North Korea’s food crisis has been ongoing for some time now. When the World Food Program(WFP) released its report on North Korea’s food security in March and called for emergency food aid for the country, the issue of humanitarian aid came to the forefront of international discussion. However, this is not an entirely new situation. The problem has been horizon since the international community first became involved in humanitarian assistance for North Korea.
Recently, new trends relating to North Korea’s food security have emerged. This has led to debates regarding the proper analysis of the current situation. One analysis focuses on the decline of market food prices moving towards equilibrium. Another analysis focuses on the full out effort by the North Korean authorities to secure foreign aid.
Commenting on the decline of market food prices to equilibrium, some South Korean critics have said that as it is generally known that shortages lead to price hikes, the fact that food prices in North Korea are declining show that North Korea is not actually in a crisis. While this assessment is not wrong, interpreting recent market data from North Korea requires caution.
First of all, the decline in North Korea’s exchange rate could have been a factor in driving down market prices. Secondly, the supply of food could have risen temporarily through illegal trading or siphoning, causing this decline in food prices. Lastly, while a decline in food prices generally allows for the easier procurement of food in the market, the opportunities are not equally provided for all sectors of the North Korean hierarchy.
According to the renowned economist Amartya K. Sen, famine in Wollo province-located in northeast Ethiopia-from 1972 to 1974 occurred despite fluctuating food prices, and without food prices rising significantly on the whole. The victims of this famine in Wollo were mostly peasant farmers or small-plot owners who could not compensate for their losses in food production with equivalent purchases from the market.
In regards to the situation in North Korea, food is definitely being supplied to the black market (known as Jangmadang) and prices have declined. As a result, it is possible to purchase food with currency. However, currency is a problem itself. The currency redenomination in 2009 has stripped the lower class North Korean citizen of cash. With the market faltering as a consequence, the purchasing power of the currency has declined, and market sales are not at previous levels. Since the redenomination, a new societal class of poor has emerged. This class consists of citizens who lack wages, government rations, or any other form of purchasing power. Those suffering from hunger in North Korea are no longer just those on the lowest rung of society, but also now include those who have lost any means of participating in the market economy, i.e. the ‘new poor’, including lower ranking soldiers and farmers.
The description thus far may seem to show that the entire country is suffering from starvation, but this is not the reality. An article published in the Chosun Shinbo on January 19th, 2011 named fashion, dining out, and cell phones as new trends in the lives of North Koreans. The people who have enjoyed this trend-namely the middle-class living in Pyongyang and other provinces-exist despite hunger. Looking at the North Korean society today, one can see a juxtaposition of fashion and dining out on one side, and a “long line of hunger” on the other.
How are the North Korean authorities planning to tackle this hunger situation? Let’s examine the second ‘new trend’ that is worth noting when analyzing the North Korean food crisis. According to a news source that deals with the subject of North Korea, in late December of last year Kim Jong Il ordered the acquisition of eight-hundred thousand tons of food through North Korean embassies abroad. The government’s request for food assistance to the WFP this February, along with the North Korean Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly Choi Tae Bok’s request for food aid in the UK this March both seem to stem from Kim Jong Il’s order.
Why has the government of North Korea suddenly embarked on a mission for massive food aid? Borrowing the words of Choi Tae Bok, “The worst cold wave to hit North Korea in 60 years, coupled with a lack of harvest” is the cause. “The next two months will prove to be the hardest,” Choi said at the time, emphasizing the urgency of the situation.
The South Korean government, however, views the problem in a different light. As noted in an article published by The Daily NK on April 19th, 2011, one high-level official at the Ministry of Unification said, “North Korea’s crop estimates for the last year are estimated to be within the margin of error of only tens of thousands of tons in yields compared to the previous year, so this is not the reason for North Korea’s problems with food.” The implication behind the remark is that there is another reason for the North’s sudden call for massive food aid. The South Korean government and several news outlets dealing with the issue have noted the possibility that such actions could be either part of preparations for massive food rations in 2012-which will mark the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth-or part of a contingency plan for food security before the resumption of provocations aimed at South Korea.
The point I have made is that famine does exist in North Korea. From this standpoint, I have tried to analyze North Korea’s recent actions for procuring food. Since the ‘March of Tribulation’ in the mid-1990’s, North Korea has tried to maximize foreign aid when dealing with food shortages. While the North’s recent line of action follows this pattern, there are also some slight differences. At the start of this year, North Korea announced its ‘10 year economic plan’, setting objectives to be reached by 2020. North Korea’s economic policies for this year are focused on the development of its light industry. Therefore, it can be said that the North has embarked on a path for full fledged economic development, with the ‘betterment of people’s lives’ established as its ultimate mission.
In order to carry out such economic development in an environment constrained by sanctions, the North has had no choice but to reply on Chinese funding. The next step for North Korea will be utilizing its labor force to either produce exportable commodities, or directly selling its mineral resources on the international market in exchange for foreign currency. The basis for all such activity is the mass mobilization of labor, which will only be possible once the laborers’ livelihoods are provided for. As North Korea’s current shortage of foreign currency imposes constraints on the country’s ability to purchase food in the international market, is it not possible that the North Korea has realized the necessity of securing additional food for its laborers to reach its ultimate goal, and is thus seeking more food than its annual shortages may warrant?
While it is hard to say that the North’s recent actions are unrelated to the upcoming anniversary of 2012, it is also a stretch to interpret the North’s actions solely on political terms. The North’s parallel agenda for the ‘betterment of people’s lives’ must also be taken into account. This is why the North’s effort to secure food is also an act of self-help, a struggle against starvation.
※ The writer’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Daily NK.