Wednesday, January 21, 2004

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

We've already covered the first three chapters of this book, here and here.

Chapter 4, "Surviving the Famine," details the major ways in which North Koreans dealt with the crisis. Perhaps the best way to summarize Natsios here is in outline form.

A. reduce the number of mouths to feed

1. through population control and family planning
2. voluntary and involuntary starvation of the elderly
3. abandoning children
4. human trafficking: selling daughters/wives (often across the NK/China border) for marriage, bordellos, etc.
5. mass suicide as a final resort (Natsios notes this isn't so much a coping strategy as a sure sign of hopelessness)

B. move to another region to find food

1. the "927 camps," created September 27, 1997, to detain internally displaced people
2. migration, often resulting in death
3. famine trains: Natsios is here reminded of the Holocaust image of Jews being shipped to their deaths, but in this case the NK populace is boarding these overcrowded trains voluntarily, in the vain hope of somehow escaping the famine in their region

C. find alternate sources of food and income

1. NK diaspora (Koreans in Japan, Australia, the US, etc.) sending cash to relatives (cash didn't always reach recipients, as you might imagine)
2. cultivation of wild famine foods (p. 81); in 1996, wild foods accounted for 30% of the NK diet

This from p. 82, regarding a bizarre NK "instructional video" telling people how to scrounge:

Pyongyang produced an instructional videotape, obtained by Mark Kirk of the House International Relations Committee in 1998, on the harvesting and processing of "substitute food." In my decade of involvement in famine relief efforts, I had never seen such a bizarre manifestation of a hunger coping mechanism [as] this videotape. It showed, for example, how to harvest pond weed, dry it out, and make it into flour to be mixed with wheat or corn flour as an extender. In one part of the tape, corn husks, oak leaves, and grass are ground up into powder and passed through a noodle machine. The resulting noodles have little nutritional value, cannot be digested by the human system, and in fact cause severe gastrointestinal problems for those hungry enough to eat them. The exact nutritional value of the substitutes is unclear, as their testing by the WFP was inconclusive: the substitutes were mixed with corn and wheat flour in unknown proportions, so scientists analyzing them could not determine what calories were attributable to which part of the food. Some alternative foods do have nutritional value and are traditional in the Korean diet. These include mushrooms, pine nuts, acorns, grasshoppers, some shoots, and seaweed. They cannot take the place of stable [sic] grains such as rice or corn, however, both because urban families do not have access to them and because these foods have limited caloric values. A senior North Korean official told me that it was official policy for the party cadres to eat one to two meals a day of the substitute foods. If this had been enforced, which I doubt it was, it might have brought the country closer to an elite-led revolution than any other action of Kim Jong Il.

The chapter ends by noting that most of the people's coping mechanisms were, in some way or other, illegal under the NK regime. That is to say, the populace was forced to divorce itself from the ruling ideology in order to make do. Natsios believes this has long-term consequences.

Chapter 5, "The Economics of the Famine," offers a chronology of the major economic factors leading up to and exacerbating the NK famine. Severe rationing was one of the early measures taken, and Natsios is careful to note that the Northeastern provinces were targeted as part of a kind of triage. The NE region has been, historically, relatively poor, undeveloped, and arguably least loyal to whichever government was in power throughout much of Korean dynastic history. This is one reason why Pyongyang saw fit to (effectively) cut the region off in its triage. The triage affected cadres along with peasants, though perhaps not on the same scale as peasants, who were hardest hit by the draconian measures.

Another factor to consider was the collapsing public distribution system (or PDS, as Natsios abbreviates it). This is important because shipments of food from countries like China would likely have gone to NK's western ports, but NK fuel shortages and dilapidated equipment would have ensured that the food, once in port, would not have been distributed that far inland.

This is a theme that Natsios hits at several points throughout the book, not merely in this chapter: Western aid, had it been fed to the eastern ports, would probably have been distributed more equitably throughout the triaged and starving NE provinces, with little of the food being diverted further into the country because the fuel/transportation shortage wouldn't have allowed it. But as things turned out, food aid wasn't delivered to NK's eastern ports.

Food distribution became, as the PDS collapsed, less a matter for the central government and more a matter for local/regional cadres-- which in turn diffused the control over the PDS and the food itself. Much food was lost as corrupt cadres (and normal, desperate citizens) hoarded it; the cost of remaining food increased for the people, making it unaffordable for many while fueling cadre corruption.

Pyongyang also ordered soldiers to engage in farm labor, thereby involving the military even more directly in peasant life. The military's presence was also to stem the tide of hoarding and attempt to reassert a measure of central control over the by-now-defunct PDS process. But the momentum of decentralization also continued, to the point where individual families were given responsibility over food storage and distribution. All of this added up to a lessening of central government control, an increase in overall corruption, and a subtle-but-significant change in the social-ideological climate in North Korea.

Chapter 6, "The Diplomacy of the Famine," provides an overview of the diplomatic dimension of the NK famine, covering such areas as NK/SK hostility (and warming relations), the "sunshine policy" of SK President Kim Dae-jung, and international considerations.

NK's relationship with donor countries, including SK, has been one of provocation and overall thanklessness. South Korea has borne the brunt of NK rancor on many occasions (ask any Koreablogger), and continues to do so-- often willingly, with no tangible return for its patience/tolerance/appeasement/etc. (my editorializing, not Natsios's).

Page 130:

Despite the support the South was providing, Northern provocations and hostile rhetoric continued, mostly for internal purposes. The North still believed its survival depended both on driving a diplomatic wedge between the United States and South Korea and on improving relations with Washington. The more likely motivations for Pyongyang's policy were two deep, related fears. First was the fear that any opening that allowed the South to see the North's wretched deprivation would cause Pyongyang to lose face. Second was the fear that, if North Koreans witnessed the prosperity and freedom in the South, they would rebel.

