North Korea Today No. 169 News Flash ed.

Research Institute for North Korean Society

North Korea Today 169th Edition (News Flash ed.) July 2008

“Research Institute for North Korean Society of Good Friends, in order to bring news of the food crisis in North Korea more accurately and quickly, will increase its e-newsletter frequency to more than one issue per week. As such, the release dates might shift. Thank you for your understanding and attention to this looming crisis. We at Good Friends hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.”

"North Korea Today News Flash" is issued when there are sudden incidents or urgent matters that need to be delivered. Full story of the edition will be released as scheduled.

[Opinion] Is the Claim of Exaggerated Food Shortage Problem in North Korea True?

“The warning of a mass famine claimed by some agencies providing aid to North Korea is exaggerated.” (A high-ranking Western diplomatic official residing in North Korea)

Ever since 「Good Friends」first broke the news of famine in Yangduk County, South Pyongan Province at the end of April, it has been reporting news of the famine in North and South Hwanghae Provinces and in the surrounding areas of Kangwon Province, North and South Pyongan Provinces, Ryanggang Province, and Jagang Province. The food shortage problem in North Korea continues throughout the country. Ten million people, more than half of the country’s population, are suffering from serious food shortages. Among them is the vulnerable class of three million people who are suffering from critical malnutrition because of their current diet of grass porridge. Without immediate emergency aid, there will be a famine. This statement is not the result of estimates and speculation. This is accurate information based on factual grounds.

For several years, Good Friends has been monitoring the trend of market prices for grains in North Korea’s major cities. Based on a vast amount of information and numerous cross-examinations, and with the help of advisory groups, it has been doing the work of screening reliable sources from unreliable ones as well as analyzing the information. It will take some time until our information will be proven true. This is not the kind of information that can be simply rejected as “exaggerated warning of mass famine.” Our claim of mass famine is the result of analysis that integrated factual information collected from various classes of people through a number of channels throughout North Korea. North Korea is a society where truth cannot be easily obtained. As we all know, information is tightly controlled in North Korea. Relying on officially released information would be like blind people groping elephants, considering the magnitude of the problem and the lack of media coverage.

The World Food Program, which recently returned from North Korea after investigating the food situation, recently released a summary report. Along with American civilian agencies and scholars who visited Pyongyang, the WFP stated, “We did not see any sign of ongoing famine or danger of possible famine.” We heard of the reports claiming, “We saw the newly renovated streets of Pyongyang. The claim of danger of mass famine by a civilian agency is exaggerated.” We believe that the North Korean government has manufactured this impression. What these NGOs have seen could be true according to their observations. However, our position is that it is difficult to view the official picture as truth. We deeply regret the WFP rejecting our reports and we stand by the integrity of our information.

It might be true if someone visited Pyongyang said, “Based on what I have seen in Pyongyang, I do not feel that the food shortage problem is serious anywhere.” However, it a false generalization to say, “North Korea’s food crisis is exaggerated” after visiting a few places being escorted by Pyongyang and their guides.

Information Sources are Different

What are the reasons for claiming that Good Friends’ warning of mass famine is exaggerated?

First, the information sources are different. As stated earlier, even someone who has worked with North Korean aid for more than 10 years and who has lived in Pyongyang for a long time cannot go beyond restricted areas and can only meet selected people. Judging from the customary behavior of the North Korean government, if an aid worker or a foreigner visits an area, a pre-selected group of people with prepared answers will be waiting for him.

No matter which area he visits, the North Korean government provides an escort and shows him only the best farm of the region, and the best house within that farm. Houses are always shown to be clean and tidy. Pyongyang’s guides try to give the impression that “Although they are poor they keep things clean. They are hard-working despite the difficulties.” This makes an aid agency feel that they have to help them. Most foreigners who have visited the North Korean countryside have been touched by the people and the sights they have seen. Considering this treatment, it is extremely unlikely that the North Korean government will show foreigners any of the impoverished class of Koreans who are dying from starvation.

The false impression of clean homes and dignified farmers is only shown to those who reside in North Korea, outsiders who come for a short visit see even less of the real situation. No matter how important it is to see and hear first hand, it is very likely that the experience is only partial truth, fabrication, or orchestrated truth in the case of North Korea.

