North Korea Tightening Its Restrictions on Markets, Food Aid

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.

"Slowly but surely, plans to close all general markets are becoming a reality," according to a report this month from Good Friends, a Buddhist charity that says it has informants in North Korea. "No apparent steps are being taken by the government to address growing food shortages that are only being exacerbated by prohibitions against small-plot farming and the sale of grain in markets."

North Korea consistently fails to produce enough food to feed its 23.5 million people. To fill the gap, it grudgingly depends on donations of about a million tons of food a year from South Korea, the United States, China and other international donors.

With the possible exception of China, which keeps secret the amount of food it gives to Pyongyang, those donations are fast drying up.

South Korea has suspended deliveries of food and fertilizer until Pyongyang agrees to allow independent monitoring of where aid goes and who benefits from it. Pyongyang declines to do so.

The United States last year pledged half a million tons of food, which was to be delivered by the WFP and a consortium of five American aid groups.

But delivery of most of the grain was held up by squabbles over monitoring, and Pyongyang canceled the entire deal in March, ordering U.S. aid groups out of the country.

It also changed the rules for monitoring U.N. food distribution, demanding seven days' notice before it allows WFP monitors to inspect a food warehouse or distribution site. North Korea had agreed last year to 24 hours' notice. In addition, Korean-speaking monitors, whom the government had allowed to work for the WFP inside North Korea, have been asked to leave.

Last month, Pyongyang also ordered the WFP and the U.N. Children's Fund out of Ryanggang province, which borders China and is one of the poorest parts of North Korea, with traditionally high rates of underweight and stunted infants. No explanation was given.

With the coming of summer, North Korea has entered its agricultural "lean season," a period of nutritional hardship when stocks from last year's crop run low and the fall harvest is still months away. In response, the government has recently cut food rations through its public distribution system, according to U.N. officials.

For more than a decade, private markets and food aid have been buffers against severe malnutrition and famine in North Korea. But the buffers only work when individuals have cash to buy food and when aid is allowed into the country. There is widespread concern among aid agencies and nongovernmental organizations that Pyongyang's policies are raising the risk of a food emergency, especially if floods destroy much of the fall harvest, as often happens in North Korea.

"People couldn't care less about nuclear tests or missiles or succession," said Ishimaru, the editor with a network of informants in North Korea. "To live is all they can think about."

Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.

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