The DPRK Interregnum: Window of Opportunity for the International Community

19 01 2012

By Victor Hsu (Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, January 10, 2012)

Now that the funeral of Kim Jong Il is over, it is time for the international community to explore avenues of engaging with the DPRK, rather than trying to read the tea leaves about who is in charge or whether Kim Jong Un is the real Supreme Leader and Military Commander. This period presents a window of opportunity either to engage constructively or to destabilize the Korean peninsula. It is truly a time of danger and opportunity. While it is legitimate to expect the DPRK to take the first step, there is an equal onus on the international community to adopt policies and strategies to encourage the DPRK to initiate a new chapter in its foreign policy. However, this post funeral interregnum may be ironically the right time for the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama’s administration.

First, it is important to bear in mind that following precedent is a basic rule of engagement on the part of the DPRK. It was a full three years before Kim Jong Il emerged to lead the country following Kim Il Sung’s unexpected death. There is no reason for the DPRK not to observe a similar period of prolonged national mourning. Of course, next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the eternal President, Kim Il Sung. The celebration is likely to proceed in April. Moreover, to use a term often employed by the DPRK to describe the success of Kim Il Sung and the DPRK heroes, the “exploits” of the Dear Leader will be extolled and given more prominence than if he were still alive. This is already evident from the DPRK’s annual New Year’s Editorial which has heaped high praise on the accomplishments of Kim Jong Il.

Second, the confirmation of Kim Jong Un as the “supreme leader and commander” is to be expected. Anything else would be a real surprise and would warrant speculation and analysis. For analysts keen to spot fissures in the leadership of the DPRK, perhaps the sole speculation that can be made is a possible vacuum in the decision-making process. Kim Jong Un is unlikely to take bold unilateral actions unless his position or his family is threatened. In fact, he may even welcome a prolonged period of national celebration of his father and grandfather.

It is unrealistic to expect dramatic policy reversal or new initiatives for the foreseeable future. If anything, it will be business as usual unless the leadership is forced or provoked into taking action.

Therefore, in the near term, the international community should:

–   Avoid taking actions that will force the DPRK to make premature decisions.
–    Respond to the DPRK should the invitation be extended to resume existing negotiations.

This past week, newspaper editorials noted the absence of commentary on the DPRK nuclear program in the New Year Joint Editorial and questioned the DPRK’s motivation. In fact, keeping silent on controversial issues is part of the DPRK’s diplomatic brinksmanship and has been the DPRK’s signature negotiation tool.
Third, following precedent, the DPRK is likely to resume existing formal or back channel talks and honor existing commitments, be it the 6-party talks or a new round of food/nutrition aid from the US government, or the joint ventures in Kaesong or tours to Mount Kumgang by South Koreans. The Joint Editorial contains ample indications about DPRK’s desire to be a “thriving country,” with a “knowledge-based economy.”  There are repeated references to “achieving prosperity” with world standards.  For 2012, it talks about

“the important task of scaling without fail the historical-stage targets… true to the lifetime instructions of General Kim Jong Il. By registering a brilliant success in this year’s struggle for opening the gates of a thriving country, we must enter a new, high stage of building a thriving socialist country in an all-round way.”

Therefore, for example, “light industries” should be a “modern base” to produce “larger quality goods” that “cater to people’s tastes” and are “welcomed” by them.  Equally significant is the highlighting of solving the food problem as a “burning issue” and the pathway to prosperity.

In order for the DPRK to become “a thriving nation,” the technocrats and sectoral professionals, will have to play a pivotal role. Ideology, alone, cannot feed the people or achieve prosperity.  To quote from the Joint Editorial, the professionals with technical know-how and expertise will have to ensure that:

–    “Farming materials and machinery needed” “hit the target for agricultural production.”
–    “Modern bases for stockbreeding and poultry farming and large-size fruit and fish farms” lead to “the improvement of people’s living standards, run at full capacity.”
–    Continue the construction of large hydropower stations, thermal powered mining, metallurgy, and upgrade railroads, and chemical industries.
–    Guide scientific research to develop “core, basic technologies, including information and nano technologies and bioengineering, and promote technical engineering in major fields and produce more research findings that would beat the world.”

In short, “all sectors and units of the national economy should drastically increase the capacity for developing new technologies and products of their own, and push forward in a far-sighted way the work of turning the national economy into a technology-intensive one.”  Hence, “talents in the field of science and technology,” are “precious assets of the country,” to be “given prominence and the conditions for their scientific research should be provided at the highest standard.”

The challenges that the Joint Editorial laid out for 2012 are formidable. But the contours of a roadmap to its economic prosperity are clearly laid out. To date, governments in North America and the European Union have refused to engage the DPRK in any form of assistance other than humanitarian aid. The technocrats within the DPRK will not be able to accomplish their mandate without technical upgrade, inputs and resources.

Interestingly, NGOs such as Adventist Disaster Response Agency, American Friends Service Committee, Christian Friends of Korea, Eugene Bell Foundation, German Agro-Action, Global Resources Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children UK, and World Vision have had fruitful partnerships with the DPRK in projects that address organic farming, upgrading of clinics and hospitals, livestock, food aid, vegetable and fruit fertigation and renewable energy.  These are helpful knowledge sharing activities seen by the DPRK to be particularly valuable.

This post funeral interregnum in the DPRK should be seen as a window of opportunity for moving its relationships in a constructive direction. The international community should take time to network and to plan a coordinated engagement at multiple levels such as exchange visits, knowledge sharing activities, and other confidence building measures.  A coordinated plan is necessary to avoid duplication, to maximize the increasingly scarce resources among traditional donors and to gather the lessons learned for follow-up.  Donors should facilitate this networking by supporting civil society knowledge-sharing efforts. Civil society access is more sustainable and is less susceptible to the vicissitudes of inter-state relations, as the history of NGO involvement there has amply demonstrated.  If NGO involvement has decreased in recent years it is in large measure due to decreased donor funding.

It is also time for the international community to consider the implications of the existing UN sanctions which have not been effective and are perceived mainly as a political exercise by states with few options to punish the DPRK’s nuclear program.  It should also ask itself whether the relationship with the DPRK should be dictated by, and solely confined to, the now highly contentious nuclear and human rights issues. Countries not involved in the 6-party negotiations, such as those in the EU, should encourage the broadening of the engagement agenda with the DPRK to include confidence building measures.

*Victor Hsu, a Visiting Professor at the Korea Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management.

Update on Humanitarian Aid to North Korea by Dr. Victor Hsu

16 11 2011

(Ecumenical Forum for Korea, 14 Nov. 2011) This past week I attended an International Conference on Humanitarian and Development Aid to North Korea jointly sponsored by the Korean Sharing Movement and Gyonggi Province and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.  This is the 7th in a series of international events organized for the purpose of encouraging concerned people to continue to provide aid to North Korea on humanitarian grounds…

…At the conference we learned that the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen in North Korea.  We heard reports from the Country Director of the WFP in North Korea, a NGO representative from North Korea and an American NGO representative who headed a food assessment mission in North Korea this year.  Together they presented a very serious picture of the worsening plight of the children and the people.  Among the information that I learned:

1.     North Koreans, especially children, urgently need outside aid to fight terrible levels of malnutrition.

2.    Six million North Koreans urgently need food aid.

3.    Nearly half of North Korean children were chronically malnourished.

4.    North Korea has a shortage of one million tons of food a year. Supply shortages means that daily per person rations from the public distribution system (PDS) were halved in July to 200 grams.

5.    Rice yields are about 2.8 tonnes per hectare, about half that in most countries, with soil degradation, lack of fertilisers and limited mechanisation blamed.

6.    The international community is not giving enough. The world must be reminded that the most vulnerable groups in North Korea are victims of a situation over which they have no control.

7.    The US government asked US NGOs to send their own team in May ? to assess the humanitarian situation. But despite findings similar to those above, the USG has yet to announce a decision on aid. The five American NGOs recommended urgent shipments.

8.    David Austin, North Korea program director for Mercy Corps, said the NGOssaw pockets of malnutrition “throughout the country” and that people there “are starving to death.”

9.    The United States, along with other nations, made token contribution to flood assistance in mid-September. Washington provided a grant $900,000 in flood relief for the North through five US NGOs.

10. The position of South Korea remains that there is no nationwide food crisis of the kind that killed many thousands in the late 1990s.

11.  In April, the United Nations appealed for $218 million in emergency aid. Only one-third of that amount has been pledged.

12. According to the head of the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, who made her first visit in October, North Korea will continue to face food shortages unless its government addresses “major structural issues” and attracts investment. She also insisted that the responsibility for solving repeated food crises lay with the country’s government and its need to tackle the underlying causes of poor agricultural production.

13. Ms. Amos painted a devastating portrait of a nation with chronic malnutrition problems that have stunted the growth of much of the population. In northern parts of the country as many as 45 per cent of children under age 5 are malnourished, while nationwide the figure is one third.

