as regional data from provinces such as Pyongyang, North & South Hamyung, North & South Pyongan, & Yanggang. Before the currency reform, we also had a good number of observation from southern areas including North Hwanghae & Gangwon.

Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard analyzed regional price differences in a previous paper, as well as discussing other issues such as the possible tendency to increase data collection during times of distress and the possibility that organizations might cherry-pick the data that they release, all of which could affect the statistical analysis of this data.

See the paper here (PDF).

Their analysis found that regional price differences are less systematic than one might expect.

On a related note, Ask a Korean also recently translated another Korean article by Ju Song-ha which deals with food prices in the DPRK. You must read it.



North Korean pilots in the skies over Vietnam (1960s)

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Pictured above: North Korean pilots in North Vietnam (1968).

According to Yonhap:

North Korea dispatched dozens of pilots to the Vietnam War decades ago, with its communist ally short of specialists to operate MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter jets in battles against the United States, according to a recently released dossier.

“On 21 September 1966 an official North Korean request to be allowed to send a North Korean Air Force regiment to help defend North Vietnam against U.S air attacks was officially reviewed and approved by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Military Party Committee, chaired by General Vo Nguyen Giap,” read the documents taken from an official People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) historical publication.

North Korea’s Chief of the General Staff, Choi Kwang, and his Northern Vietnamese counterpart, Van Tien Dung, held talks three days later to detail Pyongyang’s role in the war.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a think tank in Washington, studied the dossier and made it public on its Web site as part of North Korea International Documentation Project.

In 2000, 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War, North Korea and Vietnam admitted for the first time that North Korea had provided military support in combat against U.S. aircraft.

North Vietnam sought North Korean pilots’ help in training and combat apparently to take advantage of their experience in shooting down U.S. fighter jets during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The newly unveiled dossier show details of North Korea’s military support.

“In late October or during November 1966 North Korea would send Vietnam enough specialists to man a Vietnamese MiG-17 company (a company consisted of ten aircraft),” the two sides agreed in the Sept. 21 1966 talks, adding North Korea would send more specialists to man a second Vietnamese MiG-17 company in later 1966 or early 1967.

“During 1967, after North Korea finished preparing specialists and after Vietnam was able to prepare sufficient aircraft, North Korea would send to Vietnam sufficient specialists to man one Vietnamese MiG-21 company,” they also agreed.

You learn more and download the entire report (PDF) at the Wilson Center’s North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP).


North Korea’s new class system

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Andrei Lankov writes in the Asia Times:

It is often overlooked how much North Korea has changed over the past 20 years. Its Stalinist and militaristic facade is carefully maintained by the state, but in the new circumstances it is increasingly misleading. Behind this official veneer of militant posters and goose-stepping soldiers, the society itself has changed much.

In a nutshell, the past two decades were the time when the state was steadily retreating from the private life, and also was losing its ability (perhaps also its will) to control the daily activities of its subjects as well as how they made a living. One of many significant changes has been the steady decline in the significance attached to family background (known as songbun in North Korean parlance) – once the single most important factor that determined the life of a North Korean.

Family background did matter in other communist countries as well, but to a much lesser extent. For example, in the Soviet Union immediately after the 1917 communist revolution, scions of aristocrats, descendants of priests, and merchants faced many kinds of discrimination. It was more difficult for them to enter a college or to be promoted, and they were more likely to be arrested for alleged political crimes. However, this discrimination had disappeared by the late 1940s, so in the days of my youth, in the 1970s and 1980s, it had become quite normal in the USSR to boast about real or alleged aristocratic family roots.

North Korea is very different. In 1957, the authorities launched a large-scale and ambitious investigation of the family backgrounds of virtually all North Korean citizens. As a result of this and subsequent investigations, by the mid-1960s the entire population was divided into a number of hereditary groups, somewhat akin to the estates of medieval Europe. Career chances and life prospects of every North Korean were determined, to a very large extent, by his membership in one of these strictly defined groups.
The major criteria of classification were quite straightforward: the songbun (origin) of the North Korean was largely defined by what his or her direct male ancestors did in the 1930s and 1940s.

The official songbun structure was quite elaborate and changed over time. However, at the first approximation, there have been three groups in North Korea, usually known as “core”, “wavering” and “hostile” classes. Every single North Korean had to belong to one of these groups.

