At the Heart of North Korea's Troubles, an Intractable Hunger Crisis

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 6, 2009

SEOUL -- Behind the long-range missile it is preparing to launch and the stockpile of plutonium it claims to have "weaponized," North Korea has an embarrassing and insoluble weakness.

Under the leadership of Kim Jong Il, the country cannot feed its people. Perennially dependent on food aid, North Korea has become a truculent ward of the wealthy countries it threatens. It is the world's first nuclear-armed, missile-wielding beggar -- a particularly intricate challenge for the Obama administration as it begins to formulate a foreign policy.

The "eating problem," as it is often called in North Korea, has eroded Kim's authority, damaged a decade of improved relations between the two Koreas and stunted the bodies and minds of millions of North Koreans. Teenage boys fleeing the North in the past decade are on average five inches shorter and weigh 25 pounds less than boys growing up in the South, according to measurements taken at a settlement center for defectors in South Korea.

Mental retardation caused by malnutrition will disqualify about a quarter of potential military conscripts in North Korea, according to a December report by the National Intelligence Council, a research institution that is part of the U.S. intelligence community. The report said hunger-caused intellectual disabilities among the young are likely to cripple economic growth, even if the country opens to the outside world or unites with the South.

"Baby homes, children homes and boarding schools seem to be in a dire state," one aid worker wrote in a diary last year after touring government institutions for children in a northern province. "Access to food is limited, and children are both socially and physiologically vulnerable."

Hunger and handouts explain North Korea's recent round of fist-shaking against South Korea, which included the military's threat to adopt an "all-out confrontational posture." After a decade of blank-check aid, Seoul decided last year to stop giving food and fertilizer to the North unless it can monitor who the beneficiaries are.

To secure donated food from the West, Kim has had to open his shuttered state to foreign aid experts who have mapped a pernicious pattern of malnutrition in which access to food depends, in many ways, on geographical and political proximity to the ruling elite in the capital, Pyongyang.

Kim is also struggling -- and by many accounts failing -- to contain an outbreak of capitalism and profiteering that food shortages and food aid have helped spread. Since famine killed perhaps a million North Koreans in the mid-1990s, a sprawling, unruly and often corrupt network of private markets has replaced the government as the prime distributor of food.

"People on the outside don't realize it, but North Korea right now is in a drastic state of change," said Jiro Ishimaru, who edits Rimjingang, a journal of reports, photos and videos smuggled out of North Korea by anonymous eyewitnesses.

The government does not release statistics about the markets, and nearly all of them are off-limits to foreigners. But according to estimates by outside economists with access to North Korean and U.N. food data, at least half the calories consumed by the population come from food sold in markets. And nearly 80 percent of household income in North Korea derives from buying and selling in the markets, according to a study last year in the Seoul Journal of Economics.

Inside North Korea, people with trading savvy can now get plenty to eat. But hunger remains widespread. About 37 percent of the population will require food assistance in the coming year, according to a U.N. food assessment in December, and a World Food Program official said the rate of stunting among children younger than 6 has changed little in the past five years.

Human Waste Manure

This winter, North Koreans have been told to achieve food self-sufficiency by their own efforts. As part of a government-ordered mass mobilization, they are making toibee, a fertilizer in which ash is mixed with their own excrement.

Frozen human waste is being chipped out of public toilets in cities and towns across the country. Every factory, public enterprise and neighborhood unit has been ordered to produce two tons of toibee, according to Good Friends, a Buddhist charity with informants in North Korea. In the spring, it will be dried in the open air before being transported to state farms.

Barring a miracle, it won't work.

North Korea needs to produce about 5.5 million tons of rice and cereal grain to feed its 23.5 million people. Nearly every year, it falls short, usually by about a million tons. The country lacks arable land, denies incentives to farmers and cannot afford fuel or modern machinery. It has also lost access to the modern chemical fertilizers on which it had become unusually dependent and which organic fertilizers cannot realistically replace.

