During a recent visit to the border area between China and North Korea, I confirmed that the magnitude of the humanitarian tragedy caused by North Korea's food crisis greatly exceeds estimates of international organizations, forcing significant changes in North Korea.
According to parallel accounts by Chinese academics, ethnic Korean-Chinese visitors to North Korea, and North Korean refugees, death counts in many northern villages have reached one-third of the population, with a conservative estimate of the aggregate death toll now in the tens of thousands. The potential is frighteningly real for the crisis to equal the dimensions of China's famine in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward.
Even the South Korean news media, which previously cast doubts about the validity of the reported famine in North Korea, is now broadcasting gruesome tales from the mouths of the refugees who have escaped to China, including multiple reports of attempts to sell family members into servitude in exchange for food. Newly available footage taken secretly inside North Korea confirms human suffering and death from this "silent famine."
This crisis is worse than the international community reported because most observers have relied on cooperation from the North Korean government. The masses of ordinary North Koreans most at risk hold only tenuous connections with central authorities and are seldom seen or heard.
The central government has confined international food deliveries (and therefore monitoring of conditions) to cities and villages favored by the authorities.
Refugees from many remote villages report that food distributions throughout mountainous northern and northeastern parts of North Korea were halted more than two years ago. At the height of the pre-harvest food crisis last fall (which likely will be worse this year), people outside the shrunken distribution system of the central government were "dropping like flies," according to refugees and Chinese-Korean visitors.
Some South Koreans say the worst of the food crisis has been weathered, with a new harvest in sight. But system failures will not end without basic reforms to North Korea's bankrupt economy and depleted agricultural sector.
The beginnings of limited but important changes in North Korea may now be visible. Unable to feed its own people, the central government - once monolithic under Kim Il Sung - has been forced to make significant changes under his son, Kim Jong Il. Controls on internal movements have been relaxed to allow people to forage for food, spawning an increased flow of refugees to Chinese border areas. Economic responsibility has devolved to provincial, city, and town authorities. The collective farm structure is breaking down and being replaced by limited Chinese-style agricultural reform measures. Free markets have become commonplace, despite government proscription. More than 200 new trading authorities representing lower-level authorities seeking resources for their communities have sprung up in China's border areas, with government acquiescence.
A Chinese scholar posits that in North Korea "grain is power." If so, the decision to transfer economic responsibility to provincial authorities at least temporarily opens the door to a potentially significant restructuring. The government's power has shrunk as the crisis has deepened.
Up to now international organizations have had no choice but to feed those areas chosen by the regime. But changes in structure open up new possibilities for direct assistance. North Korea agreed during recent Red Cross talks to direct grain to provinces and localities designated by South Korean donors. China has adopted a similar policy, allowing Chinese-Korean families to take up to one ton of grain across the border to feed relatives.
The US and South Korea should remove restrictions on humanitarian exchanges and encourage direct non- governmental cooperation with North Korean provincial or local representatives. Such efforts may reinforce changes in North Korea's economic structure and complement the drive for four-party talks on a Korean peace settlement.
There is no guarantee that limited changes in North Korea's economic structure will endure once the crisis ends. But China's food crisis 40 years ago created changes that in time led to irreversible reforms.
If grain indeed is power, we should take the opportunity to exert influence at provincial and local levels of society and give "power" to the masses who most need it in order to survive.
* Scott Snyder, a program officer at the US Institute of Peace, recently returned from a research trip to the China-North Korea border area.