The resumption of talks between the USA and North Korea on October 24-25 in Geneva has given optimism to a resumption of humanitarian aid by the international community.  In the 6-party talks, it was agreed in September 2005 that if North Korea would abandon its nuclear programs there would be economic assistance and diplomatic incentives from other parties to the six-party talks, which include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, and the United States.

In a meeting with the U.N. Secretary General in New York, on Monday November 4, South Korea’s unification minister, Yu Woo-ik, said the ROK is consideringsending humanitarian aid to North Korea through third channels such as WFP.

The Unification Ministry says South Korea stopped sending direct aid to Pyongyang in November 2010 after it accused North Korea of shelling Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans. In the past, South Korea has sent aid through the WFP, the World Health Organization and other international agencies.

North Korea: On Brink Of Starvation Or On Rise To ‘Strong And Prosperous Nation’?

9 10 2011

By Dr. Bernhard J. Seliger (World Security Network, 6 Oct. 2011)

Recent media reports about North Korea in the world news seem to be unequivocal as they depict people who live off one meal a day and are forced to sell what is left of their belongings on semi-legal markets, living by the day; crop shortfalls due to long, cold winters and other shortages are reported as well as the loss of homes and belongings due to a record downpour and floods during the summer; and on top of it all, dramatic appeals are made by the UN World Food Program not to abandon North Korea’s starving population. This resulted in a prompt reaction by the European Union and Russia sending aid deliveries, with the United States and South Korea following their example shortly thereafter – the latter of which had previously isolated North Korea due to its possession of weapons of mass destruction and its aggressive policies towards South Korea in recent years. This reality contradicts the reality depicted by domestic news reports in North Korea and reports by the North Korea news agency KNCA.
North Korea

In the past three years, their reports have repeatedly announced North Korea’s rise to a strong and prosperous country (kangsong taekuk) which will have overcome economic difficulties of the past two decades by 2012, right on time for the “Eternal President” Kim Il-Sung’s 100th anniversary, the founder of the DPRK who died in 1994. Moreover, the reports claim that North Korea’s successful rise to a military power has paved the country’s way to economic prosperity. In this regard, North Korea is not only characterized by starvation and shortages, but also by several hundred thousand new apartments which are scheduled to be built in Pyongyang – and which were in fact partially built with the help of Chinese raw materials.

North Korea is also allegedly characterized by modern Information Technology in industry (the so-called CNC computer numerical control technology, i.e. the use of computers in industry) and the set-up, or reactivation, of special economic zones at the border to China. It is North Korea’s ambitious goal to transform the special city of Rason, located in the golden triangle between China, Russia and Korea, into the “Singapore of the East”.

Nevertheless, despite dramatic appeals to recognize the supposed threat of a famine, evidence of the current situation in North Korea reveals no fundamentally different situation than in preceding years. Although there is barely any official data and although data that is published has to be analyzed prudently, satellite technology and reports by organizations that have been active in the country for years give a relatively clear picture: North Korea’s economic situation in the past two decades has been generally bad and has deteriorated since 2008, when aid deliveries, including several hundred thousand tons of fertilizer and rice, which South Korea had been delivering to North Korea for years began to be gradually almost completely halted, therefore further aggravating the food shortage. Rising food prices on the world market have rendered commercial imports from China – which had always covered part of the food shortage in the country – more difficult.

A cold winter led to large shortfalls during the winter harvest, but these shortfalls amount to only about ten percent of total harvest. This may have aggravated the difficult spring and summer periods in which almost all reserves are eaten up while the new harvest has not yet been gathered; however, a veritable famine has not been caused by that. This does not signify that there is no hunger in North Korea: the chronic malnutrition of large groups of the population is well documented. But the decisive summer harvest of last year was roughly the same as in the previous years. Similarly, the floods may have caused a lot of damage locally, but they have not fundamentally aggravated North Korea’s food shortage. And prospects for this year’s harvest are generally good.

The paradox of the diametrically opposed perceptions of the situation in North Korea dissolves when looking separately at North Korean foreign and domestic policy goals. Externally, an increasing isolation from the world community since the outbreak of the second nuclear crisis in 2002, and in particular after 2008 with the inauguration of Lee Myung-Bak’s conservative government, has become a problem for North Korea. North Korea is forced to rely increasingly on its closest ally China economically. While China indeed has interests in North Korea’s stability, North Korea had to suffer concessions with respect to its policy options due to this increasing dependence. Confrontations with South Korea did not lead to a more lenient attitude as expected by North Korea and instead led to demands by the South Korean government for an apology for the torpedo attack and the rocket attack in 2010.

