10.04.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea on the Verge of Another Famine?

toxjals_com_20050101_004837The residents of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are being warned the country will soon be struck by a famine as severe as the one they experienced in the 1990s. That period in the history of North Korean is known as “the Arduous March,” and according to the North Korean central mass media, the hard times are, basically, around the corner. A front-page story printed in Rodong Sinmun—the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea—discusses this topic.

A similar news was also disseminated via mass media worldwide with reference to The Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper. According to the South Korean periodical the North Korean government is allegedly planning to begin a collection of grains (one kilo per month from each North Korean resident), and that this year the country was looking to purchase 440 thousand tons of food abroad, but had received only 17.6 thousand tons by the beginning of February. The article also informed that Pyongyang hopes to assure loyalty of North Korean citizens by launching a propaganda campaign persuading its citizens to conserve food warning them of punitive measures for the violation of restrictions. Besides, the article mentioned that farmers are forced to give away surplus of crops, and that this situation results in a civil unrest.

But what is going on in North Korea in reality? On March 28, Rodong Sinmun published an article featuring the following excerpt:

“Maybe we have to face another Arduous March, and we will have to eat roots of the grass. Maybe we will be all by ourselves, like a distant island in the vast ocean when we have to struggle against our enemies. Maybe a moment will come when we will have to put our heads under a razor-sharp sword. But even if we face death, we have to preserve an unbreakable and selfless devotion to our Dear respected Marshal till the end. We shall die, but stay true to the revolution!”

A typical example of a North Korean newspaper style with all its grandiloquence, depth of feelings and exaggerations of the type “we will turn Seoul into a sea of fire.” From the perspective of a content analysis, the text of the statement of the type “even if the situation turns out to be really bad, we will still remain loyal to our leader” indicates not so much the fact that everything is indeed going to be bad, but emphasizes the fact that citizens have to be loyal to the leader no matter what.

Now look how The Chosun Ilbo, the leading South Korean conservative periodical and a hoax champion twists this passage. First, the beginning of the quoted paragraph was trimmed. So, the South Korean version starts with “we have to face another Arduous March, and we will have to eat roots of the grass.” Apparently, this omission instantly turns the meaning of the original passage upside down. South Korean audience, on the other hand, has no means of verifying the accuracy of the quote. You see, South Korea has enforced a national security law that prohibits South Korean readers from going to the Rodong Sinmun’s website and reading the original article. The punishment for breaking the law is tough: an imprisonment. Second, the article featured in The Chosun Ilbo suggested that similar articles were published in other mass media. Third, the rest of the article contains traditional for this newspaper myths masked as “information provided by anonymous sources.” For example, the English version of the text said that North Korea needs 440 thousand tons of food, instead of “North Korea was looking to purchase 440 thousand tons of food…” Other sources, however report that North Korea already achieved food self-sufficiency last year.

Here we have a vivid example of how frank propaganda overlaps with the “tips and tricks” of the American Sovietology of the 1970s, when newspaper excerpts would be thoroughly inspected for the presence of double meanings (regardless of whether it actually was the case or not), or when the influence and prestige of some functionary was assessed based on the place he occupied on the tribune of Lenin’s Mausoleum. It seems, though, that this method has its limitations and works best in the absence of solid evidence. If, for example, several different North Korean mass media sources told the same story that the country is getting ready for a new Arduous March, it would make sense to interpret such messages as an unambiguous signal that the country is heading toward a disaster.

But let us find an answer to a more serious question:  to what degree does the current situation in North Korea correlates with the situation of the times of the Arduous March, discussed in the previous articles on NEO? Alexander Zhebin, Head of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, RAS, believes that despite sanctions imposed on North Korea, which, according to the estimates of South Korean economists, may adversely affect about 50% of the current volume of North Korean foreign trade (about $9 bn) and hinder the acquisition of goods, services, and equipment used in agriculture, food industry and other sectors of economy responsible for food security, the situation in the country is far from that of the 1990s. First, back then North Korean agricultural sector was almost totaled by natural disasters that had hit the country. That, coupled with the unwillingness of certain countries to render assistance, was one of the core causes of famine, and the key catalyst of the situation. As opposed, today North Korean agriculture is by no means in a bad shape. Those times when the country desperately needed a million tons of humanitarian aid per year are gone for good. Moreover, last year North Korea reached the basic level of food independence. And that means that though there is no variety and abundance of food, the country is no longer at a risk of starvation or even malnutrition.

Second, during the times of the Arduous March, the country simply did not have any goods it could trade: its economy was devastated by the severing of traditional economic ties with the USSR and China, on the one hand, and destruction of its industry, on the other. Today North Korea has commodities to export. In addition, some experts find a reservation, attached to the section on sanctions imposed on the export of coal and iron ore, to be particularly curious: “the present provision shall not apply to the transactions executed solely with the aim to provide means of subsistence, not related to the receipt of revenues for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.” And that means that North Korea can apply for a program similar to that “Oil-for-Food” program established in Iraq.

Third, back in the 1990s, North Korea experienced a serious energy crisis. Chinese, however, managed to have the prohibition imposed on the supply of any energy sources to North Korea lifted. As for the North Koreans, they restored some coalmines and built a few low and medium capacity hydropower plants generating energy for specific enterprises.

Their agribusiness is running; they have a supply of energy; according to the estimates they should have at least a modest stock of fertilizers (fertilizers were not included in the list of banned goods). In summary, all above facts demonstrate that if in the next few years North Korea does not experience any serious natural disasters (comparable in scale to those that hit the country in the 1990s), ruining the efforts of the last decade, there will be no famine in North Korea. Apparently, citizens of the country will have to come to terms with austerity measures, but The Chosun Ilbo’s spooky predictions will remain just predictions.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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