Sunday, October 05, 2003

NK and food

We'll start off with a big help from the Vulture's recent post about NK food aid and the black market. In a strange confluence of liberal and conservative action, the Maximum Leader also posts on the subject of NK hunger. Here's the direct link to what the ML was pointing out. It's not about the black market, per se, but about a new "honesty" in the NK leadership-praising literature, which now depicts the people as hungry (though not as a result of policy, but as a result of natural disaster and US cruelty). Choice paragraph from the ML's linked article:

Circumstantial evidence suggests many North Koreans don't believe the [new] propaganda. The idea that Kim eats gruel, apart from being discounted by a Russian diplomat who told of live seafood delivered to Kim's Moscow-bound train, seems hard for ordinary Koreans to believe when they see photos of the leader and his Panda-like paunch.

Free North Korea has a lot of commentary on the issue of NK hunger at this link.

Let's recap the questions I'm working on:

1. What are the latest figures/expert guesses on NK starvation, in terms of rate and brute numbers? What's the general history of the starvation problem, and what projections, if any, are there about future starvation?

2. Who's currently giving food aid to NK? What percentage of NK's food supply is being domestically produced?

3. Can an overall picture of NK food production, delivery, and consumption be painted? How accurate will this picture be?

4. Corollary question: if a high percentage of NK's food is coming from outside, who (what countries, organizations, etc.) is currently providing it? [Whoops-- just noticed this question is a repeat of part of question #2.]

5. What measures, if any, are in place to verify where food goes (this question is crucial; if we can't answer it satisfactorily, we can't answer the "are the troops starving?" question satisfactorily, either)? Are military defectors from NK in a position to speak about diverted food?

6. If we get past question #5 and have at least some idea where food is going, how much is being routed to the military? How are the lower-echelon people in NK's government doing?

My focus isn't on the NK populace in general; it's on the issue of whether food is being preferentially routed to the NK army. But we need to determine whether food aid (and NK's domestic food production, such as it is) is being reliably tracked. In the meantime, the above Free North Korea! link provides some testimony on the subject:

The Army is looting the civilian residences:
The Army, if they know that there are some valuables or food in a
residence, break into the house and rob anything of value. The
supporter eyewitnessed a robbery by the Army when she was in the
village. They came and took the only bicycle from a house. They
were all armed, and the residents could not even protest. There is
no law in North Korea now. The Army can rob civilians in broad
daylight and when people are watching them. The Army must be
starving too. Recently, a soldier was starving in the Army. His
family paid off some officers and got him discharged. He had nothing
to eat at home either. He ran away.

This would seem to indicate that some soldiers are indeed starving, or at least very hungry.

One article makes brief mention of Kim Jong Il's "Army First" policy. It doesn't reveal much, however. And we begin to see right away that the issue is more complex than I originally portrayed it: it may be possible both to have an "army first" policy and for soldiers to be hungry/starving.

Another post features the testimony of Harald Maass, who presented a report "at the 4th International Conference on North Korean Human Rights and Refugees from March 2-4, 2003." Parts of the report relevant to the issue of verifying food distribution:

However, a shortage of grain is not the only cause of malnutrition in the DPRK. The WFP shipped more than 930,000 tons of grain and food aid in 2001 to North Korea-- it was the biggest single country operation in the history of the UN organization. After Japan cut its aid, the WFP provided last year around 430,000 tons to North Korea. Together with the aid of other organizations and NGOs this should have been enough to at least meet the population's basic nutritional needs.

The problem of feeding the people in North Korea today is a political issue. North Korea's government has put restrictions on the work of international aid organizations like no other country. Foreign aid worker are not allowed to travel freely through the country to monitor food deliveries. In fact, outside of Pyongyang they are hardly allowed to leave their hotels. Foreign organizations like the WFP are not allowed to bring in Korean-speaking staff-- which basically prohibits any uncensored communication with the local people. There are frequent reports about corruption of government officials and the military, which controls the traffic of goods in and out of the country. A few weeks ago a truck with grain donated by an aid organization was blocked on the border-bridge between China and North Korea, because the military wanted to keep the cargo. Only when the angry truck drivers started to throw the aid-packages into the river were they allowed to pass.

Finally, the government prohibits aid organizations from building up their own distribution channels. To transport the food through the country, they have to rely on government vehicles, mainly military trucks. "If we send ten trucks out, we have no way to verify how many of them arrive at the destination," said one UN employee in Pyongyang. Furthermore, most of the foreign grain is distributed through the old government distribution centers, which basically give local cadres the power to use the food aid as an incentive for politically correct behavior. The recipients often don't even know that the food is donated from abroad. "The children think it is the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il who gives it to them," said a South Korean aid worker, who runs a bread factory in North Korea for distribution to school children.