Furthermore, according to some reports from North Korea, some of the architects of the country’s belligerent policy towards South Korea may even have been executed. During the Cold War, North Korea had followed a policy of “equidistance” between the Soviet Union and China, which allowed it to receive a maximum of aid deliveries from both countries. Moreover, in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, marked by a heavy famine since the beginning of the 1990s, North Korea had attempted to play off different donor countries against each other- often successfully so. North Korea’s miscalculation in intending to motivate the Obama administration in the United States to make further concessions by conducting a second nuclear test in May 2009 resulted in an equally strong rejecting attitude by South Korea, the United States and Japan and additionally increased coordination between allies which had previously been characterized by diverging goals, more than ever before.

The current charm offensive, including through increasing contact with the United States and various calls for economic aid, serves to find at least a temporary solution to the isolation. Concomitantly, aid deliveries can be used in the next year for the occasion of regime founder Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday to distribute goods to the population via the state food distribution system (PDS), which has often failed for months in the previous decades or has only functioned provisionally. This is also relevant with respect to the installation into power of Kim Jong-Un, Kim Jong-Il’s youngest son, as his successor, which has been increasingly stepped up for the past two years. Incidents such as the assembly of over a hundred thousand people in Pyongyang for a speech that depicts an armed solution against South Korea as the only remaining option seem outright grotesque, while at the same time the “hard-line” government in South Korea grants new medicine and food aid while being talked into guilt trips by the oppositional Democratic Party.

Internally, the national goal of becoming a “strong, prosperous country”, which was supposed to be accomplished by Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday, or at least in progress, according to weaker, more recent propaganda, is to be understood as the motivation for which the population has to make new concessions, while it is also to be understood as hope for change in the near future. Maoist-style labor campaigns (the “100 days campaign” and the “150 days campaign” in which all efforts were doubled) temporarily served real construction projects in Pyongyang unseen since the 1980s. A growing resignation with the economic system, especially since the failed currency reform of 2009 which dramatically accelerated inflation, as well as the obvious lack of enthusiasm concerning the succession of the ageing Kim Jong-Il despite the lack of information, compounded the necessity for economic prosperity; just as did the calls from South Korea in a “Grand Bargain” offer to North Korea to elevate its annual per capita income to 3000 USD upon the close-down of its nuclear program and the opening of the country, which is an incredibly high level of GDP per capita for North Korean citizens and would probably multiply the current per capita income.

Furthermore, another problem North Korea is facing is the increasingly difficult separation of propaganda both internally and externally. Defectors, traders and foreign visitors are bringing in more and more information and the control of news influx into the country perished along with the toleration of markets and the introduction of new legal and illegal communication systems. Around 700,000 cell phone users in North Korea’s (official) Koryolink network can no longer effectively be controlled, and consequently, the core-periphery disparity gap of information is quickly closing.

Kim Jong-Il’s journey to Russia and China in August 2011 has opened new diplomatic perspectives for North Korea. The prospective gas pipeline project from Russia to South Korea would not only be significantly lucrative, it is also a starting point for returning South Korea to the negotiating table, possibly without the need to satisfy South Korea’s demands for an apology for the sinking of the South Korea Cheonan navy corvette in which 46 sailors died, or the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong island during which four persons, including two civilians, died. In that sense, the trip was a smart strategic move; it also clearly demonstrated to the world the absolute ruler’s ability to act despite continuous health speculations since his stroke in 2008.

The card of virtual starvation which North Korea has been playing has equally been played abroad. The distribution of food provides foreign humanitarian organizations with more funds and personnel. This is a welcome occasion for the United States and South Korea, just as it is for the European Union, to escape the dead end of confrontation. There may be good reasons for that, even if it should be clear that North Korea has strategic reasons for the current charm offensive to which no fundamentally different attitude for the opening of the country is linked. This is in view of regime stability and will be prevented as much as possible. Inevitable concessions and reforms can be retracted at any point, as the policy alterations from 2005 to 2009 demonstrated. It is particularly interesting that the failed currency reform of 2009, during which a great part of working capital of the newly emerging merchant class was confiscated via ceilings on money exchange, demonstrated the limits of state policy.

In this regard, the coming year of 2012 will represent a great challenge for the North Korean regime once the promise to transform North Korea into a strong and prosperous country proves to be false. For neighboring countries, this will provide an opportunity for new political initiatives with respect to North Korea. These, however, should be prudently made. Now especially, there is a possibility to make aid offers and small but substantial changes in North Korea’s relations with its neighboring countries. This will prove to be a challenge for unification minister Ryu Woo-Ik in particular, whose nomination is depicted as a victory over his unpopular predecessor Hyun In-Taek by Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus, whose principle-based North Korea policy had troubled the North Korean regime tremendously.

