This year, both North Korean authorities and international agencies and experts have once again spoken of a drought, the worst in one hundred years according to the North Korean government news outlet. UNICEF, the UN agency for children, has already reported that North Korean children are suffering from an increased prevalence of diarrhea associated with a lack of safe drinking water.
It’s business as usual, in other words. The alarm bells of North Korean food shortages and natural disasters are a yearly phenomenon with the same regularity as Christmas. In the summer of 2007, the country was hit by some of the worst floods in its modern history, which saw 200,000 people displaced and at least hundreds killed. Floods devastated the country again both in 2012 and 2013, albeit on a smaller magnitude. And as recently as June last year, just like this year, North Korea reported that it was facing a drought – then the worst in a decade.
This recurring state of emergency is by no means inevitable. North Korea’s inability to cope with natural disasters, and to feed its own population, is a direct result of deliberate government policies. Even after the devastating famine in the 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of its citizens starved to death as the economy collapsed, North Korea refused to abandon its socialist foundations and economic planning.
Sadly, in trying to counter North Korea’s suffering, the international community may ironically be contributing to its prolonging. The United Nations and other donors are enabling the North Korean regime to continue its disastrous policies when they act as cushions whenever the country runs out of food.
Foreign aid has been an integral part of North Korea’s food supply planning since the mid-1990s. This year is no exception, and the international community may have to allocate additional funds to North Korean food aid in order to prevent widespread malnutrition. But aid won’t change anything in the long run. North Korea will continue to be highly vulnerable to simple weather changes, unless its most basic economic policies are completely overhauled.
The most fundamental of these policies is that of economic autarky. Countries with well-functioning economic systems that allow for economic specialization and trade would simply see food imports increase to offset dryer weather conditions. This cannot happen in North Korea. The regime has made efforts from time to time to modernize its system and attract foreign investments, but it has not taken any of the necessary steps to seek integration into the global economy.
The North Korean regime often emphasizes that the country consists mostly of mountainous regions not suitable for farming. That is clearly true, but the logical response to such a challenge would be to seek to import agricultural goods and export those that the country can produce in greater abundance to a cheaper price than others. Instead, the regime continues to uphold economic and political self-reliance as its overarching goal. More detailed policies have also contributed to the dire situation: For decades, North Koreans have systematically been cutting down trees on mountain slopes to create more farmland, contributing to flooding since the soil has been unable to retain rainwater.
To be sure, some economic and agricultural policy reforms have occurred. Unlike in the country’s more orthodox socialist days, private markets are now tolerated. Many even became formalized and integrated into the economic system after the famine of the 1990s, when the government could no longer restrict them as the socialist distribution system ceased to function.
Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, some experiments have been made in allowing farmers to keep more of their harvests for private trade and consumption. A large number of special economic zones have been designated by the government and allowed significant freedom to operate and craft their own rules.
These are only a few examples of how the state is trying to get the economy going. But these measures amount to nothing more than tweaking the edges of a failed system. The state still owns all essential means of production. While some scholars have argued that the country’s agricultural reforms have led harvests to increase, the slightly larger harvests of recent years merely seem to be a continuation of a trend that started long before reforms were implemented.
On the contrary, North Korea is not only refusing to change its economic structures to make them more resilient to events like the current drought. The state also continues to suppress those economic mechanisms that could help counter the effects of natural disasters. Even though private legal markets are now part of the formal economy to a large extent, imports and exports are still heavily restricted and largely rely on the willingness of border guards to accept bribes.
While Kim Jong-un has implemented measures that carry the shape of economic liberalization with one hand, his other hand has been used to tighten controls on border trade and smuggling. The government would only need to cease some of its control of the markets to alleviate the food shortages that will likely follow the current drought, a virtually costless measure. So far, it has done nothing of this sort.
Like most disasters often termed as “natural,” the consequences of North Korea’s drought are first and foremost failures of policy, not of nature. By agreeing to supply North Korea’s shortfall in food production, year after year, even as the regime refuses to make any fundamental changes to the system that keeps on failing, the international community acts as an enabler for the regime’s continuing mismanagement. Humanitarian aid is given with the best of intentions, but in the long run, by helping the North Korean regime avoid necessary policy choices, it may be harming rather than helping the North Korean population.
Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a non-resident Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum. He writes frequently on North Korean affairs and formerly worked as a special advisor to the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation.