Associated Press

North Korean Refugees Now - Part 1: Changing Economy

In our new blog series, we will explore the newest developments in the world, which affect the flow of North Korean refugees in China. If there is any silver lining to the Great North Korean Famine, it is that North Korea was forced to fundamentally change the way that it distributes goods and resources throughout the country.

The famine killed up to 3 million people and put the country in a tailspin from which it has still not recovered.

Resources during the famine were so scarce that the country had to start a PR campaign to ask its people to eat two meals a day. At the famine’s height, many were left to eat grass, tree bark, pets, and other people.

Much of the starvation in the country can be attributed to a failed distribution system. The irony of the famine is that there was food sitting in warehouses for people to eat. But distributors were afraid to go to the outer regions for fear of starting riots. They also had no incentive to distribute food because, under the old system, they would get paid regardless. So the people starved.

Amidst the chaos, North Korea allowed the economy to be privatized under heavy restrictions.

As a result, private markets popped up all over the country and distributors were paid based on the deliveries they made. Experts say that there is actually less food in North Korea today but people are not dying of starvation because of better distribution.

North Korea has said that this is a temporary solution to the country’s food problems. But the current system has remained intact for almost 20 years.

This has sparked what many have called the Jangmadang, or Black Market generation. This generation carries cell phones, styles their hair to mimic the South Korean pop stars they have seen via illegally imported DVDs, and, most importantly, have not lived through famine.

Change is also coming to the country's vast number of farmers. North Korea is making strides to incentivize farmers for greater yields. After giving their share to the government and paying their operating expenses, farmers can now share profits with their workers.

Manufacturers have also been given more leeway to operate based on market principles. They can negotiate contracts with foreign entities and also pay their employees what they wish.

All these factors have, along with beefed-up security at the border, slowed the pace of North Korean refugees spilling over into China.

But many experts say that these changes enacted by the North Korean government are not drastic enough to revive the moribund economy and to cause change.

“In the economics sphere, the regime seems to lack any real strategic vision,” Marcus Noland, of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics told the Associated Press earlier this year.

Food remains the biggest issue. There might not be a famine but much of the country is still malnourished and very hungry. All this while food aid is on the decline and experts predict a smaller harvest this year, due to an unusually dry winter.

How this will affect the flow of North Korean refugees into China is yet to be seen. Regardless, Crossing Borders will continue to work in China to give vital protection and aid to these people.