Policy response

Given the situation described above, there should be a multi-layered answer to the current strategic options vis-à-vis North Korea by South Korea and its Western allies and friends. At the core must be close cooperation and coordination of policies between South Korea, the United States and Japan and, though involved only to a lesser degree, other actors like the European Union and ASEAN. Time and again North Korea has achieved diplomatic advantages by using divisions among these actors. And coordination, in particular of the core actors, also includes a strong deterrent against any military provocations and atrocities as seen in 2010.

The same is true for the internal policies of South Korea. North Korea’s “divide et impera” policy has already had successes, as recent policy initiatives by South Korea’s opposition parties in the run-up to the general elections and presidential elections in South Korea next year show, including the ultimately successful call for the resignation of unification minister Hyun. As the shock of the sinking of the Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong artillery shelling fades away, the opposition starts to blame the still freezing state of inter-Korean relations on the allegedly hostile policies of the Lee Myung-Bak government. This serves North Korea’s purposes well, but is a heavy legacy for any potential future left-wing government. A rerun of Sunshine Policy would only increase North Korea’s chances to survive without any substantial reforms.

At the same time, new opportunities for peaceful contact should be used for new policy initiatives. These initiatives could be in the fields of mutual advantage for North Korea and South Korea, such as the afforestation projects proposed early on by the Lee Myung-Bak government. International initiatives could supplement these efforts, for example in the field of green development through aid with regard to the successful introduction of the Clean Development Mechanism in North Korea. This would bring a highly transparent international climate regime to North Korea, allow technical training in an important field, and have a great positive impact on living conditions, for example through rural energy projects.

While allowing aid in the form of food-for-work in concrete projects (e.g. afforestation), it would not include indiscriminate sending of (more or less un-monitored, since un-monitorable) food aid. Last, but not least, all kind of training activities bringing North Koreans experience of the outside world and bringing knowledge into the country are invaluable to support change in the country. The window of opportunity which is opening is small, but it exists, and it should be used wisely, but without hesitation.

*Dr. Bernhard J. Seliger is resident representative of Hanns Seidel Foundation in Korea and a frequent visitor to North Korea. The author is also senior lecturer at the Institute of Research Into Culture and Economic Systems, University Witten/ Herdecke (Germany) and associate editor of the North Korean Review, the only American journal devoted to North Korean studies. In 2006 Dr. Seliger became honorary citizen of Seoul city.

Also see Dr. Bernhard Seliger’s op-ed NK’s ongoing survival calls for ‘realpolitik’ (24.08.2011)

Food Aid to North Korea

6 04 2011

(Primetime, tbs eFM Radio 101.3MHz, 29 March 2011) The UN issued a recommendation that the international community supply more than 430 thousand tons of emergency aid to more than six million North Koreans. It warns of serious food shortages in North Korea.

The US will soon issue its statement on whether to resume its food program to the North; US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry issued a statement arguing for the resumption of humanitarian food aid to the North as well. What should South Korea do at this juncture? Joining us to talk more about this issue is Dr. Leonid Petrov from The University of Sydney.

Q1. How bad do you think the situation has deteriorated since South Korea and the US stopped all food aid to North Korea since the ‘Sunshine Policy’?

LP: Between 1998 and 2008 the two South Korean administrations provided the North with unconditional aid of huge proportions. The Kim Dae-jung government delivered US$2.48 billion worth of aid, and his successor Roh Moo-hyun authorised the release of additional US$4.7 billion (of which US$1.57 billion was in cash). About 450,000 tonnes of food was delivered free of charge to North Korean granaries from the South every year from 2003 to 2007. Its distribution was almost unmonitored and no obligations of any kind were attached. Additionally, 300,000 tons of chemical fertiliser was sent to the North each year to improve its agricultural yield. Chinese shipments of food aid and trade were roughly equal to those of South Korea, and the United States provided more than US$1 billion worth of food and other humanitarian aid to North Korea.

But after 2008, when the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak came to power in Seoul, the Sunshine Policy was immediately scrapped while all economic aid to Pyongyang became directly linked to the progress in denuclearisation and democratisation of the DPRK. Since then the North Korean economy is short of the minimal target figure by 500,000 tonnes of food every year which means the welfare of approximately 6 million people is dependent upon foreign aid or the willingness of the regime to import food.