The “hostile class” included people whose ancestors in or around 1945 were engaged in activities that were not to the regime’s liking. Among others, this group included descendants of clerks in the Japanese colonial administration, Christian activists, female shamans, entrepreneurs, and defectors to the South. Members of the hostile class faced the greatest number of restrictions: They could not live in Pyongyang or other major cities and they could not be admitted to good colleges or universities. People whose songbun was exceptionally bad would not even be drafted into the military.

Members of the “core class” included those whose direct male ancestors contributed toward the foundation and strengthening of the Kim family regime. They were descendants of anti-Japanese guerrillas, heroes of the Korean War, or party bureaucrats. For all practical purposes, over the past half-century, only these people could be promoted to key positions in the North Korean state and party bureaucracy. They constituted the hereditary elite.

In the days of Kim Il-sung’s rule, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, songbun was of paramount significance. It determined where people lived and worked and even what they ate. Most marriages were also concluded between people of the same or similar songbun.

It was also important that the songbun was, in essence, unchallengeable. It was inherited from one’s father and was then bestowed on one’s children. The mother’s songbun did not matter. I know a couple where the husband’s songbun was bad (he was a “landowner’s grandson”), but the wife had the best songbun imaginable, being a descendant of a family that once was involved with the anti-Japanese guerrillas of Kim Il-sung. Frankly, such a marriage was rare and unequal – in most cases women of such standing would be as reluctant to marry a man of low origin as, say, a European noble lady from the 17th century. However, in this particular case the marriage did take place, much against the resistance of the girl’s parents.

In due time, though, the spouses discovered that the wife’s songbun did not really matter. Their daughter, a promising athlete, could not be sent for further training, since her songbun was bad: the great-granddaughter of a minor landlord could not compete on the national level and, for that matter, could be accepted only to a junior college.

In Kim Il-sung’s era – that is, before 1994 – the state was in near-complete control of an individual’s life. The only way to achieve high status and affluence was to climb the official bureaucratic ladder. As a North Korean friend put it in the late 1980s: “I hate officials, but I want to become an official, because in our country, only officials can live well.” Indeed, in Kim Il-sung’s North Korea all material goods were distributed by the state and almost all income was derived from work in state industry or the state bureaucracy.

But things started to change dramatically in the early 1990s. The state sector, suddenly deprived of Soviet subsidies, collapsed. North Koreans suddenly discovered that food rations were no longer forthcoming and their official monthly salary would only buy 1 or 2 kilograms of rice. Predictably, mass starvation followed, killing at least a half-million people.

To survive, the North Korean people literally rediscovered capitalism. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that over the past 10-15 years, the average North Korean family has come to draw most of its income from what can be described as black-market activities. Actually the so-called black market is not particularly black, since the government – in spite of occasional crackdowns – has tacitly tolerated its existence since the mid-1990s. Nowadays North Koreans work on individual fields on steep mountain slopes, they establish private workshops to produce garments and assorted consumer goods, and they smuggle and trade.

The new and increasingly dominant unofficial economy is in essence capitalist. As such, it rewards those who are sufficiently industrious, greedy, intelligent, ruthless and disciplined – and in some cases, it rewards them handsomely. Social inequality is growing and many a successful merchant or workshop owner lives better than a middle-ranking bureaucrat. A successful entrepreneur might have all trappings of luxury – including, say, a Chinese motorbike or a refrigerator, which in North Korea can be seen as roughly equivalent to a Lexus and a yacht.

The success in the emerging new economy is usually unrelated to one’s songbun. In fact, sometimes it seems that people with bad songbun tend to be more successful nowadays – perhaps because back in the 1990s they had no expectations of the state and were the first to jump into the murky waters of the emerging North Korean market economy.

Of late, the previously attractive career avenues have lost much of their allure. For example, in the past, many North Koreans were willing to do their long and tedious military service, which lasted some seven to 10 years. This popularity was easy to explain: For a person with average songbun, this would be the only way to get into the bottom tiers of the bureaucracy. As a North Korean told it, recalling the time of her youth, the 1970s: “The only way to become somebody was to go into the military, join the Korean Workers Party while on the active service, and then come back to become an official.”

Recently, however, military service has lost much of its popularity. Few people would be willing spend 10 years in a squalid barracks so as eventually to become a minor official in the city administration. Such a job is still attractive, to be sure, but it seems preferable to become a smuggler or a merchant, whose income far exceeds that of a petty bureaucrat.

