North Korea’s worst drought in 100 years

North Korea has been hit by what it describes as its worst drought in a century, which could worsen chronic food shortages in a country where the United Nations says almost a third of children under five are stunted because of poor nutrition.

The North’s KCNA news agency said late on Tuesday that paddies around the country, including the main rice farming regions of Hwanghae and Phyongan provinces, were drying up for lack of rain. “The worst drought in 100 years continues in the DPRK, causing great damage to its agricultural field,” KCNA said, using the short form of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The U.N. resident coordinator for North Korea, Ghulam Isaczai, warned in a Reuters interview last month of a looming crisis due to last year’s drought, caused by the lowest rainfall in 30 years.

Thomas Lehman, Denmark’s ambassador to both North and South Korea, told Reuters that on a visit to the North late last month he could “clearly see” attempts to deal with the drought in its fields.

The government has mounted a campaign encouraging the public to help out on farms, and is using mobile water pumps run on diesel and longer pipes to draw water into fields. North Korea relies heavily on hydroelectric power and suffers from chronic electricity shortages, which can be exacerbated by periods of no rain.


North Korean confirms Hyon Yong Choi put to death for insubordination

North Korean officials have confirmed that Hyon Yong Choi, the hermit kingdom’s former defense minister, was put to death for “insubordination,” South Korean media outlet YTN reported Monday. YTN uncovered the information after it was relayed from the North Korean embassy in China, according to YTN.

North Korean despot Kim Jong-un was upset with Hyon after he showed “disregard” for the dictator in a meeting, South Korean paper Chosun Ilbo reported. Kim responded in force and executed Hyon “for insubordination and disobeying the party leadership,” UPI writes.

According to the report, Hyon was napping during a meeting, causing Kim to consider the offense one that reached a treasonous level. Chosun Ilbo reported that Hyon would frequently become bored during meetings and would resort to napping as a way to pass the time.

Kim’s dissatisfaction with Hyon reached its climax when the dictator asked his defense minister a question during a meeting and found that Hyon was unresponsive. It was then that Kim concluded that his defense minister must be detained, punished, and later executed, the South Korean paper reported.

Chosun Ilbo reports that Kim’s leadership has become increasingly tyrannical: “The fact that Hyon was executed within days without waiting for approval from the Workers Party, just like former Army chief Ri Yong-ho and [Kim Jong-un’s uncle] Jang Song-taek, demonstrates just how volatile Kim has become.”


North Korea claims US targeted it with anthrax

North Korea has accused the United States of targeting it with anthrax and asked the United Nations Security Council to investigate Washington’s “biological warfare schemes” after a live anthrax sample was sent to a U.S. base in South Korea.

Live anthrax samples, which can be used as a biological weapon, were inadvertently sent to Australia, Canada, Britain, South Korea and laboratories in 19 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., the Pentagon said recently.

“The United States not only possesses deadly weapons of mass destruction … but also is attempting to use them in actual warfare against [North Korea],” Pyongyang’s U.N. Ambassador Ja Song Nam wrote in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which was made public Friday.

U.S. investigators are trying to ascertain whether the shipments of live anthrax stemmed from quality control problems at the U.S. military base in Utah which sent them, Pentagon officials have said.

North Korea “strongly requests the Security Council take up the issue of the shipment of anthrax germs in order to thoroughly investigate the biological warfare schemes of the United States,” Ja wrote in his letter, dated June 4.

He attached a statement from North Korea’s National Defence Commission, which urged the world to consider the anthrax shipment “the gravest challenge to peace and a hideous crime aimed at genocide.”


Seoul demands North Korea release abducted S. Korean citizens

South Korea has attempted to send a notice to North Korea demanding the release of 40,000 abducted South Koreans but North Korea has not confirmed receipt.

“It may be late, but our citizens must be immediately returned and released to South Korea,” read the South Korean notice.

The letter asked North Korea to keep in mind the concerns of the families in South Korea who have been unable to keep contact with their abducted relatives.

South Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily reported North Korea most recently abducted South Korean Christian missionary Kim Jung-wook in 2013. In March, North Korea detained Kim Guk-gi and Choe Chun-gil on charges of spying on behalf of Seoul.

In May, a South Korean NYU student was detained in North Korea. Joo Won-moon claimed he crossed into North Korea with the objective of being arrested.


