DPRK: Rumours, Rations and Refugees

24.12.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

2342312312I would like to start another essay about the economic situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with the chart published in open access by the Yonhap news agency. It is official information showing population growth in the North and South Korea. It clearly shows that at the end of the 1990s, the population of the DPRK was not in a demographic slump, which would have occurred if 2 million people had really died from hunger in the country.

It is from this angle that one should consider a number of facts and figures, which are currently being touted by anti-North Korean propaganda that continues to give the outside world the impression that the DPRK is a country with a collapsed economy, threatened with hunger and upcoming social protests.

0_2015그래픽포맷01For example, on June 13, referring to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the Voice of America radio station announced that the food shortage in North Korea would amount to 665 thousand tons in 2016: with imports and external aid, North Korea should compensate for 694 thousand tons of food but Pyongyang will only be capable of providing 29 thousand tons. According to the Ministry of Unification of the Republic of Korea, this is due to the fact that in the 2016 fiscal year, the amount of food consumed in the North Korea amounted to 5 million 495 thousand tons, but the production capacity was only 4 million 801 thousand tons.

However, on September 22, referring to the FAO once again, the Free Asia radio station supplemented the news above stating that in 2016 the rice harvest in the DPRK would be 2.4 million tons, which is 500 thousand tons more than the last year, largely contributed by favourable climatic conditions. Not even the flood in North Hamgyong Province, which devastated 27 thousand hectares of cultivated land, could affect the situation since the local rice fields account for only 2% of their total area in the country. What’s more, the fact that the entire crop had not been harvested yet was not taken into consideration. For comparison, in 2015, the DPRK produced 4.78 million tons of grain, which is 10.7% less than in 2014 due to drought.

Moreover, according to information announced on September 29 by South Korean media referring to the data obtained by the Hyundai Research Institute, North Korea’s GDP per capita has exceeded USD 1,000 for the first time since the late 1980s despite sanctions. More specifically, GDP calculated based on the population’s income was USD 1,013 in 2015, compared to USD 930 in 2014. Let us consider that in 1987, North Korea’s GDP per capita stood at USD 986 but in the mid-2000s, it fell to approximately USD 650.

In this context, let us again pay our attention to the news about the reduced rations. It seems that the world has been told numerous times that rationing is currently not a major source of food for the citizens and the state is not waiving it because it is seen as a sign of bureaucracy in the mass consciousness but the propaganda is silent about the fact that today the average citizen of the DPRK most likely buys food in the shops. Because otherwise the data evidencing the upcoming, severe crisis in the country is not so convincing since the daily food allowance at 300 grams is only 50% of the UN minimum recommended standard.

In order to back up allegations with facts, Pyongyang’s foes even presented the results of a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), evidencing that the citizens of the DPRK are dissatisfied with the system of food rationing and benefits provision, as well as the restrictions to their economic activity. Respondents noted that they were not getting enough food rationing to live a normal life, were dissatisfied with the tough regulation of markets, bribery among officials, forced labour mobilization, low wages and especially the denomination of the national currency in November, 2009.

Wonderful facts! Except that the number of respondents was a staggering 36 (!!!) citizens of the DPRK residing in different parts of the country. Even if you imagine that the authors of the survey really interviewed anyone, it is quite difficult to call it a representative sample.

Apparently, the hunger is knocking at the door, and people can barely survive. But what should the people do with the information provided by the International Labour Organisation that in 2015 the population of the DPRK was 25 million 155 thousand people? Given the fact that in 2010 it stood at 24.5 million people, there was a 2.7% growth over five years, which South Korean experts believe to be slow due to the low birth rate and rapid ageing of society – people over 65 years old make up 9.9% of the population.

According to Free Asia, an American radio station referring to the CIA, this year the DPRK was ranked 51st out of 238 countries in terms of population, 157th in terms of population growth and 134th in terms of birth rate – 14.5 children per 1,000 people.

These inconvenient statistics reflecting the population growth are complemented with stories of child deaths – 33.4 children per 1,000 people, which is 9.3 times more than in the Republic of Korea. These include 21.9% of child deaths result from premature births, 14.9% caused by respiratory infection, and 12.8% – by congenital defects. In a report drafted by member of the OECD Korea Policy Center, Cho Kyung-sook, this is due to the underdeveloped and obsolete medical infrastructure, lack of medicines and equipment, weakness of pregnant women, and poor care for children after birth.

This data is likely to be true, as is the information provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) that the number of children under five years old admitted to hospital because of diarrhoea and exhaustion showed a four-fold increase in the flood-affected districts of the North Hamgyong Province. This is due to the fact that the sewers and sanitary-hygienic facilities were damaged in the flood-affected areas. The UN, however, has provided humanitarian assistance to children under five years old, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and food aid was given to 143 thousand other ordinary victims.

However, how high are mortality rates from natural disasters? The notorious Free Asia, with a reference to data provided by the Catholic University of Leuven, announced on November 22 that 10 major disasters (mainly floods) killing 1,533 people have been registered in North Korea since 2007. To put it mildly, fifteen hundred deaths over 10 years is a really sad statistic but it does not convey “a huge number of victims that indicates the vulnerability of northerners to natural disasters forcing them to leave their own country.”

In addition, when determining the number of flood victims, we should always ask the question – how many of them died as a result of a failure to render assistance. When asking this question, we should recall the poll held in the South in the midst of the flood about whether they should provide humanitarian assistance to the North in connection with the flood, if requested. 55% answered in the negative. 40% answered in the positive.

To conclude this article, I would like to say a few words about the refugees. From January to November this year, 1,268 North Korean refugees entered the Republic of Korea. This is 16.7% more than in the same period last year, and according to the Ministry of Unification the total number of northerners residing in the Republic of Korea as of the end of November amounted to 30,062 people. What’s more, the figure of 10 thousand people was reached in February 2006, and 20 thousand people – in November 2010. 58% of refugees are young people aged 20 to 40 years. In addition, there has been an increase in the number of women, which represent 71% of refugees. It is interesting to note that more than 50% of adolescent refugees were born in third countries, including China.

Therefore, the government is considering an action plan to expand the participation of North Korean refugees in public life and facilitate their integration into the society of the Republic of Korea. As early as at the Cabinet session held on October 11, 2016, Park Geun-hye instructed the government to improve the system aimed at adapting refugees to life in the South, having stressed that they were harbingers of the reunion and ordered that measures be prepared to support northerners who had moved to South. The conservative media drew attention to this statement, having noted that Park is splitting the political leadership in Pyongyang and the ordinary northerners by actually supporting their choice to leave.

Yes, of course the North Korean economy is not as rosy as it is described in Pyongyang’s news. But the heart-breaking descriptions of hunger and deprivation are no less far from the truth.

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