Still, on the very top, songbun is important, since the key administrative positions are held by those with good songbun, and a mid- or high-level official can make a nice income by milking the private economy. Hence people with good songbun still often think about capitalizing on the real or alleged contribution of their ancestors to the establishment of the North Korean regime. However, for a majority the emergence of markets opened a new, faster and more attractive (but also more risky) avenue of social mobility.

North Korean society has become defined by one’s relationship to money, not by one’s relationship to the bureaucracy or one’s inherited caste status. Money talks, and for better or worse, in North Korea, money talks ever louder. As a female refugee in her early 40s put it recently: “Under Kim Il-sung, songbun was very important, it decided everything. Under Kim Jong-il, things are different – your family background still matters, but money nowadays is more important than social background.”

Read the full story here:
North Korea’s new class system
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov


Pyongyang – Nampho road renovation

Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

Pictured above (Google Earth): The Pyongyang – Nampho road (in yellow) and the Youth Hero Motorway (in orange).

UPDATE 1 (2011-11-29): KCNA has published pictures of the road construction, so it must be continuing apace!


ORIGINAL POST (2011-8-25): According to Yonhap (North Korea Newsletter No. 172–August 25, 2011):

Premier Choe Yong-rim Visits Pyongyang-Nampho Roadwork Sites

SEOUL (Yonhap) — North Korean Premier Choe Yong-rim made spot inspections on Pyongyang-Nampho roadwork sites and discussed with workers ways to provide raw materials for the project, the North’s media said on Aug. 22.

“After going round various places of the project, he held a consultative meeting of officials concerned on the spot,” the KCNA said.

The KCNA also said that “discussed at the meeting were the measures for finishing the project on the highest level in a brief span of time and substantially supplying raw materials for the project at relevant fields.”

Earlier, the Rodong Sinmun, the official organ of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, on Aug. 18 said repair work of the Pyongyang-Nampho old road is now under way at a faster pace.

Premier Choe has been making brisk inspections on industrial facilities and other economic sectors so far this year.

It is worth pointing out for the new readers that the Pyongyang – Nampho road is not the same thing as the Youth Hero Motorway, which was opened in 2000. Since the motorway opened, however, it appears the original Pyongyang – Nampho road has fallen into some disrepair–requiring repairs.

The original Pyongyang – Nampho road is a bit more “industrial” and “practical” than the Youth Hero Motorway.  The latter extends from Kwangbok Street in Mangyongday-guyok to northern Nampho via the countryside.  It is five lanes in both directions and runs in a kinked straight line.  Because it falls outside any densely populated areas (outside its beginning and end), however,  it is largely empty–serving only through traffic.

The original road, however, stretches from Mangyongdae to Nampho along the Taedong River and through the industrial areas of northern Nampho. It connects populated areas of the Chollima Steel Complex, Taedonggang Tile Factory, Taean Heavy Machine Plant, and Taean Friendship Glass Factory before connecting with the Youth Motor Highway just north of the Pyonghwa Motors Factory.


DPRK employment at Kaesong continues to grow

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

According to the Daily NK:

According to records released today by the Ministry of Unification, there were a total of 48,242 workers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex at the end of September, up from 6013 when the project was launched in 2005.

Following the recent resumption of construction at the complex, the number of workers is now expected to grow further.

Revealing the data, an official with the Ministry of Unification commented, “Labor has been provided sufficient for Kaesong Complex enterprises to overcome labor shortages. If conditions get better allowing workers from further away to get employed, it looks like numbers will increase even more.”

The more than 48,000 North Korean workers in the Kaesong Complex bring in $50 million annually for the North Korean government.

As word of the good working environment that the Kaesong Industrial Complex offers spreads, the area is reportedly attracting internal migrants.

“The good reputation of Kaesong among workers has spread to Shinuiji, so they are moving to the area. But accommodation problems have to be solved before any can be hired,” the official explained.

The educational backgrounds of the workers include 81.8% with a high school diploma, 9.5% college graduates and 8.7% from professional schools.

Their base pay plus bonuses and incentives add up to roughly $100 dollars per person, though much of this is lost in payments to the North Korean state.

Here and here are recent post on road construction in Kaesong.

Here are previous posts on the Kaesong Industrial Zone.

Read the full story here:
Kaesong Still Growing
Daily NK
Kim Yong Hun


DPRK 2011 food shortage debate compendium

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

UPDATE (2012-2-1): Karin Lee of the National Committee on North Korea wrote a great summary of the DPRK’s food situation in 2011:

In December 2010, North Korea began asking multiple countries for food aid. Its request to the U.S. came in early 2011, but it wasn’t until December 2011 that a deal seemed close, with the U.S. prepared to provide 240,000 metric tons (MTs) of assistance. Kim Jong Il died soon after this news hit the press, and details of the potential deal were never announced.

