Optimism rising in North Korea despite malnutrition, food shortfalls
After a four-day visit, aid chief says North Korea still short 1-2 million metric tons of food per year, but is offering better access than ever before
North Korea remains chronically short of food, but is not starving, ministers in Pyongyang are optimistic about ongoing diplomatic developments, and the country seeks to upgrade its agricultural techniques David Beasley, executive director of the UN’s World Food Program, said on Tuesday.
During his time in the country, Beasley spent two days speaking to minister-level officials of the ministries of land and of agriculture, and two days touring rural areas, speaking to farmers, parents, children and teachers, he told reporters in Seoul.
Beasley’s trip came in the wake of a successful summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and two meetings between Kim and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. A massively anticipated summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump – the first ever between the leaders of the two nations – takes place in Singapore on June 12.
It is unclear to observers whether Kim is coming to the table from a position of fear and weakness, or strength and confidence. Beasleys’ observations suggest the latter, although clearly, North Korea has significant national vulnerabilities.
Optimism, improved access, no starvation
The officials he met in Pyongyang “were very frank and straightforward,” Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina, said. “There is a tremendous sense of optimism by the people I met, in the hopes they will be turning a new chapter in history – a new page. I had many different meetings, and the same sense.”
Access to rural areas – which many aid agencies said has been restricted – is easing.
“We spent two days in the countryside, village to village… we had quite a bit of access, I think compared to what we got historically, what we got was remarkable,” Beasley said. While he recognized that certain areas of North Korea suffer from malnutrition, “What I did not see was starvation,” he said.
In the 1990s, a combination of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, bad harvests and the inefficiency of state-led agriculture created a perfect storm; the result was widespread, horrific starvation across North Korea. During that time, now referred to as “the arduous march” huge numbers died: Estimates range from 100,000 to two million. The famine was only overcome at the end of the 1990s, largely thanks to the rise of survival markets.
Those markets have survived, flourished, and created a new, and far more efficient economy across the nation. According to defector testimony and reports from inside North Korea, these markets have replaced the old state distribution system for the majority of the population.
Beasley’s group witnessed intense activity in the spring planting season. “There is very little mechanization, very few paved roads… I saw men and women out in the fields, very structured and organized,” he said. “Every inch of land is utilized right up to the edge of the road and down the embankments.” With no tractors, agricultural tools included oxen plows, rakes, hoes.
While Beasley admitted he only got a snapshot of the big picture, he added, “My team said that what we saw represented the norm throughout the country.” The WFP has been active in North Korea for 23 years, and over the last five years, its staffers have undertaken 1,800 site visits nationwide.
From food support to self-sufficiency
Currently, the WTP direct supports food – in the form of fortified biscuits and porridge, all produced with WFP assistance in factories in-country – only to nursery-level children, aged 0-3; to pregnant women; and to nursing mothers, Beasley said. “The numbers we are supporting are 600 and something thousand people, out of [North Korea’s total population] of 25 million,” he added.
However, there are ambitious plans for consulting projects which would help the North become food self-sufficient.
“They need 6-7 million metric tonnes [of food per year], they produce about 5 million metric tonnes,” Beasley said. Many of his discussions in Pyongyang centered around how North Korea can leverage its arable land – only 15-20 percent of the mountainous nation is suitable for farming – to the max; what the ideal seeds and planting techniques to maximize crop yields are; and the best methods of water diversion and reservoir creation.
The North Koreans also asked for data on how to fortify foodstuffs to deliver optimal levels of micronutrients, and seeks WTP assistance with meals in nurseries and schools, Beasley said.
Sanctions, donor fatigue and increased transparency
A critical issue facing North Korea is the harsh sanctions regimes it faces due to its strategic weapons programs. “Sanctions have humanitarian exemptions; we have been dealing with sanctioned countries as long as the WFP has been in existence, so we have expertise on countries with sanctions,” Beasley said. “In our opinion, a child in the [North Korea] has the same rights as any child in the world.”
However, the WFP’s North Korean programs face three problems: Increased calls on its services worldwide; financial shortfalls; and donor fatigue toward North Korea.
The agency operates in 80 countries worldwide, and over the last three years, the number of persons it assists has risen from 80 million to 124 million, worldwide. Meanwhile, it faces a funding shortfall of US$2-3 billion, Beasley noted. For all these reasons, Pyongyang needs to upgrade its cooperation with the agency.
“Monitoring is a very important part… I expressed this,” Beasley said. “We still need further access and further data and we are looking forward to that happening.”
Even so, the situation is better than ever before. “Now, we have greater access than any time period than I am familiar with,” he said.
South Korea has offered humanitarian aid to North Korea, to be distributed via the WFP, and Beasley met Seoul’s Minister of Unification earlier on Tuesday. However, there is no clear timeline on when that aid will be delivered, Beasley said: “Everybody is waiting to see what happens on June 12” – the date of the Kim-Trump summit.
Beasley said that he told Pyongyang officials, “We want to work with you and help you but you must help us… we have standards for monitoring and data assimilation,” in order that “…donors understand what the true needs are, and any and all funds go to intended beneficiaries.”
Still, Beasley said he was impressed by the overall responses from Pyongyang officialdom. “There seemed to be a general desire to be more open and frank and candid,” he said.
And the American, citing the stunning economic rise of East Asia in recent decades, was upbeat about future possibilities. “I see a country with great opportunities; I think of the past where South Korea was so many decades ago, where China was,” Beasley said. “I think the opportunities are great.”