Saturday, March 06, 2010

Back in the DPRK

There was a fascinating article this week in Donga Ilbo, one of South Korea's leading daily newspapers. Many of us learned of it through the efforts of "Tiger Likes Rooster," an American living in Asia who translates local media reports into English, and posts them at

According to the paper, North Korea's military is running out of food.

N. Korea's recent shortage of food is reaching close to the level during the famine in 90's, aka 'March of Suffering.' In particular, discontinued food aid from international community is reportedly hurting soldiers most.

Sources say that food situation in N. Korean military have rapidly deteriorated since the second half of last year. Civilians learned to survive without government ration, but soldiers cannot survive unless the state provide them with food. Stopped food aid from international community dealt a serious blow to them.

According to one of the sources, since the latter part of last year, many units can only provide a few dozen corn kernels or a couple of potatos (per meal) and they have only enough for two meals (a day.) Order came down to make soldiers sleep in the afternoon and not put them into training or work as much as possible.

Another source said, "Malnutrition among soldiers are increasing fast, and I have even seen a case of an unmarried company commissar who went home, stayed for a month, 'replenish himself with calories', before returning (back to his unit.)"

Donga Ilbo never identifies the "sources" for its report, but they are almost certainly members of the ROK intelligence community. Obviously, South Korea's spooks spent most of their time watching the DPRK, but there are significant "gaps" in their reporting. Like the U.S., Seoul relies heavily on technical collection (particularly SIGINT and imagery) to keep tabs on what's happening in North Korea. While those disciplines are useful in tracking military activity, they are less reliable in gauging the impact of famines, and other catastrophes caused by Pyongyang's communist government.

For that, you need accurate human intelligence (HUMINT) reporting. Unfortunately, HUMINT information from inside North Korea remains weak. A former intel collection manager for U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) told us that South Korea has "never" had a successful agent operation inside the DPRK, despite years of efforts and millions of dollars in funding. Because of that failure, both Washington and Seoul utilize "second-hand" reporting from such disparate surces as foreign diplomats; Japanese businessmen who travel to Pyongyang; the few defectors who escape from Kim Jong-il's regime, and groups who assist North Koreans attempting to flee their own country.

While these individuals--and organizations--can provide valuable insights, there are limits on their reporting. For example, diplomats and foreign business representatives are usually restricted to the North Korean capital, the area least affected by famine. Pyongyang has always been a "showplace" for the government (outsiders need special approval to move there), and civilians in the city usually have priority for food over those living in the countryside. While more than a million peasants starved during the mid-1990s, residents of Pyongyang subsided on meager rations, allowing the regime to keep up appearances.

And, with the discontinuation of food aid from the international community, intelligence agencies have lost another valuable source. In the past, North Korea allowed aid groups and medical teams into the countryside; their reporting provided some of the most detailed (and graphic) information on the mass starvation that afflicted the peasant class in years past.

On the other hand, the exodus of literally thousands of Koreans fleeing the "worker's paradise" for an uncertain fate in China speaks volumes about conditions inside the DPRK. The refugees' accounts are routinely collected by assistance groups operating in China, who pass them on to representatives of the South Korean and U.S. governments. Venturing a guess, we'd say that refugee reporting was the foundation of the "leak" provided to the South Korean newspaper.

So, that media account cannot be totally dismissed, despite our limited reporting on conditions in North Korea. And, if the newspaper article is even partly right, it is something of a bombshell. The military is the most powerful institution in the DPRK; it is the guarantor of the Kim dynasty and the communist state. If the North Korean military is going hungry, it could certainly affect loyalty toward the regime, and Kim Jong-il's ability to retain power.

Still, a word of caution is in order. Excerpts from the Donga Ilbo article offer no indication on the extent of the North Korean military's food shortage. While the armed forces of the DPRK always get first first crack at limited foodstuffs (along with the ruling elites), there is a pecking order within the military. Elite units and those with important military assignments would have priority for food over those performing less-critical missions. Are the food shortages in the DPRK military wide-spread, or limited to secondary units? Based on the press report, we simply can't say.

At least two other elements of the article are also a bit suspect. In one paragraph, we're told that a company-level political officer went home for a month to "replenish himself with calories" before returning to his unit. Unless the officer's family is politically-connected, that scenario is highly unlikely. In North Korea's food distribution hierarchy, "ordinary" civilians come in dead last; in most cases, the family would have less to eat than their son, so it's hard to imagine the officer being able to "fatten himself up" during a visit home. On the other hand, if the political officer's relatives enjoy full access to food, you'd think they'd have enough pull to get him assigned to a unit in Pyongyang, where soldiers are (normally) better fed.

