31.08.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

What is behind the Reduction in the Ration Allowance in North Korea?

23421123123123We have written several times about the “inevitable famine in North Korea” but, regrettably, this discussion arises again and again. This time, the news concerns a sharp reduction in the state ration.

As the Voice of America reported on August 19, with reference to the report of the UN World Food Program (WFP) published on August 1, 2016, the daily ration allowance in North Korea amounted to 300 grams per person – half of the UN recommended rate. This indicator is much lower than the 573 grams initially planned by the North Korean authorities, and by 17% less than in Q2 (from April to June, the daily ration allowance was 360 grams).

It is reported that the level of food aid from the WFP to North Korea in July 2016 was the lowest recorded in the last 5 years. In particular, 457 thousand North Korean citizens from disadvantaged social classes received 379 tons of food aid. That means, each person got only 27 grams a day. This is 80% less than in June.

According to the report by the Voice of America of August 3, which also refers to the WFP report and its survey conducted in 2014, one in three North Korean child under 5 years suffers from anaemia. Thus, the organisation started a program to provide food aid for disadvantaged families in North Korea in July 2016. The program will last till late 2018 and its implementation will require 126 million dollars.

For the unprepared reader who is accustomed to the image of North Korea as a reservation of military communism, where “even sex is rationed”, this news sounds frightful. However, the reality is different.

Development of the parallel economy and its partial legalization under the Byungjin policy has led to the situation concerning North Korean food security that differs considerably from the cliché. Both in Pyongyang and in provinces, the key element of consumers’ baskets is the fact the North Koreans have increased salaries for purchases in stores. Both diplomats and tourists note the absence of empty shelves in stores, and there are plenty of images of stores in modern-day North Korea.

Let’s pay attention to one more fact. In 2014, North Korea faced a severe drought and some media spread information that the country was on the verge of famine. Without demanding the supply of humanitarian aid, North Korea largely solved the problem with its own forces. Rice prices have remained at the same level for about two years.

These are merits of agricultural reforms to a large extent as they managed to unite state owned farms and family/team contracts. There are still workday units that are considered general work, but each family or individual has its own lot. Rice planting and harvesting are undertaken collectively, while weeding and similar works are made individually on their own lots.

It would seem that ration cards could be abolished in this situation. However, the mass consciousness of the average North Korean perceives the current system of state distribution as a token of an efficiently working state, which guarantees a piece of bread to everyone. It might seem amusing for foreigners, but the well-known quotation about an elderly woman, who imagined that the USA is a paradise where each person gets 800 grams of rice, shows that the total absence of food cards is regarded as something inconceivable.

From this perspective, the central authorities do not abolish this anachronism of the system, they either reduce the allowance or shift the function of distribution to the local authorities or enterprises – workers of a certain plant receive their daily allowance from the plant’s management board.

Of course, there are still problems – long term poverty and insufficient nutrition still make themselves felt. Thus, the data on the state of children’s health relates to this legacy but not to the current situation. However, we should take into account one more element of a bureaucratic nature, which we discussed in one of the articles about famine.

The topic about starving children and the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to save them is put forth for two reasons. First, North Korean authorities clearly understand that they need to ask for five times the amount of aid needed in order to get anything at all. Second, one should understand that when we talk about aid for starving children of the poorest countries, this sum includes more than just the acquisition of food itself. The salaries of those who deliver the aid, their transportation and provision of adequate conditions are paid from this sum and usually account for more than a half of expenses. As work in North Korea is regarded to be advantageous in terms of career, money and, strangely enough, safety (this is not Central Africa or Middle East, where people distributing aid face actual life-threatening hazards), there are those who are interested in the continuation of WFP’s operation in this country.

To summarise: the news is not a lie, but they “unintentionally” forget to mention that the reduction of the ration allowances is taking place amid improvement of the economic situation where these allowances are ceasing to be the major and the only source of food. Without mentioning this fact, it is so convenient to hint at an upcoming famine while demonstrating the success of sanctions and dreaming about the rapid end of the regime!

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


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