The North Korean Food Crisis

Jun 13, 2002

Hazel Smith has been working and visiting North Korea for over a decade, one of the few foreigners to have first-hand knowledge of the situation there. In fact, she notes that even Koreans living in Pyongyang have no idea of the extent of famine and terrible conditions in the rest of the country.

Carnegie Council: How did you initially become interested in international relations?

Hazel Smith: I come from a [foreign] services background and my family started moving country to country when I was seven. Back then, I used to think it was completely illogical that you needed a passport and different money just to go to a different piece of territory. And I still think that. I dont find that people are different in any country. People are exactly the same everywhere.

Carnegie Council: When and why did you visit North Korea for the first time?

HS: I was doing my Ph.D. as a mature student in my thirties at the London School of Economics at the time, and by that point, I had essentially become de-skilled so I had no choice but to keep studying.

Then one day, a friend asked me if I wanted to go to North Korea. The North Korean Academy of Social Sciences was inviting academics to come and visit at the time and they were even paying expenses if you could get to Berlin. So I said "Why not?" I thought I could use the break. But I was hopelessly ignorant at the time, and I didn't do much homework before I got there.

When I got there, we had lectures everyday from the North Koreans about their ideology, and they also took us around the country. And I didn't understand anything that was going on. So when I got back to the UK, I started doing research on North Korea just so I could learn more about what I had heard and seen. But what I found was there was nothing credible to read. Everything that was published was tainted. People either loved the North Koreans or hated them. There was nothing reputable.

Carnegie Council: What kinds of people did this program attract?

HS: Academics from all over the world. There were a lot of Indians, for instance, because North Korea was very active in the non-aligned movement. They had a very active foreign policy at this time, not only with other socialist nations but with non-aligned countries, particularly India and many countries in Africa. In fact, North Korea used to send agricultural experts to Africa to help them with the agriculture. And they even had close links with Latin America. So in the late 1980s, there were a lot of foreigners there. I met Yugoslavs, Belgians, South Africans, Germans, French, and I even bumped into a bus full of Polish tourists.

Then in 1991, I took eight British academics to North Korea for a seminar with North Korean academics, which was just an amazing experience. And when we came back from that trip, we decided to do a conference in Britain. It took place in late 1992 and was entitled "North Korea and the New World Order." We tried to get everyone in England who had ever had any involvement with North Korea to attend.

And from that conference, we got a book. And then the nuclear crisis of 1993-1994 began, and soon the BBC and ABC News and others were all asking us to provide commentary, almost on a daily basis. Eventually, this led me to work with UNICEF and the World Food Program during the food crisis. I've now been working in North Korea for 12 years and it all started by accident, basically.

Carnegie Council: How aware are North Koreans of the magnitude of this food crisis?

HS: There is a tremendous amount of ignorance in the DPRK. For instance, one time I was with a Korean translator in a remote area of North Korea. We were evaluating health standards and some of the clinics in the hospitals, and they were all in a terrible state. For example, there was no soap or disinfectant, so hygiene was obviously a big problem. And she said "I have never seen anything like this. I did not know it even existed. But I'm glad because those of us who live in Pyongyang should see this." It was obviously a tremendous shock for her, and we have seen this type of reaction before from other interpreters in Pyongyang.

The only way she could console herself was to think of these areas as the most marginalized. But that just shows the level of ignorance, because they are all over North Korea. The daily press -- controlled by the government, of course -- calls them "difficulties" or part of the "arduous march." But many people don't see the details about what it means to see a child who is hungry or why someone is in a hospital, or even how widespread it is.

Carnegie Council: What kinds of decisions were you helping organizations such as UNICEF and the World Food Program (WFP) make?

HS: I was part of a 2-3 member targeting unit. WFP is the biggest food operation in the world and has access to virtually every country, and in North Korea, the WFP feeds 8.5 million people out of a total population of 22 million; women and children mainly. If the food donations come in, its fine. You've got your program and you feed everybody on your list. The people getting food aid don't get much variety, just basic grains and nothing that is very nutritious. You are just keeping them alive basically. Incidentally, that is one thing that is not talked about with food aid, because when people talk about diversion, the fact is you don't need to divert it because the elites would not touch it. It's the military that gets first selection of the North Korean harvest anyway, so women and children get food aid.