Reports of dwindling food supplies in military units is also surprising for another reason. As we've noted in previous posts, virtually all activity in the DPRK armed forces stops during the spring and summer months, so the troops can tend to fields and plots reserved for their units. This communal effort is supposed to provide a minimum food supply for military organizations, supplemented by rations from other sources. If conditions are as bad as the article indicates, it affirms that collectivized agriculture is also a bust in the DPRK military, despite the incentive for soldiers to grow food for themselves.

But it would be a mistake to discount Pyongyang's ability to muddle through the reported food crisis. The regime retained its grip on power in the mid-1990s, while millions of peasants starved to death in the countryside. North Korea has a long history of doing whatever it takes to survive, although wide-spread hunger in the military could pose a long-term threat to government stability.

While it's tempting to predict the demise of a brutal regime, it would also be premature to consign the DPRK to the dustbin of history. During a tour of duty in Korea almost 20 years ago, we reviewed a ROK Ministry of Defense White Paper on future threats to South Korea. In 2010, the authors predicted, Japan and China would represent emerging threats to the ROK, because North Korea would be gone by that time. Two decades later, we see how that prediction panned out.

Put another way: the reported famine in the DPRK will have to get a lot worse to trigger regime change. And Kim Jong-il will do what's necessary to feed his most important military formations, even if other units see their rations cut. And finally, if the food situation is this bad in Pyongyang's military, you can only shudder when contemplating the diet of a North Korea peasant.


JoeC said...

"South Korea has "never" had a successful agent operation inside the DPRK"

Huh. I wonder why? (DPRK agent: "I wonder who that fat Korean is over there? He can't be from around here!")

tfhr said...

I was also a collection manager at USFK and while I did not work HUMINT issues I did work with my ROK counterparts and I can tell you that they are no different than any of our other allies with whom we share intelligence: They give us what they think we need to know.

HUMINT is the most selfish of the intelligence disciplines when it comes to sharing and for good and obvious reasons. I would be very surprised to hear them brag or even talk about HUMINT sources within the DPRK. More than surprised, I would be suspicious. I know our side would never disclose such a thing. It's just one of those things you don't confirm or deny.

As for the alleged food shortages, I would not be surprised to hear that some units are getting meager rations. That's been a pretty common state of affairs there for some time. Is it worse than usual this time? The answer might be found in the conduct of the DPRK's Winter Training Cycle. Knowing which units have gone to the field, engaged in exercises, utilized range facilities, etc, can tell you a lot about readiness.

HUMINT is great if it's accurate. Measuring the WTC doesn't require HUMINT to give some idea about military readiness, though I would not put it past the DPRK to hoard enough rations to start a war it could not win. Neglecting the military would certainly pose a threat to Kim, but as was already pointed out, there are some units that get better treatment than others and it is likely that this practice continues for good reason.

Two other thoughts come to mind. One is that the military almost always takes part in the harvest by providing labor from units in garrisons around the country. I'm trying to square that known with the unknown severity of this year's food shortage. I'm unable to imagine military leaders with their hands on the harvest itself NOT taking what they want.

My last thought on the issue is whether or not we will see more media leaks. This could be a means to make a point. "Feed us or pay the consequences", might be the message. If the South feels that the situation is getting unpredictable, they will almost certainly ship food stuffs to the DPRK and you can probably expect Japan to help.

It's a bias on my part, to be sure, but I believe that North and South work hardest at maintaining the status quo. The only thing I'm more certain of than that is sending an agent into North Korea disguised as a dog would not be a good idea.

tfhr said...



JoeC said...

Maybe someone can enlighten me.... I seem to have seen this spam type elsewhere.

What's with the double-byte character links to sex spam sites? Several places lately I have seen the double-byte characters sets that do not display (thankfully in this case)in Firefox.

Mr. Quarter said...

Here on is an excellent source of intelligence on the conditions in NK. I have been reading it for the past couple of years. Check out this blog

BirdFLU said...

I intentionally subjected myself to repeated viewings of NK propaganda to make into a fun music video:

In the hour-long source video, there is nobody even a little bit pudgy except for Dear Leader himself.