Ballistic Blackmail?

3 04 2012

(John Larkin, “Asia 360: News in Context” 30 March 2012) To the outside world, North Korea’s latest diplomatic provocation is a puzzling reversal, to say the least. As a by-product of Pyongyang’s ruthless pursuit of regime survival however, it just might make perfect sense.

Less than three weeks after signing a deal with the United States to suspend nuclear and missile programmes, Pyongyang put the pact at risk by announcing a plan to launch a satellite that most observers believe amounts to a missile in the making.

Under the February 29 deal, Pyongyang agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and long-range missile tests, as well as allow inspections of nuclear facilities, in exchange for 240,000 tonnes of food aid over the next year. Assuming the launch goes ahead, that deal appears to be a dead letter. Why would Pyongyang agree to freeze its weapons programmes in return for a mountain of food aid, only to deliberately wreck the pact within days?

“It doesn’t sound logical or consistent,” says Leonid Petrov, a Korea specialist at Sydney University. “But North Korea has its own logic.” Driving Pyongyang’s logic is the paramount importance of regime survival. Faced with the choice of feeding its hungry people or flexing a new military muscle to bolster domestic support, Pyongyang will opt for the latter every time, say North Korea watchers.

The launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite is scheduled to happen between April 12 and April 16 — during mass festivities to commemorate the centenary of North Korea’s revered founder Kim Il-sung. Pyongyang claims the satellite is a peaceful initiative justified under the Outer Space Treaty, which codifies the use of space under international law.

The rest of the world, even its ally China, believes the ballistic technology can also be used for missile development and therefore violates two UN Security Council resolutions. All of North Korea’s major neighbours, and the UN, have denounced the launch plan. But Pyongyang has some good reasons to ignore the outrage.

North Korea’s leadership has promised that 2012 will be the year the nation emerges as kangsongdaeguk: strong and mighty. Kim Jong-un is under pressure to deliver appropriate fireworks on April 15. He plans to spend US$2 billion, a third of North Korea’s total annual budget, on the centennial celebrations, according to an estimate published by South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

“This is like a holy day in North Korea, a day to celebrate a strong and mighty nation,” says Kongdan Oh, an East Asia specialist at the Institute for Defence Analyses in Washington. “What better way to do that than launch a rocket using ballistic technology?”

Pyongyang looks willing to sacrifice a closer relationship with the US, supposedly one of its top foreign policy goals, at the altar of regime security. “US relations can wait five, or even 10 years,” says Petrov. The question is whether Pyongyang’s volte-face was premeditated. If it was, says Petrov, the calculus may have been to hope that the US takes the line that humanitarian assistance is apolitical, and delivers the food aid anyway.

Even if Washington retracts the food aid, Pyongyang can revert to its time-honoured tactic of accusing the US of pursuing a hostile policy, then blame it for the inevitable escalation in security tensions. Adding credence to this view is the nature of the food aid. The brains at Pyongyang probably calculate that it would not lose much as the aid comprises mostly high-nutrition biscuits destined for women and children rather than the Korean People Army — a crucial support pillar for the regime.

Symbolism matters in Pyongyang. While a satellite launch will not put food into bellies, it will help to bracket the younger Kim with his grandfather Kim Il Sung, thereby sanctifying his stewardship. The satellite’s name, Kwangmyongsong, means right shining star, an oft-employed euphemism for the elder Kim. “There’s a lot of symbolism to this launch,” said Petrov of Sydney University. “Mysticism is an important part of this as it will distract people from the realities of their harsh lives.”

One intriguing theory is that the sudden back-pedalling from the conciliatory food aid agreement reflects fractures within Pyongyang’s ruling echelon, with hardliners vetoing reformists who framed the February 29 deal. “The situation then appears to be two different groups of elites, with two different intentions,” Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea specialist at Ulsan University in South Korea, wrote recently in the Pyongyang-watching blog 38 North.

But with Pyongyang’s machinations and motives as opaque as ever, the real question is how the US and, possibly, the UN Security Council will react to this latest affront. Pyongyang’s decision to launch from the west coast rather than the eastern pad used in two previous failed launches, means the rocket is not likely to fly over Japan. This might be enough to prevent a UN Security Council sanction.

