My three-year tenure as UN Coordinator for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also called North Korea, from late 2009 to early 2013, was marked by momentous events: the death of Kim Jong-il and the transmission of power to his son Kim Jong-un; the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, which the regime used to take stock, as it were, of its achievements; and, finally, the confirmation that North Korea has the capability to launch a rocket into space. The nuclear test of February 2013 is a marker of the country’s steps along the nuclear path and has exacerbated political tensions in the region and beyond.
For the ordinary people of North Korea, however, these events only served as a backdrop to a chronic scarcity of food and energy for cooking and heating in a very cold climate, and to the inability of the health sector to deliver basic services. During my tenure in North Korea, I could observe the stark reality of the humanitarian needs of the people — a reality acknowledged by the government of the country in its requests for assistance from the UN and other donors.
In North Korea, two-thirds of the population (16 million people) suffers from chronic food insecurity, high malnutrition rates and deep-rooted economic problems. The healthcare system is unable to meet basic needs owing to inadequate medical supplies and equipment. Health facilities are hobbled by water and heating systems that often do not function and need to be rehabilitated.
The UN agencies do their best to mitigate the protracted crisis in North Korea through a sustained humanitarian response to address both immediate and intermediate needs, as well as some of the root causes that make the people vulnerable. Indeed, the UN is the largest single official donor to the country. It provides nutritious food to around 2 million people in the most food insecure areas, besides treating over 10,000 children for severe acute malnutrition and over 57,000 for moderate acute malnutrition. The cereal deficit is chronic and ranges from 300,000 to over 700,000 metric tonnes. The UN, together with the Red Cross Movement and a handful of NGOs, keeps the health system barely going.
North Korea is prone to natural disasters, especially annual floods. In a country where the infrastructure is so fragile and in such bad shape, it doesn’t take much for a natural disaster to become a very serious disaster. The North Korean government has ways to respond to such crises, but a flood basically means even greater loss and more stress on an overextended system.
Everywhere, the country’s infrastructure takes on a bipolar dimension: the capital city, Pyongyang, is quite striking, especially when over 10,000 apartments — a whole downtown of gleaming towers — were built in less than a year even as the country is plunged in the dark every night. An impressive network of six-lane roads connects Pyongyang, the capital city, to key regional cities such as Kaesong, Wonsan and soon Hamhung. These wide, strategic roads, often wide enough for military airplanes to land on, are almost completely empty of traffic, save vehicles on official business of the government or the military. Meanwhile, the secondary artery roads are just packed dirt, which the population uses on foot and on bicycle.
The economic performance of North Korea in the last five years has been very sluggish. Overall, with whatever data is verifiable, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Country Report notes that there has been about 2 percent growth in the real gross domestic product (GDP) between 2005 and 2010, implying an implicit annual compound growth rate of about 0.4 percent in real national income. With population growth at about 0.6 percent per annum, the per capita real GDP has actually declined during this period. The modest recovery that began in 1999 after a period of famine brought modest growth until 2005, but has been followed by negative growth in three out of the last five years.
Agriculture remains a major contributor to the national economy, accounting for 20-30 percent of the GDP between 2000 and the present. Mechanisation is virtually absent, so are inputs such as fertilisers and seeds. We expatriates were used to seeing our colleagues disappear sometimes for weeks to go help out in the fields at harvest time. A rather futile effort, given that 15-30 percent of the cereal harvest gets lost to poor pick-up and storage techniques.
Though I never witnessed widespread famine in my three years there, I saw plenty of shocking malnutrition, public institutions refusing to provide children with sufficient food and heating arrangements, and the people constantly looking for ways to improve their meagre nutrition.
Inflation, a serious problem in recent years, worsened after the failed initiative to revaluate the North Korean currency in 2009 when, according to most analyses, prices increased significantly. In my three years there, the “black market” rate of the local currency went from 500 won to the dollar to over 10,000! Meanwhile, the few who have access to foreign exchange are insulated from the ravages of inflation. We saw them pull large wads of US dollars and euros and buy all sorts of goods (including luxury goods) at our diplomatic shop or at convertible currency stores.
I also witnessed the rapid rise of China’s presence in the economy. North Korea’s trade relations are limited to a few countries, with China and South Korea accounting for almost 90 percent. In fact, China today accounts for most of this 90 percent. Until recently, South Korea was its northern neighbour’s top export destination, accounting for about half of all exports. However, strained political ties between the two countries, including a trade ban by South Korea this year, has severely impacted North Korea’s exports and reduced its foreign currency earnings.
Though North Korea has in the past experimented with attempts at opening up its economy to attract foreign capital, there are currently no signs that the government will undertake any of the long-term structural reforms necessary to spur national economic growth. The street-level “market” economy is visible everywhere, part cash and part barter.
The country still needs external assistance. And despite their primary position among the donors here, all the UN agencies together spent a little under $100 million or $4 per inhabitant in 2012, much less than they do in almost all other developing countries. For example, the official overseas development assistance to Nepal in 2012, a country with a similar population size, was three times as much. And in Afghanistan, also very high on the West’s strategic list, it was 150 times. But even the relatively modest contributions of humanitarian supplies provided by the UN play a vital role in safeguarding and promoting the wellbeing of millions whose food security, nutritional status and general health would otherwise be even more seriously compromised.
Provision of assistance to North Korea must be based on the international humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality, and not contingent upon political developments. Separating humanitarian needs from political issues is a prerequisite for alleviating the worst effects of the immediate and chronic crises of scarcity that impacts the people of the country. One day, we will ask, why were we not there to testify and to help?