Monday, January 26, 2004

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

The final post on this book!

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Chapter 8, "The International Aid Effort," chronicles what was going on in international circles as North Korea plunged into crisis. In the early 90s, as Kim Il Sung's health was failing and Kim Jong Il was taking over more and more administrative duties, the reports came in that all was not well in the Stalinist paradise: a shortage in funding from Russia in 1991 would lead, Kim Jong Il was told, to food shortages and damage to the public distribution system. Party officials requested permission to appeal to the WFP for aid.

Natsios's chapter deals with the response to this appeal. He observes that people sent in to evaluate the North Korean crisis, like Sue Lautze of USAID and Lola Nathanail of Save the Children UK, ended up with radically different perceptions and judgements of the situation. Of the two, Lautze and Nathanail, Natsios believes Lautze's observations were more accurate and more skeptical of the brave front NK was putting on the famine.

The public distribution system (PDS), which Nathanail uncritically hailed as equitable, was in fact part of the more sinister effort to triage parts of the country (cf. previous posts re: the deliberate isolation of the Northeastern provinces, which have been historically less loyal to the central governing power). Western aid was an unwitting abettor in the inequitable distribution of food aid.

Page 182:

Donor governments, the news media, and the public inaccurately assume that food aid commitments are somehow equivalent to their delivery. But the time lag between commitments and deliveries has plagued famine relief since its modern inception. Although the US government usually delivers on its promises, some donor governments make commitments they do not keep. Others deliberately double count their pledges, thus making them look more generous than they are; this happened regularly during the southern African drought in 1992. Sometimes paperwork and scheduling problems delay the delivery of food aid until six or eight months after it is pledged: the European Union has a particular problem with this, because it depends on member-states to ship the food. US food aid for North Korea would have been pledged from the Food for Peace budget within USAID, but it was purchased and shipped from the US grain markets by the USDA, a process that takes two to three months. Thus, when the White House increased its food pledges in the spring and again in the summer of 1997, hungry North Koreans did not start eating the next day or week. For the purposes of this study, the food aid delivery date to North Korean ports is a more useful standard than the date of the pledge when judging the effects of food aid. But even then the food aid had to be shipped to the receiving cities, which could take weeks given the feeble condition of the North Korean transportation system.

Politics played a role during the entire food aid process, including some hesitation by South Korea to deliver food aid too early: a delay of several months was requested, at one point in 1996-- very likely an attempt by the SK government to induce a premature collapse of the NK government. A sharp rise in NK citizen death rates was one of the effects of all this politicking.

Natsios ends this chapter by comparing Herbert Hoover's Soviet relief efforts in the early 1920s, which featured consolidated leadership and massive resources, with the comparatively fumbling efforts of smaller aid groups to coordinate with governments and each other in an effort to help North Korea. "In short," Natsios writes, "the North Korean effort lacked Hoover's unity of command. No early, single source of huge resources existed with which to negotiate an agreement with Pyongyang. The many semi-autonomous NGOs, the Red Cross movement, and three UN agencies were unable to negotiate with the central authorities from a position of strength."

Chapter 9's poignant title is, "A Great Famine?"

In exploring the question of who the famine's victims were, Natsios notes that, while all of NK was suffering, not everyone suffered equally. Some factors exacerbating the famine included the pre-famine erosion of public health facilities, the severe winters, the cholera epidemics, and perhaps most disturbing, the systematic attempt to use the famine to eliminate those sectors of the population perceived to be disloyal (or not loyal enough). The three-part division of the population by levels of loyalty, a schema laid out by Kim Il Sung in 1958, went something like this:

25% "loyal" class
55% "wavering" class
20% "hostile" class

Natsios cannot draw a conclusive connection, but he notes that a case can be made for "punitive rationing" during the famine based on UN data that showed

32% no malnutrition
62% moderate malnutrition
16% acute malnutrition

[NB: the above isn't a typo. Don't ask me how those numbers are supposed to add up; I'm not a statistician. Perhaps Natsios relied on several UN sources and means to provide only a general reflection of the malnutrition's distribution.]

The ratios look eerily similar to the 1958 class divisions.

I'll remark at this point the bitter irony of introducing class divisions in what is supposed to be a classless society.

The chapter covers some ways of calculating the raw number of starvation deaths and concludes with some assurance that about 2.5 million people, or approximately 10% of NK's population at the time, died of famine in the space of 2-3 years. Again, this chapter didn't discuss how much the military was affected by all this.

Chapter 10, "Political and Security Consequences," does some exploration and extrapolation.

The famine-induced breakdown of the PDS, coupled with the rise of corruption at lower and lower echelons of the society, led to the formation of thriving "farmer's markets." Natsios sees a positive outcome here, in that the people had been forced to shirk communist ideology in favor of a very pragmatic (albeit down-and-dirty) form of capitalism.