“I don’t think that they will face any significant penalties,” said Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “While the Chinese are reportedly displeased, it’s hard to imagine them implementing tougher sanctions.” Perhaps the clearest takeaway from this morass of conflicting agendas is the difficulty of negotiating with a nation that refuses to abide by the traditional norms of diplomacy.

Yet again, the US finds itself snookered by Pyongyang. If it delivers the food aid as promised, it will stand accused of caving in to ballistic blackmail. Yet if it withdraws the aid, Pyongyang will happily pocket another win, using Washington’s “hostile” policy to justify its continued possession of missile and nuclear weaponry.

As world leaders gathered in Seoul for a summit on nuclear security this week, North Korea insisted that it would go ahead with the launch, calling it “a legitimate right of a sovereign state”. European Union leaders expressed “grave concern” at North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programmes, and urged Pyongyang to scrap the launch. Japan also used the summit to call on Pyongyang to show restraint.

Washington’s next step will be crucial to determining how the imbroglio will play out. Most analysts expect it to retract food aid, which could hand the initiative to Pyongyang.

North Korea could conceivably invite nuclear inspectors into the country, then kick them out on the basis the US did not provide promised food assistance, said Victor Cha, a senior advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It would be hogwash, but all of a sudden we’d look like the bad guys,” said Cha. “How did we get ourselves into this situation?”

Dialogue, food aid for N. Korea needed: Rep. Manzullo

4 01 2012

(by Lee Chi-dong, WASHINGTON, Dec. 18, 2011 Yonhap) A senior U.S. congressman expressed support for the shipment of food aid to hunger-stricken North Korean people and also stressed the need for continued dialogue with the communist regime. Rep. Donald Manzullo, a Republican from Illinois who leads the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, questioned the effectiveness of further sanctions on Pyongyang.

“We have to continue talking, but also I don’t know how many more sanctions we can have on North Korea than we have now, aside from a blockade,” he said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency at his office. It was the 10-term lawmaker’s first interview with Korean media. He is known for his efforts to bolster the alliance between Seoul and Washington. He said that after decades of fierce debates, the North Korea issue has drawn bipartisan solidarity.

“It’s nonpolitical in Washington, our attitude and the actions we take toward North Korea, which is sort of interesting because in Washington almost everything is political. But when it comes to this, nobody is criticizing the president for not doing more or taking another approach on it,” he said.

He said there is basically no difference between the Bush administration’s policy on Pyongyang and that of the Obama government. “There is a time to negotiate and a time to stand back,” he said. That is why, he said, North Korea is not a topic in television debates among the Republican Party’s presidential hopefuls. “The reason they don’t talk about it as an issue is that everybody sort of agrees on the same strategy,” he said.

Manzullo, who has a very conservative voting record, said he backs food aid for North Korea as long as the transparency of distributions is guaranteed. “We just want to make sure that if American food goes there or dollars to buy food, that it gets into the hands of the people who need it. That’s always been a problem,” he said.

His comments came as the U.S. and North Korea had working-level talks in Beijing last week to discuss the terms of possible food aid, which the U.S. government formally calls “nutritional assistance.” The North hopes for rice but the U.S., worried that it may be diverted into the military, wants to send more perishable items such as formula, biscuits and instant noodles, according to diplomatic sources. The representative said it is a matter that has to be determined by the governments of the two sides.

On Iran, he strongly called for South Korea to cut trade with the Middle Eastern country to join the U.S. move to toughen sanctions on it. South Korea imports about 9 percent of its crude oil from Iran. Announcing a set of new sanctions against Iran on Friday, Seoul did not touch on oil imports. “Get the oil from somewhere else. And whatever South Korea can do they should do,” he said, adding it’s “ironic” that South Korea, seeking to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, would not take the same tack with Iran.

He said he does not expect a major change in the U.S. military presence on the peninsula despite defense budget cuts. The U.S. has around 28,000 troops in South Korea. “I hear no talk at all in Washington that with the defense cutback that there is going to be any change in our present troop levels in South Korea,” he said. “I don’t see that happening.”

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

See the full text of this article here…

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…

Undercover “Journalism” in the DPRK

19 10 2010

David McNeill_The Independent(by Tad Farrell , October 19, 2010) As most people are aware, Western journalists are not typically welcome in North Korea. The case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling last year was a good example of what can happen to those too eager for an NK scoop.

