Amid Missile Tests, North Korea Increases Restrictions at Home

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TOKYO -- As it noisily goads the outside world with missiles and a nuclear test, North Korea is quietly tightening screws at home.

State controls over the lives of North Koreans have become more onerous this year, and operations of international aid agencies have been shackled. The government of Kim Jong Il is moving aggressively to reel in private markets by limiting what they can sell, reducing their hours of operation and shutting some down, according to reports from several organizations with informants inside the shuttered communist state.

"Control of the market is now so tight that people are getting one-third to half the cash income they had before," said Jiro Ishimaru, who edits Rimjingang, a journal of reports, photos and videos smuggled out of North Korea by anonymous eyewitnesses. "Many people cannot afford food on sale in the markets."

Last month, North Korea rolled back the U.N. World Food Program's capacity to monitor where international food aid is distributed and who receives it. Pyongyang also slashed the WFP's geographical reach inside the country, cutting the number of counties where it can operate from 131 to 57. In the spring, the government abruptly canceled a deal to accept hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid from the U.S. government.

The cuts come during a year in which the United Nations estimates that 37 percent of North Koreans will require food aid. WFP officials said they are able to deliver about a tenth of the 45,000 tons of food a month needed to avert severe malnutrition.

"On top of an already precarious nutritional situation, this is very alarming to us," said Lena Savelli, a Beijing-based spokeswoman for the WFP.

The backdrop for market and food-aid restrictions -- as well as for this year's steady rumble of military provocations -- is an apparent changing of the dictatorial guard in Pyongyang.

Kim, who inherited his absolute control of North Korea from his father, is 67 and looks unwell after suffering a stroke in August. South Korean media also reported this week that Kim may be suffering from pancreatic cancer. He has chosen his 26-year-old third son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him eventually, according to South Korea's intelligence agency.

To enforce hereditary succession in a communist state, analysts said, the Kim dynasty needs to project military strength abroad while maintaining strict control at home.

Unruly private markets have been an increasing challenge to state control since the mid-1990s, when famine killed perhaps a million people and the government's system of food distribution fell apart. The government had little choice then but to tolerate farmers markets as safety valves against starvation and to permit foreign donors into the country to hand out food.

Markets have since become the country's principal network for distributing food and nearly everything else, including a flood of Chinese-made DVD players, televisions, MP3 players and other consumer electronics that have given North Koreans new information about how the rest of world lives.

Always suspicious of markets, the government has periodically cracked down on them, banning small-plot private farms, chasing vendors off the streets and requiring that some goods be sold only in state-owned stores. In the past few months, however, enforcement has reportedly become far tougher and more consistent.

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