In the ideal world, Ronald Reagan’s “hungry child” knows no politics. But the case of North Korea is far from ideal. The U.S. government states it does not take politics into consideration when determining whether to provide aid to North Korea. Instead, the decision is based on three criteria: need in North Korea, competing demands for assistance, and the ability to monitor aid effectively. Yet these three criteria are subjective and tinged by politics.

In 2011 a succession of four assessment delegations (one by U.S. NGOs, one by the U.S. government, one by the EU and one by the UN) visited the DPRK. All found pretty much the same thing: widespread chronic malnutrition, especially among children and pregnant or lactating women, and cases of acute malnutrition. The UN confirmed the findings late last year, reporting chronic malnutrition in children under five in the areas visited — 33% overall, and 45% in the northern part of the country.

Some donors responded quickly. For example, shortly after its July assessment, the EU announced a 10 Million Euro donation. Following its own May assessment, however, the U.S. government was slow to make a commitment. Competing demands may have played a role. In July, the predicted famine in the Horn of Africa emerged, prompting a U.S. response of over $668 million in aid to “the worst food crisis in half a century.” While there was no public linkage between U.S. action on the African famine and inaction on North Korea, there could have been an impact.

But the two biggest factors shaping the U.S. government’s indecisiveness continued to be uncertainty about both the severity of the need and the ability to establish an adequate monitoring regime. At times, South Korean private and public actors questioned the extent of the North’s need. Early on, a lawmaker in South Korea asserted that North Korea already had stockpiled 1,000,000 metric tons of rice for its military. Human rights activist Ha Tae Keung argued that North Korea would use the aid contributed in 2011 to augment food distributions in 2012 in celebration of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung and North Korea’s status as a “strong and prosperous nation.” According to Yonhap, shortly after the U.N. released the above-noted figures, South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-Ik called the food situation in North Korea not “very serious.”

South Korea’s ambivalence about the extent of the food crisis was noted by Capitol Hill, exacerbating congressional reluctance to support food aid. A letter to Secretary Clinton sent shortly before the U.S. assessment trip in May began with Senators Lieberman, McCain, Webb and Kyl explaining they shared South Korean government suspicions that food aid would be stockpiled and requesting State to “rigorously” evaluate any DPRK request for aid. With the close ROK-U.S. relationship one of the administration’s most notable foreign policy accomplishments, such a warning may have carried some weight.

Monitoring is of equal, if not greater congressional concern. Since the 1990s U.S. NGOs and USAID have worked hard with DPRK counterparts to expand monitoring protocols, and conditions have consistently improved over time. In the 2008/2009 program, the first food program funded by the U.S. government since 2000, the DPRK agreed to provisions such as Korean-speaking monitors. The NGO portion of the program was fairly successful in implementing the monitoring protocol; when implementation of the WFP portion hit some bumps, USAID suspended shipments to WFP until issues could be resolved. The DPRK ended the program prematurely in March 2009 with 330,000 MT remaining.

In 2011 the Network for North Korean Human Rights and Democracy conducted a survey of recent defectors to examine “aid effectiveness” in the current era. Out of the 500 interviewees, 274 left the DPRK after 2010. However, only six were from provinces where NGOs had distributed aid in 2008/2009. Disturbingly, of the 106 people interviewees who had knowingly received food aid, 29 reported being forced to return food. Yet the report doesn’t state their home towns, or when the events took place. Unfortunately such incomplete data proves neither the effectiveness nor ineffectiveness of the most recent monitoring regime.

Some believe that adequate monitoring is impossible. The House version of the 2012 Agricultural Appropriations Act included an amendment prohibiting the use of Food for Peace or Title II funding for food aid to North Korea; the amendment was premised on this belief. However the final language signed into law in November called for “adequate monitoring,” not a prohibition on funding.

The U.S. response, nine months in the making, reflects the doubts outlined above and the politically challenging task of addressing them. It took months for the two governments to engage in substantive discussions on monitoring after the May trip. In December, the State Department called the promised nutritional assistance “easier to monitor” because items such as highly fortified foods and nutritional supplements are supposedly less desirable and therefore less likely to be diverted than rice. The reported offer of 240,000 MT– less than the 330,000 MT the DPRK requested – reflects the unconfirmed report that the U.S. identified vulnerable populations but not widespread disaster.