To fill the shortfall, the Communist government has had no choice but to unlock its gates and let in the foreign technocrats who manage food donations.

In the 14 years since the famine first attracted international aid, a growing contingent of nutritionists, economists and agriculture experts has been intermittently allowed -- with minders in tow -- to inspect the North Korean countryside. Despite government efforts to limit their numbers and restrict their access, they have conducted thousands of interviews and built up a detailed portrait about how people live, especially those who are most in need of food.

For North Koreans with cash, private markets offer food in abundance, along with Chinese-made TVs, DVD players and refrigerators. But aid workers found last year that nutrition in state-run institutions for children and the elderly has not improved in the past decade.

"The children looked very sad, very emaciated, very pathetic," said one aid expert who had visited many schools and orphanages.

Four nutrition surveys conducted between 1998 and 2004 by the government, UNICEF and the World Food Program found that wasting, a symptom of severe malnutrition, was three to four times more prevalent in remote provinces than in Pyongyang. Judging from a U.N. food assessment last fall, that pattern persists. Since the 1950s, the government has classified citizens based on its assessment of their political reliability and sent those it deemed untrustworthy to remote corners of the country.

Although North Korea is often called the last bastion of Stalinism, it is better understood as a quasi-feudal police state where bloodlines dictate access to the best schools, jobs and food.

Service in the military was for decades a way for children from the least-favored bloodlines to escape hunger. But in recent years, food shortages have also affected low-ranking soldiers, said Kwon Tae-jin, a frequent visitor to the North and director of North Korea agriculture studies at the Seoul-based Korea Rural Economic Institute, which is funded by South Korea.

During a severe pre-harvest food shortage last summer, many soldiers received only two meals a day, were visibly malnourished and scavenged for food by stealing crops from state farms, he said. Troops in the city of Kangdong, about 18 miles east of Pyongyang, were ordered to stop training to conserve energy, according to a photographer who smuggled out photos of emaciated soldiers.

"The military was popular for kids so they wouldn't starve," Kwon said. "Now they feel it is better to make money in the market."

The Rise of Private Markets

Barter trade ran wild in North Korea in the mid-1990s, at the height of the famine. It was a panicked response to the government's failure to supply food.

The immediate trigger for the famine was flooding in 1995. But the centrally planned economy had been in free fall since 1990-91, when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off subsidies. Without free fuel for its aging factories and without a guaranteed market for its often shoddy goods, North Korea came unglued.

Kim Jong Il has explained some of what happened. "When the state was unable to supply food efficiently, people began to abandon their jobs and began searching for ways to acquire personal gains," he said in 2004.

In the temporary vacuum of state authority that accompanied the chaos of the famine years, bartering spawned a scruffy network of private markets. By the time Kim's government reasserted control at the end of the decade, small-town farmers markets, street-corner hawkers, roadside vendors and traders with stalls in big-city markets were keeping millions of North Koreans alive.

By 2002, Kim had approved limited reforms that allowed some of the traders to be licensed -- de facto recognition that they could provide what his government could not.

"Markets broke the government's ability to control the population using food," said Andrew S. Natsios, a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development and author of a book about the famine.

Because private traders needed to move goods, elites cashed in by creating a transportation system, Ishimaru said. His reporters have smuggled out stories about military and police officials buying secondhand buses from China and establishing intercity bus routes for traders.

Stolen food aid helped prime the pump for market growth. Refugees from North Korea have told authorities in Seoul for years that donated food is widely available in private markets, said Lee Jong-joo, director of humanitarian assistance at South Korea's Ministry of Unification.

About 30 percent of international aid is diverted by North Korean elites and finds its way into markets, according to Marcus Noland, a Washington-based specialist on food and famine in North Korea.

U.N. officials do not dispute that estimate. Monitoring food distribution in North Korea is uniquely difficult, they say. Unlike any other aid recipient in the world, Kim's government demands sole responsibility for transporting and delivering donated food. Bureaucrats and military officers use their connections and government vehicles to fill market stalls with diverted food aid.