Natsios also stresses the role of international aid and porous borders with China in providing suffering North Koreans with an idea of what life is like outside their country. He feels that, as the citizens' resentment of their plight continues to build, it is only a matter of time before the regime loses its grip on power.

Page 230:

The notion that the old order can be fully restored and the historical clock turned back is specious. The scars of the famine are too deep, the embitterment of the population too widespread, and the changes in the economy too profound for the old order to be restored.

I wish I could share Natsios's optimism: the beast still clings to life.

Kim Jong Il doesn't have his father's aura of authority, so many experts aside from Natsios have speculated on how firm a rein he has on his government and military. Natsios contends Kim is nervous, and cites a December 1996 speech in which Kim betrayed "a certain unease" about how loyal the military was.

And on p. 232, we finally get some extended comments about the military! the early 1990s, nearly 40 percent of the sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old population of the country was in the military-- 6 percent of North Korea's total population. Under more prosperous circumstances, this number of people under arms would provide a strong base of popular support for the military and a high level of political mobilization in the society. Under famine conditions, however, the reverse is often true. A large proportion of troops saw relatives die, as it would have been logistically and practically impossible to ensure that all military families were fed, and it is likely that many held the regime at fault. In other words, the regime has a large number of young men with weapons, and although they are in a highly controlled and disciplined organizational structure, many are quite likely unhappy about deaths in their families.

And later on the same page:

But the regime faced another, entirely different, military problem. The famine may have undermined military morale in a way that could be threatening to the state, but it also devastated the combat readiness of the once formidable North Korean military. According to the WFP nutritional survey done in 1998, 75 percent of children under age nine who had been measured were suffering from malnutrition and stunting caused by prolonged malnutrition [sic]. Given that serious food shortages were reported as early as 1988, the current generation of recruits into the North Korean military are remarkably smaller than were their counterparts in the 1970s. Reports from food refugees on the border mention that before new recruits are inducted, they have to go through a fattening-up period to improve their health and physical condition and make them combat-worthy. Several of the refugees I interviewed said that the military was full of soldiers who survived by begging for food from civilians. In areas where discipline broke down, soldiers stole food from civilians at gunpoint. In rural areas military units occasionally organized raids of farming areas. Thus in some areas the once-revered People's Army became a predatory symbol of a utopian-state-turned-nightmare. None of this could have helped military morale.

If Natsios's extrapolation from interviews and other tantalizing forms of evidence is valid, then he's presenting us a picture of a military that is hungry-- and maybe starving, though this is still far from clear, especially as relates to the question of how well-fed the troops at the DMZ are. In any case, Natsios finds it not implausible that a disgruntled military might well be the source for a major coup.

The chapter ends by recapping that nearly 3/4 of NK children are stunted. The US policy toward NK of a "soft landing," i.e., a slow, careful conversion of NK government and society to something approaching, say, Chinese-style market reform, doesn't seem to have provided the people of NK with a soft landing at all. Natsios finds the country's current ruin to be every bit as devastating as the damage wrought by the Korean War. In retrospect, Natsios claims, donor countries should perhaps have concentrated their aid efforts in the Northeastern provinces, where a history of "less loyalty to the center" might have been the entrée for serious reform as unhappy citizens interacted with aid workers.

Natsios's final chapter (11), "What's to be Done?", reiterates Natsios's belief that donor governments could have done much more, but that the fundamental responsibility for the devastation of the NK famine lies clearly on the shoulders of the NK government. Natsios contends that what NK needs most is economic reform-- a change to something more market-friendly. Ideology here is the major stumbling block.

I agree that NK needs such reform, but feel it makes little sense without an accompanying political and societal reform, neither of which can be accomplished quickly or easily. As I've contended, I don't see the citizens of SK and NK as "one people" at present, though it's possible they may become one people again-- with or without unification.

Natsios openly wonders whether the NK government is, finally, at the end of its rope. He wonders whether we might not be seeing some major revolts in the next few years as the desperate conditions prompt people to try desperate measures.

The chapter's final paragraph:

Some Western policymakers opposed the aid program because they feared it would be used to help the massive North Korean military that threatened South Korea and the US troops stationed there during the 1990s. The fact is, however, that the famine relief effort in no way exacerbated the threat; rather, in some important ways it helped to reduce it. The entire effort, seriously flawed though it may have been, sent a startling message to the mid-level party cadres and field officers who were also victimized by the famine and who lost friends and family members to it. The people whom they had long been taught to view as their enemies were feeding them, while their government was not. If a coup d'état should eventually end the regime and a military government come to power, it is likely that the relief effort will have played some role. Moreover, it will have sent a striking message to the new leadership of the country: their so-called enemies may not have been as threatening or as malevolent as they had been taught all their lives. This is not a bad message to be sending under such unstable and unpredictable circumstances. Generosity and decency on occasion can have attractive geostrategic consequences.

