Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Anti-Reform Marriage of Convenience

I've made available links to two Cold War International History Project working papers written by Dr. Bernd Schaefer, as cited in an upcoming interview with Dr. Schaefer to be hosted by The Daily NK, here and here. Fantastic stuff.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dizzying Ignorance, and Short Memories

I can honestly say that my recent interview in London with Lord David Alton (see here), much as I may disagree with some (though not all) of what he said, gave me a benchmark understanding of someone with a genuine intellectual and humanitarian interest in the welfare of the North Korean people.

He, as far as I could discern, read the recent WFP and NGO reports on the conditions in North Korea, listened to "our man in Pyongyang" and decided, not altogether unreasonably, that it painted a worrying picture, and has thereafter been acting with this fact in mind.

Whereas, there are some people who, motivations aside, deserve a kicking. Today's examples? Greta van Susteren and Bernd Goken of German NGO 'Cap Anamur'.

Let us begin with Van Susteren, who is guilty of, at best, transmitting some of the most absurd fearmongering I have ever come across on her recent week-long FOX News 'fact-finding' trip to North Korea.

Not only is her coverage, as noted by one close friend, "unwatchable" since "she can't even pronounce 'Taedong'", it is also dangerously and implausibly divorced from reality.

Here is her main point, one she was so keen to hammer home that she lost the run of herself completely and made three times, two of them in consecutive paragraphs;

This country is on the verge of a catastrophe. It is said by the world community beginning in June, they will run out of food and there will be a famine. The estimates of anywhere from one million to six million who will starve. This is a country of 26 million. One to six million may starve to death beginning in the month of June.

The problem that is bearing down on this country is the famine that is expected to start in June where there is a risk, at least an estimate by many in the world community that one to six million will starve to death because they've had such terrible crops and such a harsh winter in this country.

So this is greatly needed by this country, what is a longer term solution. The bigger problem is they run the risk, come June, enormous food shortage in this country. There could be one to six million people that begin to starve to death.

Elsewhere on her 'Gretawire' blog, there appears to be literally no end to the lengths she shows a willingness to go to in order to sow the seeds of a tearful tragedy, seeing herself as the modern day saviour of an entire people, no doubt, as she trumpets, 'Do you think this woman knows the food supply runs out in two weeks?' alongside a picture of a woman who, while no doubt living a life nobody would entirely wish upon her, is also clearly not a figure plucked at random from the huddled masses, either.

In the next, or was it last, I got thoroughly confused there were so many, pictorial classic she warns, 'Can you believe these pictures? So beautiful... but' as though if one were to come back in a fortnight there'd be nothing but the oxen for company.

However, while I don't actually expect better from FOX News, some organizations actually should know better, much better, and one among them is surely Cap Anamur, a German NGO with a long-standing record of helping North Korea. The group has, according to this VOA report, dispatched 200 tons of rice aid to Anju in South Pyongan Province and Haeju in South Hwanghae Province.

What bothers me is not the fact that this NGO has sent aid per se, since I can clearly see the benefit of well-targeted aid projects, and should remind you again at this point that there were a number of areas of agreement I shared with Lord Alton. No, what made me sigh in despair was this from head Bernd Goken;
The North Korean people like rice more than corn, so we decided to send rice.

Were it the case that the whole thing was just a happy matter of prefered menu choice, one wonders, would we even be in this mess? Where, I ask, is all that we have learned about aid diversion, aid going to the elite, being stored for next year, for a possible nuclear test, acting as balance of payments subsidy? Where, in short, is the sense in sending to North Korea the most diversion-prone aid there is?
The North Korean elite prefer wine and cheese to corn and baby formula, so we decided to send wine and cheese.

You see my point, right?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lord Alton Interview: Views on Food Aid

My recent absence, during which I spent two weeks in England in the kind of glorious weather that casts doubt on everything my overseas friends thought they once knew of that subject, gave me a chance to take a trip to Westminster and meet Lord David Alton, a man who describes himself as a "fairly obscure, independent cross-bench peer" but who can also be described as the chairman of the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.