"Aid created a situation that gave powerful forces and institutions in the North Korean government an interest in seeing markets develop," Noland said. "If you gain physical control over aid that you receive for free, you can reap astronomical profits -- but only if you could sell it. It was unintended, but diverted food aid acted as a lubricant to the development of the market."

'Genie Is Out of the Bottle'

Kim has tried to throttle the markets, which he blames for "giving rise to egotism and collapsing the social order of the classless society." But their importance in filling North Korean stomachs continues to grow.

"Kim Jong Il orders police to restrict the markets, but they don't always do what they are told," said Ishimaru, the editor whose journal documents daily life in the North. "So many police and other authorities are making money."

The government recently launched another of its periodic efforts to contain the markets, restrict their hours, limit what they sell, chase vendors off streets and halt unauthorized traffic of goods and people across the Chinese border. The measures have helped raise food prices, thinned profits and increased the cost of bribing border guards.

An order that prohibited women younger than 50 from working in markets was rescinded after it triggered clashes between female traders and police. Still, women must be at least 40, although many who are younger install their grandmothers as window-dressing in market stalls while they seek out buyers, Ishimaru said. Men are banned from selling in the markets.

Kim presides over a police state that tolerates no political opposition and keeps up to 200,000 people in political prison camps. His security apparatus could, if he gave the order, shut down the markets. But even in police states, people must eat -- and markets feed North Koreans while lining the pockets of the elite.

"The genie is out of the bottle," said a senior U.N. official with long experience in North Korea. "Putting it back in would cause such widespread economic disruption and increased vulnerability to hunger that it would be crazy to try."

The Politics of Food Aid

North Korea's million-ton food gap was filled in recent years by South Korea as part of a bid to ease tension on the Korean Peninsula.

The Seoul government gave a half-million tons of food annually, along with enough fertilizer to grow another half-million tons. Unlike the U.N. World Food Program and other international donors, which have a policy of "no access, no food," South Korea did not monitor who ate the food it gave. But last year, South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, changed the rules.

"We have decided to monitor and secure delivery of food using the World Food Program procedures as our benchmark," said Lee Jong-joo, the humanitarian assistance chief in Seoul. "Unfortunately, we have had no dialogue whatsoever on these new conditions with North Korea."

North Korea, instead, got mad. It canceled military agreements and moved a long-range missile toward a launch center. Behind the anger is the food gap. Despite an unusually good harvest last fall, a U.N. food assessment in December found that more than a third of the population will need food aid this year.

With South Korea on the sidelines, the United States stepped in. Last May, it pledged a half-million tons of food, 80 percent of which was to be distributed by the World Food Program.

That pledge, though, has become ensnarled in North Korea's complex relationship with the United States. Pyongyang preaches anti-Americanism but is eager to establish diplomatic relations and trade with Washington. And while then-President George W. Bush once called North Korea part of an "axis of evil," the U.S. government has been by far the most generous single donor to the country since its famine.

The main sticking point in U.S. deliveries for the World Food Program is a dispute over the language spoken by food monitors. The North had long refused to allow monitors fluent in Korean, but last year it signed an agreement stipulating "no limit" on Korean speakers, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because negotiations continue.

The United States insists that 12 Korean speakers join the U.N. feeding operation. Only three have been allowed.

The deadlock, which has dragged on into the Obama administration, triggered a U.S. decision in September to halt food deliveries to the World Food Program. Lacking food, the agency has shut down most of its feeding operation, although deliveries continue through a consortium of U.S. charities working in two provinces.

About 4.5 million people stopped receiving food aid in December, and rations for another 1.8 million people, most of them children, have been halved. They go hungry as North Korea and the United States bicker over how -- and in what language -- free food is to be handed over.

Special correspondents Stella Kim and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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