Nobody knows whether much of the international aid goes to the families of government officials instead of needy children. Maybe some of the donated grain is even used to support the army. Foreign aid workers in Pyongyang agree that it is still impossible for them to exactly track the distribution of the aid. Their monitoring teams can only make random tests. "We think that most of it reaches the people it should. But all of it?" said an aid worker in Pyongyang. Around 20 percent of the country, mainly the counties along the border with China, is still marked as closed areas by the government and cannot be accessed by international organizations.

So is food going to the army? According to Haass, "Maybe." Is this reliably verifiable? No.

A UNICEF worker in Pyongyang, however, is more definite:

[Ingrid Kolb-Handarmanto, UNICEF worker] also dismissed some concerns that the North might have diverted the international aid for military purposes.

"The assistance provided to the North is not being squandered, but is used for securing the subsistence of the collapsing citizens, who are near death," she said.

She also added that as a leading international aid agency, UNICEF has enough means to monitor the process of food distribution provided by the international community.

This raises some questions, since we're sifting through largely anecdotal evidence: Whose testimony do we trust, or how should we synthesize the various accounts? The UN worker seems to be implying that aid distribution is indeed verifiable and food is not being preferentially routed to the army.

Think about that for a bit. In the meantime, here's more.

This is "Witness D's" testimony in a post about human flesh on the black market:

In North Korea, rice distribution is limited to executives of the Labor Party or military forces. Soldiers eat corn and ordinary people eat a gruel made from powdered corn stalks.

Humanitarian aid sent by foreign countries does not reach starving North Koreans. The World Food Program (WFP) announced assistance in the form of 510,000-tons of rice and other crops. South Korea and the US pledged food aid of 450,000-ton and 100,000-ton crops respectively this year.

When food aid from other countries enters North Korea, WFP or non-government organization staff go to went North Korea with the shipments. They try to insure that the food reaches ordinary North Korean citizens. They made videotapes and showed them to the world as proof of performance.

However, the North Koreans could not eat food donated by foreign countries.

Mr. Kim who lived in a Chinese city said, "When food aid arrives, people find out about by word of mouth. They can prove that it exists because they see that the food is brought to warehouses. They expect that the food will be rationed to them."

The rationing is actually done. One representative of each family stands in line to receive rice or corn.

"However, when night comes, leaders of people's groups and clerks of the Labor Party visit each home and take all of the rationed food back. They say to each family, 'Let's feed the sons and daughters who are starving and fighting on the front line."

The food donated by foreign countries is called 'rice for patriots' and transformed into food for military forces.

This person is suggesting that food aid is being diverted, and food is indeed going to the soldiers. (But as a matter of policy? Or is this just an excuse the authorities use to grab the food for themselves?)

To be honest, at this point I don't take the UN worker's claim of reliability very seriously. Food aid, on the whole, is not being reliably distributed, it seems. There is black market involvement, and probable strong-arming by soldiers and local officials. If the soldiers themselves are taking food from the populace, this does seem to suggest they're starving.

Here is testimony from Hyok Kang, a NK defector:

During after school hours, we were ordered to work at farms. All through the year we had to weed, fertilize the fields and help out during the harvest. The fields and soil belonged to the state and the farmers and villagers were left with nothing. In the fall, the harvested crops were turned over to the state and after helping out, my friends and I would steal something to eat from the fields since we were all poor. There were many thieves amongst the workers in the fields owned by the state as well as private individuals and during my fourth year, soldiers were stationed to guard the fields.

However the soldiers would also steal and conspire with the thieves dividing the loot among themselves. They would even trade a bag of bread with a bag of stolen maize. Our field was pilfered and we even caught a soldier trying to steal our television. The villagers had to starve because they were too afraid to be caught stealing the crops by the soldiers. We could not even work in one-day jobs since people would gather the sprouts as soon as spring came to eat.

Anecdotes do not an argument make, but this is nevertheless compelling.

Meanwhile, this article has this to say about monitoring of food distribution:

The [US State] [D]epartment's deputy spokesman, Adam Ereli, said North Korea has restricted the ability of the U.N. World Food Program, which distributes humanitarian aid in the nation, to monitor food distribution and ensure that it gets to "vulnerable North Koreans.''

"Unfortunately North Korea continues to restrict access and monitoring, which is still a major concern,'' Ereli said.

Makes you wonder what planet the other UN worker is on.

In a September 2003 post about whether the US will halt food aid to NK, we read:

More than 4.6 million of the most vulnerable North Koreans depend on the WFP for emergency nutrition, including grains and high-energy biscuits.

The supplies are distributed through schools, orphanages, hospitals and facilities that care for the elderly.

But North Korean officials have refused to supply the WFP with a list of these feeding centres and have hampered the agency's efforts to conduct the same surprise inspections and monitoring efforts that all other recipient nations submit to.

So again, we see that verification is patchy at best.

At this point, the impression I'm getting is that NK's troops may or may not be starving on the whole, but some troops certainly are stealing food, and that can't be because they're well-fed.

An article from October 2 this year, which I quote in its entirety:

Food aid sold in North Korea
By Nicholas Kralev

Video footage smuggled out of North Korea shows food being sold from sacks with markings from international donors, and the State Department acknowledged that monitoring of U.S. donations to the communist state remains an unresolved issue.

Japanese and South Korean activists said the footage was secretly taken last month from black marketeers in Haesan, a North Korean town on the border with China.

It showed a marketplace where people were selling rice and other grains, which the activists said were provided by South Korea, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) and other relief organizations, an Associated Press report from Seoul quoted the activists as saying.

Some of the grain sacks bore stamps that read, "Rice from the Republic of Korea," South Korea's official name.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that he was not yet aware of the activists' tape, but that the monitoring of U.S. donations, which are distributed by the WFP, is still an issue in future contributions by Washington.

In February, Washington announced a donation of 40,000 metric tons of food and said that it would contribute as much as 60,000 metric tons of additional aid before the end of the year if Washington's distribution concerns were addressed.

"We have serious concerns about North Korea's restrictions on monitoring and on access to its people that impair the World Food Program's ability to ensure that our food assistance gets to those who need it," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a statement at the time.

The authenticity of the video and the activists' claim could not be independently verified.

But the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), which administers much of foreign aid to the North, expressed doubt that the food in question could have come from its shipments.

"The situation there is so dire that the likelihood of widespread selling of rations is very small," said Trevor Rowe, spokesman for the WFP in New York.

"There are no surpluses-- people are so close to the bone and there is not much disposable food," he said.

It also difficult to imagine North Korean government involvement in reselling WFP aid, because the aid is directly distributed to its beneficiaries, said Mr. Rowe, who had not seen the tape or reports about it.

He noted, however, that it is not uncommon for some people in North Korea to trade in part of their food for soap, cooking oil or other daily necessities.

It was not clear if the food on sale contained any donations from the United States, which has contributed more food to North Korea than any other country-- more than $600 million since 1995.

In Seoul yesterday, Lee Young-hwa, head of Rescue the North Korean People, said the new video confirmed a long-standing suspicion that the North Korean police and military were selling aid to fill their pockets.

"The aid has not been used for those who really need it. The aid is helping a regime of terror and dictatorship become stronger," said Mr. Lee, whose group is based in Japan.

In a statement, the Seoul-based Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights urged the international aid donors to "establish the transparency of the distributing process" in North Korea.

The communist state has depended on outside aid to feed its 22 million people since flood, drought and other bad weather devastated its already inefficient economy in the mid-1990s.

Pyongyang says at least 200,000 people died of famine between 1995 and 1998.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Monitoring is therefore an official US concern.

I'm still compiling. Nowhere near answering the questions. I want to deal with think tanks next, and look through Free North Korea!'s defector testimonies. I don't think the above article gives us much insight into the condition of NK troops stationed at the DMZ-- the troops that SK and its allies would have to worry about first.

Think about it: food probably is being diverted somewhere. The leaders are plump and healthy. So are the NK diplomats. So are the "cultural ambassadors"-- sports teams, cheerleaders, many/most Pyongyang residents, etc. Troops visible at the DMZ don't look emaciated, either. I'd bet that, when you start to tally the numbers, they run into the thousands, these well-fed folks. There's a case to be made for food diversion. Which means I may still have a case re: how well-fed the relevant NK troops are. As we narrow focus a bit, we'll see what other experts have to say. For the moment, I can't say I've found much to support the argument that NK troops are robust and well-fed. I'm going to try running a Google search on KJI's "army first" or "military first" policy later on, to see what that turns up.

Meantime, Kim Jong Il's blog is back in action! Two great ones posted recently, here and here.

More later.

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