But that didn’t stop David McNeill of London’s ‘The Independent’ travelling to the DPRK just two weeks ago, ostensibly as a tourist attending the Pyongyang International Film Festival, but most likely there to try and cover the impeding Party Congress, initially rumoured to be starting around the same time.  He wasn’t the first reporter to enter the country on a tourist visa, and he won’t be the last.   But one thing is for sure, 0 Comments and 0 Reactions is a classic example of the hyperbolic and sensationalist approach to North Korea reporting that is standard in mainstream media –  a standard where fact-checking and normally rigid editorial standards go right out of the window.

McNeill starts his tourist ‘exposé’ by explaining that just behind the boulevards of Pyongyang, “stories abound of poverty and malnutrition.” The reality?  Well, as in any other capital city, differences do exist between the showcase boulevards and less well developed back streets.  However, this qualitative difference does not mean those living in the back streets are thus starving or living in abject poverty.  No, those living in Pyongyang’s backstreets are living in relative luxury to the rest of the country – where McNeill should have gone if he wanted to prove that yes, North Korea is a poor country.

McNeill goes on to describe his guides as treating visitors “like antibodies around a virus, hustling them from one approved site to the next and isolating them in the hotel – dubbed Alcatraz because it’s built on an island”. But many of the guides are extremely friendly and inquisitive people – who, if you have an amenable character, will soon join you for beers, talk about their personal lives, and be as flexible as possible with regards to modifying itineraries.  Sure, you might not enjoy the freedoms associated with a weekend jaunt to Paris, but if that’s what you want, then Paris awaits.  And although the Yanggakdo Hotel is indeed located on an island, visitors are perfectly welcome to stay at the Koryo Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, just opposite a main road lined with shops and restaurants (open to tourists too).

Obviously distressed by the fact that the Party Congress wasn’t going to coincide with his visit, Mr. McNeill decided to do the next best thing and go with a colleague for an unescorted stroll around Pyongyang – for what better way to “see beyond the façade”?   And so at dawn McNeill set off.  After walking for more than two hours, McNeill remarks that in the DPRK, “modern life is stripped bare – no iPods, jeans, T-shirts or sneakers – which are banned as foreign affectations…[where] mobile phones are as rare as sparrows in winter”.

While iPods might well be rare, mobile telephones are becoming increasingly commonplace in Pyongyang, with over 250,000 units now sold in the DPRK and a network that spans the length of the country.  And although that’s a relatively low number of phones for a population of 23 million, it is nevertheless clear that not just the elite possess them.   In terms of McNeill’s fashion observations, Simon Cockerell from Koryo Tours points out, “loads of people wear sneakers, most wear leather shoes, they cost the same, this is nothing more than a choice, jeans of course are rare there – although you do see them being worn, and now some Chinese traders bring them in for sale at the markets”.  To suggest these items are illegal is simply incorrect, merely serving to perpetuate the same old impressions of the North.

Having dwelled on the lack of consumer goods visible seen during his 7am stroll, McNeill then describes his walk through the backstreets, where “roads were potholed, the people scruffier and more sullen, [with] some appearing to live in slum-like conditions”. Assuming he had been kept away from the many HuTongs of Beijing (where he undoubtedly started his visit), one can appreciate that witnessing such scenes in a capital city must have very well felt newsworthy for Mr. McNeill.  But more was to come.

After rounding a backstreet, McNeill then explains how he “came across a group of maybe 200, huddled around a makeshift street market” – the first sign that even in Pyongyang, “the country’s state-controlled distribution system is shot to pieces”. Describing the markets as “illegal” in North Korea, McNeill describes the angry reaction of customers when he pulls out his camera to snap them – as if on safari in Kenya.  When a “man in a scruffy army uniform demanded the cameras”, McNeill’s reaction is to try and run away – around the corner and into a “phalanx of green uniforms – a local guard-post”. And so he and his Times of London colleague were therefore ‘caught’, with the scoop being brought to a premature end.  Cameras confiscated, they were escorted back to the hotel where guide Mr. Cha was waiting, shocked to hear of what had happened.  A disaster in investigative journalism coupled with a healthy dose of misreporting.