Q2. The UN is urging international food aid. The report by five organizations (Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision) describes the dire situation in North Korea. Do you think this should be resumed based on the need for humanitarian aid? Why or why not?

LP: Surely, if we want to see some 5-6 million people alive and healthy by the end of the “lean period” (April-June) the concerned governments should provide North Korea with humanitarian aid. On 25 March, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) welcomed a generous donation of US$1 million from the Government of India for its operation to reach the most vulnerable children and their mothers in the DPRK. Considering we help the flood victims in Pakistan and drought victims in Afghanistan, why not also assist the impoverished people of North Korea?

Q3. Part of the criticism concerning food aid was that it was being stored for military use while the civilian population was starving. Are these claims substantiated with evidence? Is there a way to track down who receives the aid once it is delivered to North Korea?

LP: We have to remember that the Korean War, which began in 1950, was never concluded with a proper peace agreement. Since then, both halves of Korea live in constant fear of resuming hostilities. National military service in the DPRK is mandatory and very long (up to 10 years in the Army and Air Force and even longer in the Navy). More than 1.1 million young men and women serve in the KPA without salary or wages and rely on the daily rations of free food, uniform and regiment accommodation. Many more millions are ready to be conscripted and work at government-assigned projects according to national needs. In North Korea, the Army and the People are inseparable, and by feeding the Army, the North Korean regime simply maintains the traditional food distribution system. The KPA receives, stores, protects and consumes a certain proportion of international humanitarian aid. There is no other government agency in North Korea that could do this better or more efficiently than the Army.

Q4. The United States emphasized the need to distinguish between political matters and humanitarian issues. This would seem ideal, but indeed when North Korea is denying all responsibility of sinking of the Cheonan 천안, and with no formal apology concerning the Yeonpyeong Island (연평) incident, it is difficult to ignore the political aspect. What do you think the political intentions of the United States is in (showing signs of) resuming food aid?

LP: There is still no conclusive evidence linking the sinking of the Cheonan Corvette to North Korea, however, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was clearly provoked by the South Korean side who staged military exercises in the disputed waters around the controversial Northern-Limit Line (NNL). Neither incident would have occurred if the agreements of the October 2007 Inter-Korean Summit had been implemented and the new Haeju Free Economic Zone around the Onjin Peninsular had been completed. The ‘Sunshine Policy’ prioritized economic and humanitarian cooperation over political and military considerations, and it was quite effective.

U.S. officials seem to understand the striking difference between the situation then and now and have said they will scrutinize the WFP’s report. These days the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, John Kerry, is calling for the resumption of aid to North Korea if it can be properly monitored. I agree with the Massachusetts Democrat saying that it is tempting to withhold food assistance until North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons or adopts economic reforms, but we have known since the late 1990s that Pyongyang is willing to allow its people to suffer enormously in that some 5-10% of ordinary North Koreans died before the first international food relief was received. This tragedy cannot be justified by any policy, regardless of how honorable its goal might be.

Q5. The Korean government is criticizing the UN report on North Korea’s situation, saying much of the situation could have been staged for the inspectors. On the other hand, those pushing for food aid are criticizing the Korean government, saying they are trying to escape responsibility for food aid. Of course, the North Korean government could have manipulated some aspects, but the situation in North Korea seems to be deteriorating all the same. – Do you think the report is an objective source?

LP: This year, the food crisis in North Korea is likely to be exacerbated by the result of the last year’s devastating flood, which badly damaged the economy of the Northern provinces (particularly the Sinuiju area) by washing a large layer of fertile soil from the paddocks down to the sea. The exceptionally cold winter of 2010/2011, made predictions for the new harvest rather pessimistic. The continuing outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease has already decimated the stock of cattle, buffaloes, sheep, goats, swine and other cloven-hoofed animals that become too weak to be used to plough the soil or reap harvests, suffer significant weight loss, and produce less milk. Ultimately, the climbing oil prices once again make gasoline prohibitively expensive, further undermining the chances of recovery for agriculture and public distribution system.

Even if the UN report on North Korea’s situation is prejudiced one way or another, there are objective reasons to believe that the food situation in 2011 for many North Koreans is going to be worse than it was in 2010.

Q6. The South Korean government is allowing small-scale food aid, limiting the items to those that are consumed by infants and children. Do you think this is the first step into resuming food aid by the South Korean government? Is this a wise move?