If you meet a North Korean official, he would boast of the grandeur of the streets of Pyongyang, the Vinalon factory in Sooncheon (순천비날론공장), the Gwanmoon in Nampo (남포관문) as if they are the best in the world. Occasionally, you may become impressed by them.

Nevertheless, for someone who is accustomed to capitalist societies, it is not difficult to notice poverty even in those majestic and luxurious symbols. What we need to remember is that Pyongyang, with its glorified collection of the symbols, is in fact a very special city, special enough to be called the “Republic of Pyongyang.” For that reason, it is difficult to know the situation of the majority of North Korean people by only looking at Pyongyang.

When we meet two people who visited Pyongyang, one person says, “Compared to the past there are more cars on the street, the electricity situation has improved, and the roads are repaved. Currently, North Korea is developing and news of the food shortage is exaggerated.” But the other person could say, “Although Pyongyang is doing a great deal of construction to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country, a high ranking official shared that he himself is receiving corn rations. If a high-ranking official in Pyongyang is in this kind of situation, one can only wonder about the provinces.”

In other words, Pyongyang is a city that receives benefits that make it impossible to claim similarity with the rest of the nation. Moreover, even after surveying the same areas in Pyongyang, one comes up with different estimates depending on what kind of information one receives.

North Korean Government Shows Only the Areas They Wish to Show

The care which Pyongyang takes in choosing which information to release cannot be overstated. The North Korean government either hides or downplays negative aspects, while they exaggerate any positive aspects. One good example of exaggeration is the food production figures. The food production figure released by North Korea was about four to five million tons until 1973. Since 1974, the figure has risen seven million tons. In the 1980s, the amount reached 10 million tons. With the ‘Arduous March’ in the mid 1990s, those figures were confirmed to be wild exaggerations. Ever since then, the figure has never reached beyond 4.3 million tons. What is widely accepted is the fact that the North Korean statistics are neither to be trusted nor can they be verified.

On the other hand, the North Korean government thoroughly covers up things they wish to hide, and they never hesitate to vehemently denounce those who try to uncover them. For instance, with regard to ‘political prisons,’ which often becomes the main controversy when discussing North Korean humanitarian problems, North Korean authorities claim the issue is a “false accusation of something that doesn’t even exist.” Moreover, none of the incidents, such as the train collision in Gowon County(고원군) in 2006, the oil pipeline explosion incident in Seoncheon County(선천군) in 2007, the scarlet fever in the winter of 2006, the foot-and-mouth disease in 2007, or the bird flu and hand-foot-and-mouth disease in 2008 have been acknowledged or disclosed. Keeping in mind North Korea’s reputation for deception and nondisclosure, we would like to ask why people now trust the government’s announcements about food shortage or flood damage.

The North Korean government has been consistent only in their desire to exaggerate things they want to show and hide anything detrimental to their interests. On the contrary, observers outside of the country seem to be inconsistent as they tend to trust some of the things North Korean government announces and distrust others.

Currently, the North Korean government’s official position regarding the food shortage is that “We do not have enough food, but our people are united and overcoming the difficulties.” This is exactly what all North Korean people are saying in unison when international agencies survey the food situation. This is the myth the government wants to perpetuate. Not having enough food means “We need help.” We are overcoming the difficulties means “Even then we are not going to beg for food. We can overcome the difficulties without your help by uniting ourselves.” The official line could just as well be “it is good if you help us, but it is okay even if you don’t help.” Considering the attitude of North Korean government so far, they would never say, “Please help us. We’re dying from starvation.”

Even during the mass famine in the middle of the 1990s the North Korean government called it the Arduous March. They have never announced news of a mass famine. The results of the investigation by Good Friends show that more than three million people died. In addition, Good Friend’s investigation in 1999 indicates that there are more than three hundred thousand North Korean refugees in China. The North Korean government refuses to acknowledge any of these refugees. All we have is the indirect acknowledgements by North Korean officials we unofficially meet, individuals who say “That’s pretty much what it is.” We need to remember that the so-called North Korean official announcement is under the complete control of the North Korean government.

Good Friends Pays Attention to the Reality the North Korean Government Refuses to Show

Good Friends focuses on the daily difficulties of living in North Korea. Good Friends is still experiencing limitations when it comes to obtaining information, despite its ten years of work in the country. Nevertheless, Good Friends is in contact with sources that can detect what is going on in every corner of North Korea through the eyes and ears of those who live there. We’re focusing all of our attention on the livelihood of people that North Korean government refuse to acknowledge and who outside people are not especially concerned about. The prime goal of Good Friends is to relieve the suffering of those people whose lives go unreported in the outside world.

As such, Good Friends neither supports nor blames the North Korean government. We try to distance ourselves from politics as much as possible. We want to emphasize that our single goal is to present the reality of life in North Korea. Some people will try to help. Others will denounce the North Korean government even more, and others will look the other way. That is their choice.

This position of Good Friends often brings about misunderstandings. From the North Korean government it takes the blame of “Bad Friends who discloses only the negative things about North Korea.” In addition, we become subject to the insinuations that our information is the product of the South Korean intelligence agency. The suspicion is, “How is it possible for a civilian agency to collect that much information from such a restricted society like North Korea in such a short time?”

On the other hand, those who oppose the North Korean government say that Good Friends is exaggerating the food shortage problem in order to help North Korean regime. Our plea for unconditional humanitarian aid to starving North Korean people is perceived as an effort to extend Kim Jong-Il’s regime.

We say consistently that, “Humanitarian aid should be made unconditionally without being swayed by any political positions in order to save the North Korean people who are on the verge of death by starvation.” That is not a position unique to us. Rather, it is a common principle of the international community regarding humanitarian aid. In the mean time, some people who do not take a clear position toward North Korea are suspicious of so-called “counter intelligence,” saying, “How is it possible to get this much information from a closed society like North Korea? Isn’t the information provided by the North Korean intelligence agency?”

We would like to say that Good Friends has no reason to either exaggerate or withold information. We are not relaying any intelligence information from those officials who agree with us. We are releasing only the information believed to be the truth after thorough analysis and evaluation of the information by a group of various North Korean experts including former high-ranking North Korean officials. Even then it is possible that some errors can be made during the intelligence gathering process. No matter how much precaution we take it is not easy to verify some information because of the highly closed nature of the society. We will gladly make corrections if anybody can point out errors in our information. Are we going to wait until the truth can be known, or are we going to prevent the worst-case scenario from happening?

Good Friends will take the food shortage reports from WFP, international agencies, and Western diplomats as reference. However, what they have seen is only a partial image of North Korea. They are not the real images of the vulnerable class of people who are dying from food shortage.

According to our assessment, only about 10 percent of the population, or about two million people, are currently safe from the food shortage. The next middle class of 8 million people can eat corn meal even though they cannot feed themselves well. However, the 10 million people in the lower class, which is more than half of the population, cannot eat even one meal a day and is barely surviving. At least 3 million North Koreans are sustaining themselves with grass porridge and suffer from serious malnutrition.

Famine cases are already happening every day among the vulnerable classes, especially in the deprived homes of the countryside in Hwanghae Province and Kangwon Province. Poor people in urban areas, kkotjebi (homeless children) shelters, orphanages, and nursing homes are all particularly at risk. We have to wonder why Hwanghae Province and Kangwon Province were omitted in the survey by international agencies, even as Good Friends has been claiming that these are the hardest hit areas.

The North Korean food shortage problem is not confined to certain classes of people, but it is gradually spreading to all classes of people. We anticipate that the number of people dying from starvation will increase rapidly without an immediate supply of emergency aid.

So far, we have provided our brief opinion about how to approach the truth of North Korean food shortage problem. In conclusion, we would like to ask the following question: Are we going to wait until the truth about the North Korean food shortage becomes too serious for the government to hide? Or, are we going to find out about the truth proactively and provide humanitarian aid based on what we have learned so far?

Just as we need to stay ready in order to minimize damage from natural disasters, we must also be ready to act on a warning that countless numbers of people are dying and there is danger of a mass famine. The best approach to the truth of the North Korean food shortage issue is not to wait until the crisis becomes impossible to ignore, but to come up with a solution now so that a mass famine does not become a reality.

Good Friends: Center for Peace, Human Rights and Refugees
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