In early January, the DPRK responded. Rather than accepting the assistance that was under discussion, it called on the United States to provide rice and for the full amount, concluding “We will watch if the U.S. truly wants to build confidence.” While this statement has been interpreted positively by some as sign of the new Kim Jong Un regime’s willingness to talk, it also demonstrates a pervasive form of politicization – linkage. A “diplomatic source” in Seoul said the December decision on nutritional assistance was linked to a North Korean pledge to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Linkage can be difficult to avoid, and the long decision-making process in 2011 may have exacerbated the challenge. Although Special Representative Glyn Davies was quick to state that “there isn’t any linkage” between the discussion of nutritional assistance and dialogue on security issues, he acknowledged that the ability of the DPRK and US to work together cooperatively on food assistance would be interpreted as a signal regarding security issues. Meanwhile, the hungry child in North Korea is still hungry.

UPDATE 75 (2011-12-5): The ROK will donate US$5.65 million to N. Korea through the UN. According to Yonhap:

South Korea said Monday it will donate US$5.65 million (about 6.5 billion won) for humanitarian projects in North Korea through the U.N. body responsible for the rights of children.

The donation to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, will benefit about 1.46 million infants, children and pregnant women in North Korea, according to the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of relations with the North.

Seoul’s contribution will be used to provide vaccines and other medical supplies as well as to treat malnourished children next year, said the ministry.

There have been concerns that a third of all North Korean children under five are chronically malnourished and that many more children are at risk of slipping into acute stages of malnutrition unless targeted assistance is sustained.

“The decision is in line with the government’s basic stance of maintaining its pure humanitarian aid projects for vulnerable people regardless of political situation,” Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon told reporters.

South Korea has been seeking flexibility in its policies toward the North to try to improve their strained relations over the North’s two deadly attacks on the South last year.

Despite the South’s softer stance, North Korea recently threatened to turn Seoul’s presidential office into “a sea of fire” in response to South Korea’s military maneuvers near the tense western sea border.

South Korea donated $20 million for humanitarian projects in North Korea through the UNICEF between 1996 and 2009.

Last month, the South also resumed some $6.94 million worth of medical aid to the impoverished communist country through the World Health Organization.

Separately, South Korea also decided to give 2.7 billion won ($2.3 million) to a foundation to help build emergency medical facilities in an industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.

UPDATE 74 (2011-12-2): The Choson Ilbo reports that the DPRK’s food prices are rising after the 2011 fall harvest, however, the price increase is not due to a shortage of output, but rather political directives. According to the article:

The price of rice in North Korea is skyrocketing, contrary to received wisdom that it drops after the harvest season. According to a source on North Korea on Wednesday, the rice price has risen from 2,400 won a kg in early October to 5,000 won in late November.

North Korean workers earn only 3,000-4,000 won per month.

This unusual hike in rice price seems to be related to preparation of next year’s political propaganda projects.

A South Korean government official said, “It seems the North Korean government is not releasing rice harvested this year in order to save it up” for celebrations of regime founder Kim Il-sung’s centenary next year, when the North has vowed to become “a powerful and prosperous nation.”

UPDATE 73 (2011-11-24): According to the Daily NK, DPRK television is calling on people to conserve food:

With barely a month left until 2012, the year in which people were promised a radical lifestyle transformation to coincide with the North Korea’s rebirth as a ‘strong and prosperous nation’, programs calling upon people to conserve food are now being broadcast by Chosun Central TV and the fixed-line cable broadcaster ‘3rd Broadcast’.

Chosun Central TV is broadcasting the programs as part of ‘Socio-Culture and Lifestyle Time’, which begins directly after the news on Thursdays at 8:40pm. The majority of the content is apparently now about saving food.

A Yangkang Province source told The Daily NK on Wednesday, “Recently the head lecturer from Jang Cheol Gu Pyongyang Commercial University, Dr. Seo Young Il, has been appearing on the program both on television and the cable broadcasting system, talking about saving food.”

In one such program, Professor Seo apparently noted, “In these days of the military-first era there is a new culture blossoming, one which calls for a varied diet,” before encouraging citizens to eat potatoes and rice, wild vegetables and rice and kimchi and rice rather than white rice on its own, and then adding that bread and wheat flour noodles are better than rice for lunch and dinner.