I found Natsios's book fascinating and compelling. The fact that he was not merely on site, interviewing hundreds and hundreds of refugees and working with organizations like the Buddhist one he mentions early in the book (KBSM, Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement), but was also involved in high-level planning and oversight lends credence to his insights. His previous experience with famine and his reliance on others with comparable experience (journalist Jasper Becker is cited many times throughout the book) doesn't hurt his case, either.

I didn't find Natsios's book to be conclusive on the question of NK's fighting capability, but it may be asking too much of this book to provide that kind of information. The overall picture I get is of a hungry, but still capable, military. If Natsios is correct about the potential for resentment, however, perhaps the question of fighting capability has a few wrinkles.

I'm afraid I disagree with Natsios about food aid, and what I'm about to say may sound cruel. Although I was against the war in Iraq, I was struck by the paradoxical attitude taken by people before and after the war: the same people who, pre-war, spent their time arguing that sanctions were both cruel and ineffective ended up arguing that the US military's quick push to Baghdad was possible because the people had been broken by twelve years of sanctions.

To me, this means that sanctions were effective in Iraq, though perhaps not quite the way they were intended. The charge that "sanctions are ineffective" relates to the question of a regime's hold on power. I agree that it's unlikely that sanctions alone can dislodge a determined and powerful regime, especially if it has the means to keep its people under its thumb no matter how severe a crisis becomes. But the charge that "sanctions are ineffective" is false if analyzed from a military perspective, and Iraq demonstrated this nicely.

For this reason, if we are to keep the military option on the table with North Korea (and I strongly believe we should), it is important to press our advantage through continued non-aid, or minimal aid at best. Natsios provides compelling reasons for why this is a bad idea; I'm especially impressed by his testimony that aid workers provided many North Koreans with a glimpse of the outside world-- spreading a meme that could potentially blossom into resentment, and thence into action against the NK government. And to be honest, I cringe in guilt when Natsios rails against the ethical indefensibility of starving a people to unseat a government. This is undeniably a cruel route to take, but I see the unseating of the NK government as the proper prelude to the comprehensive feeding and rehabilitation of its people.

But as with other horrible, radical solutions to long crises, the question is time. Prolonging a crisis is undesirable. In World War 2, as many argue, the dropping of atomic bombs probably shortened the length of the conflict and saved lives. I submit that our current willy-nilly diplomacy, slightly firmer under Bush (but not much), isn't helping matters in NK. North Korea's game is focused entirely upon the goal of prolonging its existence-- i.e., gaining time for itself. Any concessions we make simply feed into this because the current Mexican standoff is tailor-made to preserve the status quo. Kim Jong Il has great interest in keeping things as they are, because he's not looking beyond the question of his own survival.

So what are our options? I'd rather not opt for war, but think we should reserve this as a possibility-- and let NK know this. Anything that keeps the country nervous and sweating is good. I'm not convinced we can simply roll over the NK military, however, even if it is in a shabby state. People predicting that Seoul won't be lost in the initial conflict are probably overoptimistic: many will die, on both sides, and not just in Seoul. A diplomatic solution would be desirable, but so long as NK dodges the issue of verifiability and laces its rhetoric with threats and seeming-irrationality, I see little hope on that front.

We do have control over aid, as one of the largest (if not the largest) aid contributors, and we should think of our options in terms of what we can control. Verifiability is out, effectively speaking. Market reforms are unlikely. Free North Korea's advocacy of something like a Berlin Airlift is a noble pipe dream at best. So I'm led to believe that, whether we go to war or not, the best way to accelerate events is through the withholding of aid-- not just food, but fuel and other goods.

This will meet with international resistance. Most of the outcry will be along the lines of Natsios's ethical objections, to which I'm sympathetic. But it will also force countries like South Korea and China to seriously reevaluate where they stand. Perhaps both will decide the time has come to shoulder the burden and feed their hungry neighbor. The price the US might pay for this is steep: all three countries (China, SK, NK) might view the US with deep resentment, resulting in a rapid loss of diplomatic capital in the region (then again, things aren't that pleasant right now). But this might not happen: both South Korea and China have huge vested economic interests in America; it would be more than a shame to lose half the Pacific Rim as a trading partner.

Perhaps the result of a squeeze will be war: Kim diverts a restive military by focusing their rage on South Korea. But the move to war will signal the end for NK. Whether Kim is killed or escapes, his government-- his country as he knows it-- will cease to exist. NK will lose an all-out war, and it's possible that, in the aftermath, great efforts will be made to reunify the peninsula. China won't be pleased if the peninsula reunites under Seoul. Then again, a unified Korea might feel itself to be an equal (or at least comparable) partner to countries like China and the US, and might actually prove to be a friendly trading partner with China. The mingling of South and North Koreans might dilute SK's capitalist culture and make Chinese "market communism" seem more palatable (or comprehensible). A new, syncretic Korea might be born before our eyes.

Who knows? We're not on the other side of this issue yet, and from this end I can't tell what's going to happen.

Neither can you.