LP: In the North Korean context such limited donor policy means that the infants and children of the elite (the privileged class of Party bureaucrats) would survive, while the children of common people would suffer and have their health damaged for life. South Korean producers dump millions of tons of quality food in the sea that could bring famine relief to their brethrens in the North. I think that it would be much wiser for the ROK government to assume more active responsibility for the wellbeing of the people residing in the territories which will sooner or later return to the jurisdiction of Seoul, I mean the future unification of Korea.

Q7. North Korea is going through its third regime change, and nobody is certain what is in store for 김정은. Is there a possibility that food supplies and the alleviation of hunger will strengthen support for the North’s regime?

LP: I think that “regime change” is a wrong term. The affirmation of Kim Jong-eun as the heir apparent serves to convince the North Korean elite and the common people that no policy change should be expected in the future. The current DPRK regime will continue with the new figure-head as well as younger faces in the decision-making bodies. The dire food situation is damaging to the legitimacy of the regime, but the centenary of the birth of Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung, is approaching fast. To boost public support for the new-generation leadership the government of DPRK may try to improve its relations with the neighbors to obtain additional concessions and aid. The international community and private donors should use this opportunity to deliver food aid because it is almost certain that it will reach the most needy recipients.

Q8. Do you think food aid should be resumed at the civilian level, or should the government be leading the way? – How will food aid affect inter-Korean relations in the long run?

LP: In the South Korean context, where the National Security Law still dominates inter-Korean relations and limits contacts between the people of North and South Korea to an absolute minimum, it is impossible to expect much initiative from the people without the government’s control and leadership. The best balance between the grass-root initiative and government support was achieved during the 10 years of “Sunshine Policy”, the main principle of which was: “give first, take later”. It’s time to understand that there is no alternative to such policy, and the sooner the ROK government resumes it the brighter will be the future for Korea and Koreans.

South Korea’s humanitarian dilemma

Interview with Victor Xu, The Korea Times, 29.03.2011

…Will donors respond? The largest donors have been the U.S. and the ROK. Both have withdrawn aid and imposed draconian sanctions because of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program and military aggressiveness. Some in the ROK argue that new food aid will be diverted or siphoned off by the government, or stockpiled for use during celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the late North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung’s birth in 2012.

“Would food aid help to ensure the survival of a state whose treatment of its own citizens is among the most abysmal in the world?” asked Christopher Hill, the former U.S. chief negotiator, in a recent article. He speculated whether “denying food aid would result in a famine that the North Korean regime could not withstand.”

He predicted that “South Korea’s government will confront one of the toughest choices that any government can face: whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits ― also in terms of human lives ― that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring.”

I have visited the DPRK since the 1980s and know that the first to die are referred to in the Bible as the wretched of the earth. These are those in the remotest countryside, the prisoners in labor camps, the families that depend on a depleted public distribution system, the elderly, the women and children.

To feed or not to feed is a reasonable question to ponder. Will the ROK, and indeed the entire humanitarian community, lose sight of their moral compass? They would do well to remember the words of President Ronald Reagan, “A hungry child knows no politics.”

Victor W. Hsu is a professor at the Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management. He served as a national director for North Korea of World Vision International. He can be reached at

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More North Koreans malnourished as harsh winter leaves country short of food

28 03 2011

Tania Branigan (, Thursday 24 February 2011)

North Korean young people dance to celebrate the birthday of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang. The festive scene conceals the reality of a society increasingly unable to feed itself.  A bitter winter and rising prices have created food shortages and alarming levels of malnutrition in North Korea, five US aid agencies have warned. Earlier this month diplomatic sources told the Guardian that Pyongyang had ordered all its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid and a World Food Programme team is currently carrying out an assessment in the country.

The US organisations spent a week assessing conditions across three provinces, North Pyongan, South Pyongan and Chagang. Authorities told them a viciously cold winter had killed 50-80% of the wheat and barley planted for spring harvest, as well as potato seedlings. Rising global food prices were reportedly making it harder to import sufficient food.

The organisations – Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision – reported evidence of malnutrition and people foraging for wild grasses and herbs. They recommended emergency food assistance focusing on vulnerable groups such as children and elderly people.

Dr Leonid Petrov, an expert on North Korea at the University of Sydney, said food shortages were a “permanent phenomenon”, thanks in part to the country’s mountainous terrain and bitter winters, but had become dramatically worse in the past couple of decades.

Although generous aid from South Korea had led to major improvements following the devastating famine of the 1990s, Seoul’s recent decision to end its “sunshine policy”, a disastrous attempt at currency reform and botched economic experimentation had all taken their toll.

