Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Flight of a Winter Butterfly

Crossing was a hard movie to like, hampered as it was by some weak effects that made it fundamentally quite difficult to believe in. Obviously, this was rooted in the indisputable fact that a great many things about life in North Korea are already exceptionally hard to grasp, but it is nevertheless important for the atmosphere of a movie to strike watchers as legitimate, even when it is a movie about a place as extreme as North Korea; the only industrialized country to have suffered a famine in peacetime.

Now, however, what Crossing did not achieve, 겨울 나비 (Winter Butterfly), the new movie from defector Kim Kyu Min, who previously worked on Crossing, does.

It is a film which portrays beautifully the stark surroundings of a rural or semi-rural North Korean family. It is a landscape with no real comforts to speak of, but also nothing that one can point at and say is inconceivably and intolerably uncomfortable. That is with one clear exception; the utter fragility of the situation.

What the film ends up doing is breaking down this reality; it points out that if, and it is a big if, a family is well-constructed, with a father, a wife and a healthy child or two, things are probably alright (represented here by the happy wedding photo from times past), and even if a family is broken in some way (in this case, father appears to have passed away some years before) it can still survive, actually, though not in a way that is necessarily favorable (in this case, the young boy has to gather wood to make money, rather than going to school, but the mother sells the wood, and the family buys corn).

Yet, if one thing out of many does happen to go seriously wrong, it can have such profound implications that an already weakened family unit is destroyed in a heartbeat. This is living on the edge, and not in a good way.

Winter Butterfly is, then, a very thoughtful portrait of this kind of life, and if it were to be shown at western film festivals it would be very well-received, of this I am sure. However, it has a problem, or rather, to be absolutely accurate, the audience has a problem that the film may not be able to fix.

This horrifying act is thoughtfully portrayed, relevant and insightful, but it can hardly avoid reaffirming a certain stereotype about the country potentially harbored by watchers less knowledgeable about North Korea than those reading this.

It is a huge problem, and one rooted in something not easily overcome. Yet this film itself is so good and so important, so intelligent and so valid, that I would be happy to subtitle and distribute it myself.

Update: I spoke to the director this morning, and he said that there is a subtitled version of the film ready for distribution to film festivals next year.

On the central issue that could affect how watchers take the movie, Kim made a good point; if a defector cannot say these things and have them openly accepted, then nobody can. And, as I pointed out in my piece above, it is the way that the regime has created a system that leaves families blowing around in the perilous wind of accidents and arbitrarily applied official fiat that is the point here. Horrifying acts are just the result.

Also, as a result of his comments, I have removed reference to what actually happens since that might spoil it for watchers. If that makes this piece somewhat confusing, I apologize, but hope it inspires more people to watch the film when the chance arises.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Looking at Food Aid with Open Eyes

The following piece appeared in the recently released Vol.6 of 'Korea Policy', a predominantly Korean language journal available here in South Korea. I waited for publication there before offering the piece up here.

It was written at a time when voiced fears about starvation were being rooted in the alleged failure of the last autumn harvest and the risks associated with the lean period before the spring potato harvest, though this subsequently turned into alleged problems with the potato harvest as well.

It was also written weeks before the EU decided to restart food aid to North Korea with a modest EUR10 million package, but I nevertheless hope it will end up as a blueprint for what the EU and others do, namely provide "the absolute minimum needed to help a very small number of people for the shortest possible time."

Evidently, one thing the EU is not going to do is go to the extremes of what has been suggested in terms of undermining the predatory ambitions of the Chosun People's Army, for example by cooking food on site prior to distribution, but the stated budget limitations do suggest that Brussels is at least mindful of the worst thing of all, namely entering into an open-ended commitment to support the deplorable policy choices of the North Korean regime.

The debate about food aid to North Korea has been going on since approximately the end of March, when Choi Tae Bok, the chair of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, visited the UK, taking up an invitation from Lord David Alton, one of the leading members of the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.