Simon Cockerell explains, “The market isn’t a secret and people don’t get in trouble for trading there, its clearly obvious to anyone looking at it and the sellers in the streets around it too are also there legitimately.  Foreigners working in Pyongyang can go to the markets as well”.  But regardless of the markets legality, what reaction did McNeill expect to receive when pulling out his camera to snap its customers?  That the Koreans stop and pose for him, or perhaps, that he be showered with rose petals?

Back at the hotel McNeill ends his ‘exposé’ by describing a ‘tearful’ Mr. Cha and the consequences of his unescorted walk – the writing of a letter of apology and the confiscation of his camera memory cards.  Unfortunately this time, for McNeill, no high-ranking British official would be flying to Pyongyang to secure his release.

In summary, all McNeill’s “exposé” really confirms is that North Korea is a poor country with an authoritarian government.  But didn’t we know that already?  When travelling beyond Pyongyang as a tourist it soon becomes evident that the country is far from equally developed.  There are ample opportunities to see real poverty and hunger – if that’s what you are looking for.  As you travel to towns like Wonson, Kaesong and Hamhung, the tour guides most likely won’t be pointing out to the run-down villages, shabby markets, or hungry looking people – but if you look, you will see them.  In reality, these things are not the state secrets that many in the mainstream media suggest North Korea is hiding from its tourists.  Its just the North Korean tourist agency doesn’t like to draw attention to them.   As guides in Washington D.C will keep tourists away from its many poverty-stricken areas, the objective of North Korea’s tourist company is unremarkably the same.

See the comments here…

Secret market exposes North Korea food shortages

27 09 2010

NK backyard market_2010Richard Lloyd Parry (The Times, 27 September 2010) Days before the beginning of an historic leadership conference in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, The Times has uncovered a secret food market that reveals the failure of the regime of Kim Jong Il to feed his people.

Apart from a few strictly controlled official markets, private enterprise is illegal in North Korea, a Stalinist state where agriculture is collectivised and where the Government claims to provide for the needs of all its citizens through a public distribution system…

See the full text of the article here…


18 06 2010

(IFES NK Brief No. 10-06-17) As North Korea’s food shortages worsen and reports of starvation continue to grow, the Workers’ Party of Korea have acknowledged the failure of the central food ration program. Since the end of May, the Party has permitted the operation of 24-hour markets, and the regime has ordered the people of the North to provide for themselves.

The human rights organization Good Friends reported this move on June 14. According to Good Friends, the Workers’ Party organization and guidance bureau handed down an order on May 26 titled ‘Relating to Korea’s Current Food Situation’ that allowed markets to stay open and ordered North Koreans to purchase their own food. This order, recognizing that the food shortages in the North have continued to worsen over the last six months, since the failed attempts at currency reform, acknowledged the difficulty of providing government food rations. It calls on those who were receiving rations to now feed themselves, while also calling on the Party, Cabinet, security forces and other relevant government agencies to come up with necessary countermeasures. Now, authorities officially allow the 24-hour operation of markets, something that most had already tacitly permitted, and encourage individuals, even those not working in trading companies, to actively import goods from China.

It has been reported that government food rations to all regions and all classes of society, even to those in Pyongyang, were suspended in April. The last distribution of food was a 20-day supply provided to each North Korean on April 15, the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. Because of the difficulty of travelling to markets, the suspension of rations caused many in farming communities to starve to death. When Kim Jong Il’s recent visit to China failed to secure expected food aid, the Workers’ Party had no choice but to hand down the ‘May 26 Party Decree’. While the suspension of rations has considerably extended the economic independence of North Korean people, the regime has significantly stepped up other forms of control over society. Public security officers have begun confiscating knives, saws and other potential weapons over 9 centimeters long in an effort to stem murder and other violent crimes. Additionally, state security officials are cracking down on forcefully resettling some residents of the age most likely to defect, while sending to prison those thought to have contacted relatives in South Korea.

According to Daily NK, North Korean security officials are pushing trading companies to continue trading with China, while calling on Chinese businesses to provide food aid. It also appears that North Korean customs inspections along the Tumen River have been considerably eased, and there is no real attempt to identify the origin or intended use of food imported from China. Sinheung Trading Company has asked Chinese partners investing in the North to send flour, corn and other foodstuffs. The Sinheung Trading Company is operated by the Ministry of State Security, and is responsible for earning the ministry foreign capital. It appears that food acquisition is now a matter of national security, as North Korea is expecting South Korea and the rest of the international community to economically isolate the country.