“The food situation is very uneven. In Pyongyang people continue to live, if not luxuriously, then relatively steadily – while on the outskirts and in the provinces there has been a sharp decrease in access to food, fuel and electricity,” added Petrov. He said in many places there appeared to be “not only a shortage of food, but a loss of faith in the cause”.

North Korean media have run several stories on “skyrocketing” food prices worldwide, suggesting official concern about the impact of inflation on public morale. Economists Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute have pointed out that food prices are rising far more quickly in the North than elsewhere.

“The gap reflects the perennial problems the socialist agriculture system has in producing adequate supply at home. But it also reflects a variety of country risks, including a rapidly depreciating exchange rate and rising import prices set in motion by Pyongyang’s own military provocations,” they wrote last week.

Separately, the Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported a claim that hundreds of people had protested in the North’s border town of Sinuiju, just across the river from the Chinese city Dandong. The newspaper cited a single source who said the incident was sparked by a crackdown on market traders.

The Guardian was unable to verify the claim, but small-scale protests by traders have been reported in the past few years. Sinuiju is thought to be less easily controlled than other areas, given its location and interaction with the outside world.

6 million North Koreans Need Food Aid

26 03 2011

WASHINGTON (AP 24 Mar. 2011) — The United Nations reported Thursday that more than 6 million North Koreans — about a quarter of the communist state’s population — are in urgent need of international food assistance.

The findings will add to pressure for the United States to resume food aid to North Korea suspended in 2009 after private groups monitoring the distribution of food were expelled. But doing so could be seen as aiding a government which has since advanced its nuclear weapons programs and had armed clashes with U.S. ally South Korea.

In its report, the result of an assessment conducted in February and March, the U.N. said that North Korea has suffered a series of shocks including summer floods and then a harsh winter, “leaving the country highly vulnerable to a food crisis.” It said the worst affected include children, women and the elderly, and recommended providing 430,000 metric tons of food aid.

North Korea’s public distribution system will run out of food at the beginning of the “lean season” that runs between May and July, between spring and fall harvests. This would “substantially increase the risk of malnutrition and other diseases,” the report said.

Three U.N. agencies — the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and UNICEF — conducted the assessment at North Korea’s request. They visited 40 counties in nine of the country’s 11 provinces. Five nongovernment U.S. aid agencies who visited the North last month reported severe food shortages and alarming malnutrition among children.

The U.S. says it is considering resuming food aid to the North, which has had chronic problems in feeding its people since its assistance from the former Soviet Union ended. The country suffered famine in the mid-1990s in which at least hundreds of thousands are believed to have died.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said Thursday the results of the U.N. assessment were “dire” and called for resumption of aid if it could be properly monitored. “It is tempting to withhold food assistance until North Korea abandons its pursuit of nuclear weapons or adopts economic reforms. But the North demonstrated during the famine in the mid-to-late 1990s, in which an estimated 5-10 percent of ordinary North Koreans died, that it is willing to allow its people to suffer enormously,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement.

International donors will be concerned that any food aid not be redirected from civilians to North Korea’s powerful military…

Need to curb Foot-and Mouth disease in DPR Korea: UN

New York, Mar 25 : Around USD 1 million of equipment and vaccines are urgently needed to help stem outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where farm animals are crucial to food security, the United Nations warned on Thursday.

Such efforts need to be followed by a more prolonged and concerted effort to modernize veterinary services in the country, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in anews release following a joint mission it made with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) mission at the Government’s request earlier this month.

FMD does not pose a direct health threat to humans, but affected animals become too weak to be used to plough the soil or reap harvests, suffer significant weight loss, and produce less milk. Many animals are dying from the highly contagious disease, which affects cattle, buffaloes, sheep, goats, swine and other cloven-hoofed animals and spreads through body fluids that can contaminate clothing, crates, truck beds and hay.

The mission found that DPRK’s capacity to detect and contain FMD needs significant strengthening, in particular in bio-security measures and improving laboratory infrastructure and capacity. Outbreaks have been reported in eight of the 13 provinces in DPRK, which has a livestock population of about 577,000 cattle, 2.2 million pigs and 3.5 million goats.

To bring the situation under control, the mission recommended thorough surveillance to locate and map disease clusters; protecting unaffected farms through movement controls and bio-security measures; adequate sampling to correctly identify the virus strain or strains involved; and strategic use of the appropriate vaccines to contain and isolate disease clusters.

The FAO-OIE mission visited several collective farms, the national veterinary laboratory and various animal health field stations, providing guidance on taking and handling FMD samples. Only by accurately typing the virus or viruses involved in the outbreaks will it be possible to identify the most effective vaccine to use against it, FAO said…