North Korea’s distribution system takes from poor, gives to elite

The North Korean authorities are reappropriating rice provisions from the breadbasket region of North and South Hwanghae Provinces under the pretext of distributing the foodstuffs to the military and the capital city of Pyongyang. Residents in North and South Hwanghae Provinces are becoming severely malnourished as a result of the policy.

There has been some discussion that the rice yield has increased since Kim Jong Un instituted systems that acknowledge incentives, such as the June 28th Measures. However, the fruit of said harvests is getting diverted to Party cadres and military units, and is not reaching the general population. 

“Our provinces are known as the breadbasket, but the rice we’ve harvested has all been sent to the army, leaving us with nothing. Furthermore, the public distribution system is dispensing nothing. So people from this province haven’t been able to even taste the very rice they grew. They have to go as far as Ryanggang Province when they want to buy rice,” a source in North Hwanghae Province reported to Daily NK on August 5.

The extent of the problem is severe, she added, noting that “even as recent as ten years ago, our living standard wasn’t this low. These days, there are more and more people who have been forced to live as kotjebi [homeless orphans]. We’ll starve if we’re forced to endure another year or two of this.” 

Worse still, there is nowhere for them to turn. Local leadership is of no assistance, “regional managers are incapable of helping the residents,” she said, “because they’re having a hard enough time making a living for themselves. How can they be expected to provide for the entire village? It’s enough to make you want to throw your hands in the air in frustration.”

While nascent marketization has indeed raised the standard of living for many people in urban settings, residents in rural areas have actually seen a decline in their welfare. The economic divide between rural and urban areas is increasingly pronounced. According to the source, Kim Jong Un has focused the allocation of provisions on key populations (such as Pyongyang residents and military personnel) because keeping these groups satisfied is essential for maintaining his political legitimacy. 

Rural residents are comparatively disadvantaged because they lack access to both capital and information. This is another important reason that rural populations have struggled to hop on the marketization bandwagon. The region is indeed producing rice, but none of it is ending up on the dinner tables of the locals, and many of the residents do not have money to purchase any, thus leading to severe nutritional deficiencies. 

“People around here are forced to watch the rice they’ve harvested being sent to Pyongyang. Far from receiving public distribution rations, they haven’t even seen that system in action. It’s ironic that this province produces the largest rice yield in the country, and yet its residents are forced to purchase smuggled Chinese rice in Ryanggang Province at above market price.” 

This is in stark contrast to the cities, where markets are always open and bursting with a diverse array of goods. In the agricultural villages, however, product selection is scant and the markets operate on an irregular schedule (e.g. only on the 1, 11, and 21 of each month). Moreover, a poor logistics and distribution framework  means few products are available to rural dwellers, most of whom live hand to mouth.  

The North Korean authorities have shown a preference for devoting food resources towards the military rather than ordinary people, inciting increased aggravation among the residents. Despite siphoning off foodstuffs for the military, troops report chronic shortages, saying that the provided amount is the equivalent of two spoonfuls and that they are constantly hungry. The amount of provisions being sent to the military has increased, but rampant corruption prevents the food from spreading from the military cadres down to the lower ranks.  

A source in Ryanggang Province said the regulated amount of food for one meal in the public distribution system is 250 grams, but military units are rarely precise or generous. Each unit is different: some give 150 grams per meal; others, as little as 100 grams or even 70 grams. 

“It’s all gone in two bites,” the source said.

“There are no side dishes provided by the public system, so hungry soldiers will sometimes go up into the mountains in search of wild greens. The more abusive commanders force their squadrons to collect 3 kilograms of wild greens each. This is an attempt to further reduce the amount of rice that they have to provide to their troops.”  

According to a separate source in Ryanggang Province, some of the soldiers in Samjiyon are extremely sickly, malnourished, and sleeping out on the street. While troops stationed near the Chinese border can earn some money by participating in trading operations, “rural soldiers aren’t so lucky,” she lamented.

“Many of them have very thin necks and walk around slowly. Some soldiers who have enough strength to walk around trespass on private property to scrounge for food. Most soldiers lack the strength required to run about doing such schemes, and so many simply lie down here or there, looking tired and defeated.” 
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