Carnegie Council: What is the role of an international researcher when it comes to a major famine?

HS: I'll give you an example. In 1999, the head of the World Food Program, which is the biggest food aid operation program in the world, decided to incorporate gender into their work. And to research these gender issues, we went to some "food for work" sites, which are all pretty desolate. We asked: What happens to women and men, boys and girls in this food crisis? Do they experience a food crisis in different ways?

What we found is there were hugely gendered needs, so hence the need for a gender sensitive response. In the 1990 food survey, for instance, one of the things that they found is that severe malnutrition - which is when you are close to dying - is that for under 2 years old, 35% of boys were suffering from severe malnutrition and 25% of little girls were suffering from severe malnutrition. So if you had just looked at the averages, you only would have seen 30%. Everyone was astounded by these statistics because, like in many countries, little boys are who you would feed first. And what we found, although no one is completely sure, is that little boys were being treated as if they were slightly tougher. You would have to do a lot more research on this, but the hypothesis had been that little boys would do better doing a food crisis.

And then there were differences between the men and women. Whole communities are employed at these food-for-work sites and they do very basic agricultural projects. And when I talked to engineers on the site, I asked what women did differently. Their answer was "Nothing, they do the same as the men." But it turned out that during lunchtime, the women walked home to do the domestic chores and housework, which are hugely manual. So they were walking longer distances and working as much as the men so they were expending more calories. So if everyone gets the same ration, they were disadvantaged.

In the end, we came up with 58 recommendations about how to improve life at the site, almost all of which were implemented.

The World Food Program is now working on providing more nutritious food, collecting more data and building a computer database. If the food comes in like it's supposed to, there is not a problem -- everyone gets food. But if it doesn't come in, you have to decide where it goes and where it doesn't go. And we never had enough. And what is happening today is that the food pipeline is diminishing.

Carnegie Council: What are the conditions like for North Korea aid workers?

HS: Some of the aid workers in North Korea live in incredibly isolating conditions. Many have no functioning hygiene systems and are not allowed outside of their residences. It can be extraordinarily difficult, and I don't think I could do some of the aid work that is done there. But as a scholar, one attraction of North Korea is that it's a minefield of primary research.

Its tough work but its can also be very rewarding. There is plenty of evidence that aid might not be getting to all the people, but its certainly getting to many people who need it, people who would die without it.

Carnegie Council: What has changed in North Korea since you started going there in the early 1990s?

HS: I'll begin my answer with a joke that is going around Pyongyang at the moment. You could call it "The Pyongyang Young Woman's Dilemma," although a bigger dilemma would be finding food to eat.

Its about a young woman over 25 (most women get married before then). The parents are worried that she is not married. So the matchmaker keeps presenting the family with eligible young men. And these days, the woman, obviously a privileged one, has three questions. 1) Is he a heavy smoker?; 2) Can he use a computer?; and 3) Does he speak another language? If the question is yes to the first and no to the last two, then the suitor can forget it.

What I think the joke tells us is that it indicates some of the social changes that are going over in parts of the country. For one, the DPRK is catching up to the world on health issues. When I first went there in 1990, there was no knowledge about the health effects of smoking, but today people make jokes about how smoking is killing them. And secondly, it shows people are now understanding the importance of technology. People are trying to learn it wherever they can. North Korea and South Korea are even doing some joint technological projects together, and a French media firm is now doing computer animation in Pyongyang.

Of course, the major problem is there has been no political change. There is socio-economic change, but no political change.

Carnegie Council: What needs to happen for North Korea to come back into the international community?

HS: Aside from political change inside of North Korea, I think there is a process of normalization that we need to do. I am not talking about the way we view the government, but the people of North Korea. People need to start thinking about the kinds of people who live in North Korea and other parts of the world because they are just like us: These people want to have a decent life, they don't want to be hungry, they want to have futures for their children, and most of them are not terribly concerned with politics. And once we get beyond the parameters that we sometimes get stuck at, we can start to look at all the changes that are happening in North Korea.

---Interview conducted by Mark Pedersen

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