Korea: Famine Stages a Comeback


August 15, 2007: Money is overcoming discipline in North Korea. In the last decade, the secret police have basically abandoned trying to stop money transfers (especially from those who got out of the country illegally) to North Koreans. Chinese brokers handle these deals, taking 20-30 percent to cover their fee and the attendant bribes. The police have also become more tolerant of prostitution, illegal taxis and luxury restaurants (which sometimes offer girls on the side.) Much of the new vice is for rich foreigners, but there are an increasing number of rich North Koreans who can also afford to indulge themselves.

In the north, the annual monsoon rains were good this year, and that led to a police crackdown on people watching foreign movies and TV shows. Cheap CD and DVD players, and even cheaper (usually pirated) CDs and DVDs, combined with more electricity (because of the heavy rains increasing hydroelectric power) have been identified as a threat to the state. Police are prowling neighborhoods when the juice is on (20 hours a day now in urban areas, four in rural ones), listening for illegal entertainment. Violators have their stuff seized (and later sold by the cops) and they are fined (with most of that going to local officials). At the beginning of the year, there was only a few hours of electricity a day for most people.

In a rare admission, North Korea complained of food shortages, and the damage done by recent monsoon rains. Flooding had made over 250,000 people homeless, and had killed or injured over a thousand. Last years monsoon killed over 500 people and destroyed over 17,000 homes and 1,200 commercial structures. But the floods are only making the famine worse, and starvation is the larger threat. The 1990s famine killed about ten percent of the population, and it appears another famine, of similar proportions, is looming. The North Korean government is asking for aid, something it rarely does. This may be in reaction to the usual donors of food refusing to send anything. North Korea has a reputation for diverting food aid to the armed forces and the black market. The north has refused demands that food aid distribution be monitored by donor organizations. So the food aid isn't coming, while the starvation increases.




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