Monday, January 19, 2004

The Great North Korean Famine, by Andrew Natsios (Part I)

At long last-- the promised post on Natsios's great book on the famine that swept North Korea from about 1994 to 1997/8.

It may be possible to cover this book very briefly, but we don't wear briefs on this blog. No: here, we've got Brand Prolix Long Johns. Besides, I took TEN PAGES of notes-- in small, tight, sexually repressed penmanship-- and I know you don't want me to deprive you of that.

The Great North Korean Famine was first offered to me late last year by Charlie/KimcheeGI of Budae Chigae fame. I've been exploring, on-and-off, the question of North Korea's military capability, and its relationship with the starvation issue. It was the Infidel (he's still on my blogroll... we keep hoping he returns) who first challenged conventional wisdom by suggesting, if I'm not mistaken, that it'd be relatively easy to roll over NK: people like me are "Chicken Little" to worry about the possible pulverization of Seoul. Can't happen: NK's troops are starving, and their equipment's both dilapidated and outdated.

So I've been gnawing over this question of NK fighting capability, because just about all the think tanks seem to agree that, in a conventional war, Seoul buys it first and hardest (cf. The Next Korean War??? on my sidebar for my take on all this).

Natsios's book is about the famine, not about NK military capability. In the end, I was a little frustrated by how he seems almost deliberately not to delve into the military implications of the famine, but the book is fantastic when taken on its own terms. Let's take a walk through it.

Chapter 1, "Roots of the Crisis," presents an overview of the NK famine's causal factors. Part of the problem is that NK itself was unhelpful to aid workers: the constant creation of Potemkin villages kept many NGO workers and other interested parties in the dark about the true extent of the famine, which many labeled, at best, a "food crisis." But conflicts began to emerge between the testimony of the NGO workers and those of refugees who'd made it into China, presenting a starker, horrifying picture of what was really happening inside NK.

On page 5, we read:

By 1995, North Korea was, with Cuba, one of the two remaining Eastern bloc countries that steadfastly refused to acknowledge the bankruptcy of the great socialist experiment.

Natsios makes no bones about placing fundamental responsibility for the famine on the NK government's shoulders. But the West comes in for its share of abuse, too, and this, ultimately, is the thrust of the book, probably because it's addressed to a primarily Western audience. Page 7:

The totalitarian nature of the North Korean regime-- combined with a complex set of international political complications-- transformed a manageable problem into an unimaginable nightmare.

This chapter notes NK's angry reaction to China's and Russia's conversion to (more or less) market capitalism, and NK's simultaneous claim that the famine was the result of natural disaster, and refusal to admit that ideology might have been a problem.

On p. 17, we do get some tantalizing info about the military:

By the late 1990s, the North Korean military machine, though still formidable in size and in brute destructive power, had been steadily decaying for a decade, particularly in comparison with the South Korean military, which had been modernizing itself using the revenues generated by South Korea's robust economy. From the mid-1990s, North Korea had been approaching Asian arms manufacturers in India, Russia, and China to modernize its weapons system in an effort to keep up with its southern competitor. But the North Koreans insisted that they be allowed to buy on credit, which few countries or businesses would accept.

On this same page:

Perhaps the only goods North Korea produces that remain marketable outside its borders are weapons-- surface-to-air missiles, land mines, and small arms-- and mineral ore. But even North Korean commercial exports of weapons showed a precipitous decline from their high point in the 1980s, when they averaged $250 million a year, to an average of $50 million a year for the period between 1990 and 1995, according to a South Korean report. This decline was attributed to the same maladies paralyzing industrial output generally: increasing transportation problems and a lack of raw materials and energy.

Natsios also writes about an earlier attempt at revenue: the Najin-Sonbong Free Trade and Economic Zone. It's a good test model for why we shouldn't trust any such NK attempts at revenue. They won't stick. Page 19:

Within the regime, ideological hostility toward the zone is palpable. Some Western analysts have incorrectly interpreted the experiment as a precursor to economic reforms, when it is in fact nothing but a means for increasing foreign exchange earnings. Kim Jong Il toured the zone in 1998 and was appalled to see eight commercial billboards overshadowing banners with his father's slogans. The next morning the eight offending billboards were cut down; the name of the zone had the word "free" deleted from it; and the zone director, a prominent party official and advocate of trade liberalization, was removed from his post. He has not been seen since.

Still think Shinuiju's a good idea?

Chapter 2, "Prefamine Indicators," talks about how to spot a famine, and specifically, how to spot one in NK. Here's a quick run-through:

A. Market-based indicators
1. increase in the cost of seeds
2. the number of seed shortages
3. consumption of seed stock as a food source
4. widespread sale of land/homes at abnormally low prices to get cash for food
5. sale of farm animals before they die
6. increased cost of food staples (rice, corn, potatoes, etc.) due to shortage
7. the inability of families to purchase necessities because of shortage-induced price increases

B. Overt/Trailing indicators
1. increased death rates due to starvation & related diseases
2. increased rates of abnormally slow growth in children (i.e., stunting)
3. proliferation of nutritional disorders such as edema, kwashiorkor, wasting, etc.
4. decline in birth rates due to increase in infertility and miscarriage

It was often quite difficult for Natsios and others to find market indicators, but it was when his search turned to an evaluation of the children that Natsios began to see unmistakable signs of malnutrition. Natsios also remarks on the contrast between Pyongyang and the rest of the country, and notes the unfair distribution of food to the needy.

Chapter 3, "The Hidden Famine," begins this way (pp. 37-38):

Two North Koreas exist side by side. The first is the North Korea of Pyongyang-- of gay parades with colorful marxist banners, and of bright, well-fed, and smiling children of the political elite, dressed in clean uniforms and attending well-appointed cadre schools. It is the North Korea of grand boulevards, massive palaces, and mausoleums-- glistening monuments to Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader. It is the North Korea of model collective farms, model hospitals, and model schools. This country does exist-- for the party elites, the cadres, and the military leadership, most of whom live in Pyongyang.

The illusory North Korea of Pyongyang is maintained at high cost: it is purged annually of sick, deformed, and handicapped people as well as of those who have misbehaved. Pyongyang receives a much higher grain ration, and residency is regarded as a great reward for good behavior and faithfulness. ...[A] 1988 human rights report by Asian Watch reported that the capital's dwarfs and other visibly disabled people were periodically rounded up and exiled to a remote city in the Northeast. [...]

The other North Korea is where all these people live in exile, to protect Pyongyang's glistening facade of marxist paradise. It is a North Korea of abandoned factories gutted of machinery to be sold in China for food, of detention camps for displaced people, of deserted schools, and of cannibalized apartment complexes. It is a North Korea with gangs of filthy, malnourished orphans abandoned on city streets, wandering beggars stealing food from the burgeoning farmers markets, and train stations clogged with dying people desperately trying to force themselves on decrepit, overcrowded trains in hopes of escaping to China. It is the hidden face of the famine: tragically real but well hidden from outsiders.

Kim Jong Il gave a speech in 1996 that Natsios takes to be an admission about the extent of the famine. The speech expresses a grave security concern and provides clues as to why NK would want to cover up the problem: a show of weakness might tempt the US or SK to attack.

This chapter also examines NK's juchae (self-reliance) ideology and points out where it dovetails and diverges from marxist ideology.

[I'm gonna have to cut it here, folks. Too damn tired. Expect more tomorrow, im'sh'Allah.]


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