The rumored reformation of North Korea – Part 1

While Kim Jong-un is often presented in the Western media as a comical, menacing, and an erratic person, this description is misleading. The young North Korean ruler might have a penchant for bizarre clothes and haircuts, and he may also be prone to outbursts of anger, but his economic policies have been remarkably consistent – until recently.

Soon after his ascent to power, he began to slowly steer his country towards something akin to a market-oriented reformist policy, not unlike the policies of Deng Xiaoping in the early days of the Chinese reformation. Recently, however, the line has changed, and the tempo of reforms has dropped significantly.

The reforms began in 2012 when the country’s agriculture was partially switched to a household-based model. Since 2013, North Korean farmers, who for many decades have worked for fixed rations, received 30 percent of the total harvest. In 2015, that figure is expected to double to 60 percent. The new system has made farmers work harder and take greater responsibility, and the results have been quickly visible: both 2013 and 2014 were marked by bumper harvests. Even a grave drought in the spring of 2014 failed to negatively impact the recovery of North Korean agriculture.

Simultaneously, the North Korean government took measures to attract foreign investments. Some 20-odd special economic zones were created.

The next step was expected to happen this year. State-appointed managers would acquire a level of freedom very similar to that of private entrepreneurs in regular market economies. The new management system was supposed to be implemented across the entire country starting in 2015, with nearly all industrial enterprises switching to the new model. But it did not happen.    Continued

The rumored reformation of North Korea – Part 2

An acute observer described the current situation in North Korea to the author: “For a couple of years, the North Korean economy resembled a car climbing a steep slope at a good speed. But a few months ago, they switched off the engine, and the car has just begun to slide down the slope.”

Given the highly secretive nature of the North Korean government, one can only guess what made Kim Jong Un and his advisers change their minds. The decision to stop reforms might reflect some internal governmental turmoil, but also may be a result of a sudden change of Kim’s mind-set – indeed, the North Korean dictator is remarkably moody at times, and reforms are wrought with political risk.

It is even possible that the reforms were slowed down in order to better prepare the wider economic landscape for their full-scale implementation: This full switch to the new system could potentially trigger severe inflation, so some kind of preparatory “groundwork” is advisable and possibly even necessary. 

Whatever the reason, the reforms appear to have been stopped, albeit not rolled back. The farmers still receive their share of produce, and some factories work according to the new system, often paying exorbitant salaries to the employees. A miner at the Musan iron mine, where the “experimental enterprise” system is functional, can now easily earn $70 a month, almost 100 times the average nationwide salary of less than a dollar a month.

This gives us reason to hope that sooner or later the reforms will be resumed, and that the current halt is merely provisional. After all, the introduction of household-based agriculture a few years ago followed a similar pattern: The new policies were first announced in June 2012, then shelved, but began to be fully implemented during the spring of 2013.

Nevertheless, the news remains disturbing. If North Korea rejects reforms, it will slide back into a state of stagnation. This will mean life will become even more difficult for North Koreans and will create a great deal of trouble for North Korea’s neighbors. A reforming North Korea has the possibility of survival, while a stagnant and stunted North Korea is inevitably bound to collapse.

[Excerpts from Al Jazeera article by Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University, Seoul] 

Tales from the North Korean Famine – Part 1

About the time that North Korean founder Kim Il-sung died, unbeknownst to North Korea’s citizens, Russia stopped subsidizing the nation with food and fertilizer. Then, in 1995, biblical rains and flooding washed away what few crops grew. What little there was of the electrical grid went out.

North Korea plunged into a great famine. Within weeks, Joseph Kim’s father, a respected member of the Workers’ Party of Korea who had been so successful that he was able to build a house for his young family, was unable to feed his family. Kim’s mother was ripping up any plant she could find, edible or not, and force-feeding it to Kim and his sister.

“Your belly is temporarily full, but you can tell no nutrients are flowing to your limbs, that there’s no fat to make your tastebuds happy,” he writes in his memoir, “Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America.”

The deprivation was sudden and severe. A next-door neighbor’s grandfather died of starvation. His parents began fighting brutally over how to get food; his father refused to engage in bribes or the black market, believing such things morally wrong. His mother was in agony: “You’re sacrificing your own children!”

She sold her wedding dress to buy what little food was available. “We were dying,” Kim writes. “Our eyeballs pushed from their sockets, or so it seemed. Really, our faces were just growing leaner. We had little energy for playing or reading books or anything else.”