According to Lord Alton, among the reasons for inviting Choi was to“expose him to the way we build our civil society in Britain1,”and he was indeed offered a myriad of experiences; he visited the School of Oriental and Asian Studies and looked around a TB unit at one of London's premier hospitals, received a book of Lord Byron’s poetry (Choi is a fan), went to Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and was even handed the signal honor of being the first high-ranking member of the Kim regime to meet a North Korean defector and hear a question from him on human rights issues, though he didn’t know it was going to happen and would not have agreed to it if he had.

But all of that was an aside, ultimately overshadowed as it was by Choi’s repeated calls during the trip for food aid. He was not the first North Korean to do so, it should be noted; there had been rumors of calls for food from North Korean diplomats in places as far removed as Poland and Zimbabwe, not to mention the UK itself, but he was the most senior, and his calls resonated the loudest.

Choi’s words were very clear, “The next two months are a crisis time.” He was calling for food aid to see North Korea through the spring shortages, the time in April and May when food is traditionally scarce due to the normal farming cycle, but one which can ordinarily be overcome thanks in part to the availability of wild plants to supplement the basic diet (some of which South Koreans also eat in spring, it should be noted). However, given Choi's calls, many assumed that something must have gone very wrong.

And yet, looking back at April when the two months of spring shortages to which Choi was referring typically begin, most inside sources cited in The Daily NK reports showed guarded confidence that survival would be achieved;

"I called my parents a few days ago, and they said‘As long as you have money, you can buy as much rice in the market as you want. Some households are struggling with the spring shortages, but nobody is near the stage of eating porridge made from grasses.'" (Hwang, Shinuiju, April 6th)

"When I call my family and ask about food, they say ‘As long as you have money, you can take your pick of the rice.' Mid-level people are eating three meals of potato, corn and barley rice per day, and those for whom it is difficult are eating one meal of wheat flour noodles." (Hong, Yangkang Province, April 6th)

Further inside North Korea, more general reports of city-by-city food security emerged, showing a tough but not insurmountable situation;

"In Pyongsung, South Pyongan Province, a comparatively affluent city thanks to a somewhat thriving market located on a main arterial trade route, sources say that 85% of people can afford to have three meals a day, and 15% just two." (April 20th)

"In Haeju, a less advantageous coastal location in South Hwanghae Province facing Yeonpyeong Island, 80% of people are having three meals a day, 15% have two, and 5% just one." (April 20th)

One NGO, German Agro Action, also cut against the grain of a UN report released around the time of Choi's visit which had called for 430,000 tons of immediate food aid, saying that while there are unquestionably food shortages in North Korea, there are "political reasons behind Pyongyang’s drive to obtain aid and doubts about the validity of the report itself."

Meanwhile, further complexity was lent to the decision by the fact that there is always hunger in the country to some degree. This is because the Kim regime is one which, although it likes to blame bad weather and its perceived enemies for chronic food insecurity, is primarily responsible for the situation it finds itself in thanks to a politically-motivated determination to stick to totally inefficient food production methods, a fact that German Agro Action focused on in its dissenting remarks.

More information was needed. An important point was made in an April 30th piece, when Cheong Gwang Min, a researcher into the state of North Korean agriculture pointed out, “Those suffering from hunger in North Korea are no longer just those on the lowest rung of society, but also now includes those who have lost any means of participating in the market economy, i.e. the ‘new poor', including lower ranking soldiers.”

Clearly, this concept of the‘new poor represented tacit acknowledgement that the market, and not the state, is the de facto provider of food to most people in modern North Korea. To say that some go hungry precisely because they cannot participate in the market is very similar to saying most people do not go hungry because they can. Therefore, we can presume that as a result of the market’s existence and its resistance to official censure, nobody in North Korea with sufficient access to the market is starving. Thus, we would be wise to view the situation afresh; in particular, to note that there is (admittedly rather expensive) food out there, but that the regime does not have control of much of it, which from Pyongyang’s perspective is the fundamental problem, and the probable root of Choi's calls.

In other words, the regime lacks the food it needs to feed those it has either taken on the obligation to sustain or has the desire to placate; particularly, but not exclusively, the military and security services.