During the interview, I spoke in depth with Lord Alton on the subject of food aid, something he supports and I am somewhat skeptical of for a number of reasons.

The majority of that section of the interview didn't make the cut, so in the spirit of openness and because there is much of interest in what he had to say, here is the transcript of that section of the interview;

DP: Let’s turn to the topic of food aid. As you know, the South Korean and American governments have their doubts…

Lord Alton: I can only rely on three things; one is the evidence of Peter Hughes, our ambassador in Pyongyang, who is on the public record as saying that he has seen increased evidence of malnutrition in the country; there is the evidence of my own eyes for that matter as well; but most important of all is the evidence produced by the United Nations through the World Food Programme, which has given the figures on how much food the North will be short by.

Now I know that in South Korea there is a fear that the food will go into the hands of the wrong people, the million men under arms; but they are human beings too, and I have never believed that trying to starve armies or peoples into submission is a very wise approach. If you corner people and try to starve them they are likely to respond in ways which you wouldn’t desire, so starving people into submission doesn’t seem like a very sensible way to proceed. We have had monitors in North Korea in the past, and the monitors who have been there like Professor Hazel Smith, who has given evidence before my own committee, have said that the overwhelming majority of the food that has gone there in the past has reached the civilian population.

But it is true that some will go to the military, I think that is just almost inevitable. And who are these million men? They are conscripts, they aren’t trained militias raised on rib-eye steaks and the rest, and you can see that these are people who have not had much nourishment themselves or a stable diet.

So I think we have to take the WFP at their word. Now it may well be South Korea’s fear that this is just an attempt to store up food for distribution next year’s 2012 celebrations; I can’t say there is no possibility of that happening, but it is also clear that there is a desperate need for food over the next two months, although I do think it is reasonable for the international community to insist on proper monitoring.

DP: But as it stands the North Koreans are calling for rice, rather than any other products, which is a very odd demand if you are making a legitimate call for food.

Lord Alton: Yes, well we heard requests for a variety of foods, but anyway, the sincerity of their demands needs to be tested. However, I think a blanket ban on food exports into North Korea would be wrong. Food should never be used as a weapon of war, and if there is a need over the next two months for food to sustain the population, then let’s make available that food. Maybe you are right, maybe it should not just be food that can be stored for the future, and let’s insist on there being proper monitors; they are both reasonable requests. But that isn’t after all the position that is being taken right now by the United States and South Korea; their position is that no food is being made available.

DP: From the South Korean perspective, the worry is that if you send food aid and in some small way it does go to feed soldiers and then those soldiers are used to kill South Koreans in one way or another; that is going to be politically untenable.

Lord Alton: I think all of these are scenarios that are perfectly reasonable for people to raise, and I am not here to defend North Korea, but I do want to find a way forward, and I think to spend all our lives denying people food and worrying about nuclear tests when we know there have already been tests and there has already been a famine which cost two million lives is a bit like counting the deckchairs on the Titanic; it would be better to try and make sure that the vessel is watertight, and the only way to do that is to find a long-term solution, so I want to see an increase in diplomatic efforts to solve the longer term problem.

It may be that in the meantime we have to do some things which are mildly unpalatable. But if they get so desperate that we see food protests in some towns then some people in the military may well see it that some provocative acts to concentrate the minds of the populace might be a good idea, and is that in anybody’s best interests either?

DP: No, but in the northern provinces the price of rice is actually falling, and that is causing some understandable confusion.

Lord Alton: That’s true, and I can understand the confusion, and if North Korea wants to pursue the argument of receiving outside support then it would be helpful to let the WFP and other assessors come in and visit those provinces and to see for themselves. At the moment we just seem to have a stand-off, with neither side moving and with South Korea and the United States not really wanting anyone to move. The people caught in the crossfire will be weak people; children, old people, people whose health is already impaired. So the sincerity of this call should be tested; for example, why not ask China if they would mount an investigative mission to corroborate things one way or the other?