By spring 1996, the family’s lone daily meal was a handful of weeds, but some days, they only had tiny sips of water.

Kim’s mother went to stay with her own parents. His father decided their best hope was with his brother, who lived near Pyongyang and was a major in the Korean People’s Army. They traveled by train, and a journey that should have taken less than 10 hours took them three weeks, each car stuffed with the starving and unwashed, no room for anyone to move.   Continued   

Tales from the North Korean Famine – Part 2

“People lay in the aisles of the cars, too weak to lift their heads for morsels of food; others were taken out to the fields on either side of the railbed and left to die,” Joseph Kim writes. “As we passed stations, I saw corpses piled up outside them, people who had been waiting and had expired in the heat.”

Kim writes of seeing one relative, an older woman, sneaking some of the very little food in the house and begging Kim not to tell — her own son had once caught her in the act and nearly yanked out her teeth with a pair of pliers.

Dogs vanished from the streets; so did rats. After even vermin became scarce, stories spread about people killing and eating their own infants and selling their children for food — stories Kim believes to this day.

Kim’s father sold half of the house for a week’s worth of cornbread, and after that ran out, he walked six hours to beg a cousin for food. The cousin refused. That was the end for Kim’s father. He began decompensating rapidly, screaming all day and all night in agony. It took two-and-a-half months for Kim’s father to die.

At his burial, Kim’s mother announced that she and his sister would be going to China; she had hired a broker to smuggle them out. His mother would eventually be caught and put in prison, and he later learned that she had sold his sister to a Chinese man.

Kim was 12-years-old. He spent the next three years bouncing between various relatives, but at times he lived on the streets or in a detention home for young boys and girls, where he would hear the screams of children being raped by the guards.

Yet security was lax, and after several months, he successfully ran away. With no family and no food, he did what had previously been unthinkable: One cold winter night, he snuck across the frozen Tumen river into China — one of the most common ways North Koreans attempt to escape, and one the government tries to discourage by telling its citizens that the water is laced with 33,000 volts of electricity.


North Korean refugee now a college student in New York

“Under the Same Sky” vividly describes what Joseph Kim and millions of other North Koreans endured during famines that began in the 1990s. Kim is one of the few North Korean escapees to end up in the United States.

Unlike most books about North Korea, the frightening aspect of this story is not a police state’s rigid control over its people – it is the chaos and absence of any authority during the time of crisis, with desperate citizens left to fend for themselves.

The book does include some accounts of the brutality of the police state, such as when Kim is beaten at a youth detention center. But, for the most part, the soldiers in Kim’s world are malnourished young men who rob peasants in remote areas of the countryside, while the police who patrol outdoor markets are there mainly to take bribes from thieves.

For Kim, famine began when he was 5 years old. Kim explicitly describes how near-starvation affected his body and mind. He also recounts how it affected his family. His parents eventually lost everything they owned, and the family members became squatters in an abandoned building. Kim’s father dies an agonizing death, due to illness and hunger.

Kim resorts to begging and stealing, and even risks public execution for the theft of state property – manhole covers – selling the iron for enough money to buy a bowl of noodles.Kim describes the techniques he used for stealing food from farmers’ fields and urban dwellings, the pecking order among thieves, and even the moral code (don’t steal from mothers with young children).

The book offers fascinating details about daily life in North Korea – such as how the country comes to a standstill every evening as the whole nation watches dramas and soap operas on TV.

It’s not a spoiler to mention that Kim escaped to China, but the way in which he did it comes as quite a surprise. Kim was one of many North Korean refugees hidden and helped by Christians in China. His transition to life in the U.S. was difficult, but he is currently a college student in New York City and has even told the story of his childhood in a TED Talk.

[Christian Science Monitor]

North Korean families near China border relocated

The North Korean government has resettled some 10,000 households to build a 270 km highway section along the Chinese border, reports Chosun Ilbo.

“The aim is to prevent people from fleeing the North,” a source said. Construction of the highway, which runs from Hyesan, Ryanggang Province to Musan, North Hamgyong Province, is nearly complete.

The regime reportedly forced the residents out because the border regions along the Apnok and Duman rivers are notoriously porous, and defections and smuggling are rife.

The source said the move has made it hard for people to flee via the established routes out of Hyesan as well as Musan and Hoeryong, North Hamgyong Province, no matter how much money they pay.