It is understood that older programs with titles such as ‘A Balanced Diet is Excellent Preparation for Saving Food’ and ‘Cereals with Rice: Good for Your Health’ are also being rebroadcast, while watchers are being informed that thinking meat is required for a good diet is ‘incorrect’.

Whenever North Korea is on high alert or there is a directive to be handed down from Kim Jong Il, both of Chosun Central TV and the 3rd Broadcast are used to communicate with the public. For this reason, some North Korea watchers believe the recent food-saving campaign may reflect a particularly weak food situation in the country going into the winter.

According to the source, one recent program showed a cookery competition involving members of the Union of Democratic Women from Pyongyang’s Moranbong District. During which, one woman was filmed extolling the virtues of potato soup, saying “If we follow the words of The General and try eating potatoes as a staple food, there will be no problem.”

Read all previous posts on the DPRK’s food situation this year blow:



Koryo Tours launches “Heavy Metal” Tour of the DPRK

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

According to the latest Koryo Tours newsletter:

For the past two decades, Koryo Tours has been opening North Korea to tourism, and in 2012 we are once again breaking new ground. After working closely with our Korean partners, we are proud to offer both our group and independent tourists the chance to go where no visitor has ever been, namely factories and similar sites around Nampo, the west coast port city not far from Pyongyang. Here’s a brief introduction to what is on offer:

Chollima Steelworks – A major heavy industry site for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), this place was built by the Japanese and is known to Koreans as the birthplace of the Chollima movement, which even today drives the country. If you’ve always wanted to witness the making of ‘Juche Steel’ in a giant facility, come to Nampo with us. This is the DPRK’s most famous factory, and as always, Koryo Tours are the first company to be allowed to take tourists inside. But Koryo has its own Chlima connection; we can tell you about the art project we arranged at the steelworks as well as the scenes we shot there for our new feature film!

Tae’an Heavy Machine Tool Complex – This enormous complex boasts a number of hangar-sized buildings; we will see the vast range of machine tools, lathes and so on that the workers use to make shaped steel, turbine components, and other products.

Tae’an Glass Factory – This opened in 2005 with heavy Chinese investment, in fact, the Peoples’ Republic of China President Hu Jintao attended the opening ceremony along with DPRK leader Kim Jong Il. Tae’an produces glass and glass products for the domestic market. Koryo tourists will be the first visitors ever to watch the process from smelting to sheet-cutting, and even try to break a sheet of strengthened glass!

Nampo Taekwondo School – Many of the DPRK’s champion martial artists have been educated at this school, despite looking from the outside like it badly needs some maintenance the demonstration put on by the students here (aged from 6 – 16) is a mind-blowing masterpiece of the indigenous Korean fighting style – it’ll make you think twice about arguing with little girls in future!

Nampo Park – With a scenic view over the mouth of the Taedong River, as well as a fresh-water swimming area ideal for warmer months, this is a great place to relax or have a picnic. A popular wedding photography site, this picturesque park makes a pleasant diversion after the heat and noise of the factories.

As if factories, martial arts schools and rustic settings aren’t enough, we can also take you to a local restaurant in the city centre, an orphanage, and you can cap off the trip by visiting the nearby 8km-long West Sea Barrage and staying overnight at the Ryonggang Hot Spa Guesthouse

Keeping with our tradition of travel innovation, Koryo Tours would love to show you the face of DPRK no visitor has seen before. Come see the world’s most mysterious country with the only DPRK specialists around; contact us on [email protected] or pop in and see us if you’re in Beijing or Shanghai. For anyone planning a DPRK trip, whether it’s your first visit or you’re coming back for more, Koryo Tours is glad to offer you the chance to do and see more than ever before. We look forward to hearing from you!

We are adding these new attractions to the following tours, so if you’ve ever wanted to see Juche Steel (it’s a real thing!) being made, watch a load of sand turn to glass, see North Koreans operating lathes of all kinds, and see a young child beat up several surly attackers then one of these tours could be perfect for you!


KPA Journal Vol. 2, No. 7

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Joseph Bermudez, now a Senior Analyst with DigitalGlobe’s Analysis Center and author of The Armed Forces of North Korea, has posted the latest issue of KPA JournalYou can download the PDF here.

Topics include: M-1979/M-1989 170 mm Self-propelled Guns (Part II) and “Yu Kyong-su, The Father of KPA Armor Forces.

Note: The satellite imagery used in this journal issue can be found on Google Earth here:  39.750290°, 124.820099°