A brief aside: on the Marmot's blog, a commenter wrote the following:

It's interesting that Americans like to say how starving the people are in the DPRK. The very worst of the famine in 1995-96 in the North was much less worse, on a proportionate basis, than the year-in year-out famines that constantly hit India. Nobody, however, portrays the Indian Prime Minister frolicking amid a heap of starved corpses like Kim Jong-il is portrayed.

It seems the ROK intelligence services still do a pretty good job at disseminating their own brand of analysis on the DPRK! Are people starving up North? Sure. Is it as bad as you would like it to be? NO.

First, the NK famine was not merely 1995-96: the famine extended through a good part of 1997. Next, the commenter claims that NK's starvation death toll of approx. 2.5 million, or 10% of the NK population, is somehow less severe, proportionally, than the death toll in Indian famine. India has a population of about 1.1 billion, which would mean that more than 110 million people have died of famine in India over what I assume is a comparable period-- the commenter uses the vague term "year-in, year-out," which means nothing for statistics. This death rate is plainly incorrect. The CIA World Factbook places the Indian death rate at 8.49 deaths per 1000 people. Multiply that by 1000, and that's 8,490 deaths per million. Multiply again by 1000, and that's 8,490,000 deaths per billion. This total represents a percentage that's nowhere near the 10% death toll of the NK famine, so I don't know where this guy's getting his numbers. If he'd like to email me his stats, with reliable sources, I'll publish them on the blog without question or comment. But I sincerely doubt he has such information.

Even if we're charitable and break NK starvation down in a year-by-year fashion, we're still looking at about 3-5% of the population dying off per year during the famine period (roughly, 1995-1997-- or about two to three years, depending on how the chronology is reckoned). If India's death rate is 8.49 million per billion, the percentage works out to .00849, i.e., 0.849% of the population-- still nowhere near the 3-5%/year death rate during the NK famine.

So much for India and bogus arguments.

Back to Natsios.

In the section immediately following, Natsios begins a discussion of the role of the international community in the crisis.

Page 130, bottom:

Several conclusions may be drawn from the state of diplomatic affairs between the great powers and North Korea during the course of the famine. The regime's behavior alienated nearly all of its potential food aid donors just at a time when it most needed their help. Japan and South Korea combined had in fact contributed more than 450,000 MT [metric tons] of food aid after the 1995 floods, but North Korea's inhospitable welcome of its adversaries' food ensured that this generosity was not repeated the following year when the famine reached its deadly climax. By initially delaying or later refusing to make food donations, China, Japan, the United States, and the European Union each played its own role in exacerbating the famine's effects. In each case, their responses were mitigated by domestic and foreign policy concerns.

[NB: the "deadly climax" of the famine in 1996 does not mean the famine actually ended at that point: it merely peaked then.]

Partisans need to keep Natsios's indictment of Western nations in perspective: he proceeds, as much as possible, on documentary evidence, including relevant congressional testimony, to establish famine and food aid chronology, work out causes, and point out guilty parties. I have little reason to think that Natsios is motivated by, say, an anti-American bias. He is, in fact, quite clear throughout the book that he believes the final blame for the crisis rests squarely on the sloped shoulders and spongy fright wig of Kim Jong Il.

Natsios points to a 1996 speech given by Kim Jong Il that seems to indicate the severity of the famine. The speech included references to the military, which Kim claimed had also been hit by the famine. Kim expressed his fear that a weakened military might provide an opening for a US attack (cf. pp.136-137).

This is one of the few times that Natsios treats the question of the famine's relationship to the NK military. The book on the whole seems to support the idea that NK's troops are hungry, but there's too little material in the book to suggest, definitively, that the troops are actually starving. Since Kim instituted his seongun (or songun; you can Google both of these terms) policy (seon-gun means, literally, "first the military"), the feeding of the military has been a priority. So to save you all the suspense, I don't find Natsios's book conclusive, one way or another, on the question of NK troop strength and readiness, though he does seem to indicate that the famine, which produced massive stunting throughout the NK populace, will likely leave NK with a rather short crop of soldiers in the years to come.

In this chapter Natsios also notes NK's annoying habit of theft, in which it will "buy goods on credit and then never pay the bill" (p. 138).

Natsios ends Chapter 6 by bringing us more or less up to date, and even includes some speculation you might find interesting, since he wrote this book before 9/11 (the book was published in late 2001, possibly after 9/11, but the manuscript doesn't seem to include information beyond August of that year). The chapter's last paragraph (p. 140):

Early in 2000 the North Korean government embarked on a diplomatic offensive to open new contacts with the outside world, a policy encouraged with aggressive US coaxing. Thus North Korea established diplomatic relations with Italy, Kim Jong Il visited the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, and then he met with Chinese leaders in Beijing, where some agreement was reached on economic reform measures the North Koreans might undertake. In July and August 2001 Kim Jong Il traveled by train across Russia to Moscow for talks with President Putin, the first talks between the two countries' leaders since the Soviet Union recognized South Korea. In June 2000, in what was widely applauded as a turning point in North-South relations, Kim Dae Jung made a three-day state visit to Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. While little was concluded in the way of substantive agreements, the very meeting of the two leaders, the warm rhetoric, and the photographic opportunities suggested a turning point had been reached diplomatically. North Korean leaders may well have made the decision, with the famine behind them, to consider more aggressive reforms of their system. Alternatively, they may be pursuing the very same policy they followed during the famine, using diplomacy to increase international aid from China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the United States while assiduously resisting internal reform. Only time will confirm which interpretation turns out to be true.

Gee, that one's a toughie.

To be continued.


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