The international community and NGOs can and should recognize, therefore, that by not giving the regime food aid, Pyongyang is being denied one of its key tools of control, namely the ability to feed and fully guarantee the loyalty of the People’s Army, the National Security Agency, People’s Security Ministry and other sectors of the security forces it has traditionally prioritized. Denied, that is to say, unless it imports food, which is what it should be made to do.

At the same time, there are few people who would deny that a targeted program of aid to civilians who have “lost any means of participating in the market” is sensible, and that measures such as cooking food on site for distribution etc are capable of eliminating the majority of fears related to diversion. But as a general rule of thumb, no aid beyond the absolute minimum needed to help this very small number of people for the shortest possible time should be provided. As Professor Yoo Ho Yeol of Korea University put it at a recent forum, “For specific areas and groups which cannot obtain the benefits of the market, support is possible; however, this must be done temporarily, to a limited extent and with conditions.”

Even if we assume, as many did, that spring this year was a time for aid of this sort, to meet such stringent objectives the U.S. and international agencies would have needed to listen to Choi Tae Bok’s plea and act instantly to get food into North Korea to cover the difficulties of a small, precisely defined number of people during a brief period of April, May and the very start of June. But they did not do that, partly because nothing happens like that where North Korea is concerned, and partly because both the international community and various media organizations, including The Daily NK, entered into a lengthy round of debate as to why North Korea was calling so vociferously for food aid at that stage (Is it for the Strong and Prosperous State in 2012? Is it to build inventories to hunker down following a future nuclear test?).

The result is that the spring shortages are now over while almost no aid has been provided. It is noticeable that there have been no reports of widespread starvation whatsoever, despite Choi Tae Bok's dark warnings and some extremely sensationalized reporting in the western media. This indicates that the market is operating as it should.

For the time being, it would be preferable if the international community were to stop the debate on food aid altogether and take a step back to watch China, which seems to be taking an alternate path by pushing North Korea to conduct its affairs on conventional economic terms, and also the people of North Korea, who are quietly doing what the regime should have been doing for years, namely importing food to sell to the people in functioning markets. Market prices are lower now than they have been since 2009 thanks to stable Yuan exchange rates, and while purchasing power has decreased and a number of people have entered poverty who would not otherwise be there, conversely most people are sustaining themselves sufficiently to not require aid. Note also that most traders who had their funds expropriated by the state in the 2009 redenomination will not be in that position forever; given time and a small amount of good fortune, they too will be able to bounce back.

Contrary to our intentions, giving anything but the most essential aid to the most needy at the most critical moments would potentially reduce the influence of the market, both as a source of food but also of information circulation. A policy of ongoing aid provision, which the U.S. appears to be considering and which the South Korean opposition Democratic Party would almost certainly institute if it were to win the presidential poll in 2012, would risk a number of gains for insufficient reward.
I think the piece continues to stand in the face of current evidence, but dissension is welcome. I would like also like to draw attention to one phrase near the end;
Note also that most traders who had their funds expropriated by the state in the 2009 redenomination will not be in that position forever; given time and a small amount of good fortune, they too will be able to bounce back.
However, it is not actually about good fortune. What I mean to suggest is that the majority of our future investment in 'aiding' the North Korean people ought to be put not into quick fixes such as corn and high calorie biscuits, but instead into applying more creative ideas in an ongoing manner, starting with finding ways to get money back into the hands of traders so that they can pursue the work of freeing their comrades from the apron strings of the state. Microloans would be one way, but not the only one.

I am well aware that this would not help that small group of vulnerable people who have no access to the market, and am equally aware that helping the completely helpless in a state with no social safety net nor obvious desire to help its own people is something that only aid can realistically do at this point, but what it would do is help to build back up the nascent middle class that was hollowed out by the currency redenomination. This is important work, because while the truly poor will probably always struggle, in the long run it will be the burgeoning self-interest of the middle class that has the best chance of ending this nonsense once and for all.