A visit to the United States in June presented the opportunity to meet with experts on the North Korea food crisis and ponder the dilemma faced by the South Korean and US governments over the question of food support to North Korea. However, before the theoretical question of whether food aid should be given to North Korea is addressed, a rational judgement to what extent the crisis is related to North Korea's agricultural policies should be formed based on an analysis of the relationship between its economy and farming methods.
In April the UN's food relief and Children's Fund reported that crop production is 44% down on their predictions and 3.5 million North Koreans face an imminent threat of starvation. The United States administration seems to have reached a conclusion that North Korea should be provided with humanitarian relief, after having dispatched a ground level investigation team to North Korea tasked with ascertaining the current reality.
Meanwhile the South Korean government views any food crisis in North Korea as the fault of the North Korean government and has taken a resolute stand not to provide it with relief aid. But within South Korean society itself there are two differing views on the question of food aid. There is an ideological split in what ought to be the correct response to the situation between ruling and opposition parties, conservatives and progressives.
The differing approaches can be characterized in this way. The ruling party and conservatives wish to maintain the current principled stand against food support in the belief that should North Korea's difficulties increase the regime will be forced into the path of change. The opposition and progressives believe that food relief should be once again provided. If North Korea staggers on under the threat of malnutrition, they say, a peninsula wide crisis could break out at any moment. Also, while the South stands by, North Korea is forced into the arms of China which, to our disadvantage, tightens its economic cooperation and interests with the North. So the situation demands the immediate recommencement of food and other aid support.
I have spent three decades living in the North, working in the country's economic institutions, and afterwards, have gained experience in related fields of expertise in the South as well. With regard to the issue of food aid, an analysis of the practical realities of North Korea's internal situation will shed light on the matter.
Firstly, as it seeks to ensure its strategic priority of regime survival on into a third generation power succession, the North Korean government has given silent approval to the natural increase of markets which the people of North Korea have established to ensure their own survival. This tacit approval itself speaks volumes about the lessened threat of starvation currently facing the populace.
In a situation of negative economic growth, North Korea obviously faces considerable economic difficulties. But the situation has not yet degenerated to being of the same calamitous extent as the mid nineties "march of tribulation." On the contrary, sources report much information betraying the fact that it is the regime's strategic intention to restart ration distribution in 2012 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth, as the country reaches its self-proclaimed benchmark year of a "strong and prosperous nation." This is their true intention behind their demand for "humanitarian relief."
In the North Korea of today, with its markets and centrally planned economy, the North Korean people have adapted to be able to overcome fatal threats to their livelihood even without rations. In the markets themselves, sources report that those without the capital to operate a business have adapted to the markets carousel structure and make ends meet by selling simple crafts or their own labor.
The other key point to keep in mind when deliberating the supply of relief food is that the North Korean regime couldn't be less interested in the threat of hunger and malnutrition to its people. The basis of its repeated statements about establishing a strong and prosperous country in 2012 is feeding and clothing its people. In order to do this, the regime knows that there is only one sure course available to it: the policy or reform and opening up.
In the mid-nineties North Korea had 1,992,000 hectares under cultivation, including 58,500 hectares of rice fields and 1,407,000 hectares of farm fields. With this it could average a yield of 3 tons per hectare. It could average a yield of 2.5 tons of corn per field. North Korea could, at this time, produce an overall yield of at least 5 million tons. If the crop yield in North Korea were to be maximized, the country would not be in the position of asking others for food aid, a fact that North Korean economic experts are well aware of.
In the 1980s North Korea's crop yield was higher. A North Korean agronomist analysing why the country continued in and out of its perennial food crisis presented his findings in a report to the state agricultural committee. His mid 1990s thesis asserted that the only way for the country to feed itself was to institute planned reform of the farming industry. The agronomist subsequently disappeared into the gulag. Those concerned with North Korea's future, however, were already aware that there was no way out of the food crisis except bringing about agricultural reform as China had done by subcontracting the fields to families and individuals.
A North Korean agricultural research scientist privately presented research data demonstrating that individual homes could produce 3 tons per hectare of corn from their own fields. The fact that the recent use of double-cropping equivalent advanced farming methods producing an average of 110% yields suggests that meeting the people's needs is not the ultimate goal of the issue of North Korea's food crisis.
Those with a vested interest in the current system in North Korea are fully aware of all this, so why do they resist implementing reform? Because they also know that should they implement such reform the system itself will collapse in a matter of months or years. Not only is the will of the power elite to solve their people's food crisis will be affected by our decision for food aid, but the goal of feeding their people through the receipt of aid is not the primary reason for their petitions for help to the international community.
If that were their priority then they wouldn't have spent a million dollars on a memorial palace for Kim Il-sung at the time of the catastrophic "March of Tribulation." Had that money been diverted to purchasing foodstuffs many would have been saved. Does anyone believe that the current North Korean leaders are not aware of this?
Not a chance. And it illustrates how food aid is not a significant form of strategic leverage in our hands. Because North Korea, despite having the potential to solve its own food crisis, chooses not to do so. So if South Korea were to suddenly flood the North with nutritional restitution can we believe that the Kim regime would suddenly reduce its threats against the South or alter its policy of dependence on China?
Doubtless it wouldn't. What is clear however is that North Korea cannot resolve its food supply problems without instituting reform in the areas of its economy or agriculture. And so South Korea should devise a policy that considers aiding the North in food or agricultural relief aid only according to the sincerity of its leaders in instituting meaningful change.
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