This is the third episode in a series by Erich Weingartner, recounting his days as the founding Head of the Food Aid Liason Unit (FALU), an independent section of the United Nations World Food Program, from 1997-1999. Previous episodes were “My Bumpy Road to Pyongyang” and “My Introduction to Nampo Port.”
“It’s all a matter of perception, you know,” Naresh answered with a knowing smile. “Reality is just an illusion.”
I had asked my Bangladeshi colleague Naresh Talukder how we were going to verify that what would see was real. We were in a WFP vehicle barreling at top speed along a paved, almost completely empty superhighway, heading south from Pyongyang. My eyes were glued to the road as I conversed with him. This was my first monitoring trip. My heart was still in a rush of excitement, trying to grasp the reality of exploring a hidden corner of our globe that few foreign eyes had seen.
“Sounds a bit too Hindu for my taste,” I quipped.
“Not all Bangladeshis are Muslims, you know.” He was looking for something in his briefcase. “You Westerners are far too concerned with facts and figures, imagining that this is the way to harness reality.”
He pulled out a sheet of paper while he talked. “Spreadsheets reveal only numbers. And those numbers reveal only the perception of the person who entered them. Here is a list of all the shipments that have arrived from NGOs during the past six months. Many of these figures I have entered myself. Here are the dates of arrival. Here, the names of the vessels. Here, the names of the respective donor organizations. Here, the types and quantities of the shipped commodities. And here are the quantities to be distributed by province.”
I took the spreadsheet from him and studied the respective columns.
“I do believe all of these figures to be true,” he continued. “But can I say that they capture reality? Do they tell me anything about the people in many countries who worked hard to raise funds to pay for these shipments? Do I know anything about their motivations for doing so? Do they have any concept about the people who will be eating this food? Their culture? Their life-styles? Their daily struggles to survive? Their hopes and dreams for their children?”
Our driver swerved around a lone woman squatting in the middle of the highway. I turned my head as we passed. She was painting a crack in the pavement with liquid tar from a bucket next to her feet. There’s a woman who will not appear on WFP spreadsheets, I thought.
“But isn’t that what our donors want?” I objected. “The truth about where their commodities go? The facts about who ends up eating the food they send?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” replied Naresh, while sorting through more papers. “We shall certainly count the sacks and establish how the food is distributed. In fact, I am hoping to learn from your NGO experience how to improve on our methods. But all the same, I caution you that this is a land where illusion and reality are not always easily distinguished.”
“That’s precisely my point. Why do we have to announce to the FDRC[i] where we want to monitor at least 24 hours ahead of time? Or before the weekend, if it’s on a Monday?[ii] That’s plenty of time for them to set up a theatrical production for our benefit. Telling me that reality is an illusion doesn’t inspire much confidence.”
Naresh laughed. “Maybe that’s why Hindus make such good monitors. We know that illusions are not devoid of information. Perception is the key. You may count the sacks of grain and miss seeing the loose-fitting clothes worn by the warehouse workers, or the idle tractors that have no tires, or the expression on the faces of beneficiaries as they interact with county officials… The most important clues to the reality of this country are in plain sight for those with open eyes and open minds.”
The Land Cruiser was slowing down at an exit on the highway. We stopped at yet another roadblock. This was the third since we left Pyongyang. Again Mr. Lim, our interpreter, had to get out of the vehicle to show papers to the armed guard. Naresh looked at me and shrugged.
“Yes, I know,” I acknowledged. “That’s why they need 24 hours notice.”
Security. A government that has never let its people forget that they are in a perpetual state of war cannot allow foreigners to roam the country at random. All the checkpoints that we will pass today will have been alerted about our coming. But it isn’t just our car that is stopped here. A line-up of trucks carrying cargoes and people is waiting on the side of the road. Each individual is checked. All traveling persons have to show a pass and identity papers, even when they are merely visiting relatives in the neighboring county. And those who avoid the checkpoints by walking over land will be unable to use their ration cards anywhere other than their assigned neighborhood distribution point.
Mr. Lim returned, smiling. He was wearing an impressive Mao-style suit this day and looked every bit the authoritative higher official that I would soon discover him to be. We were waved through, ahead of all the local traffic.
“So,” he said, as we pulled onto a dirt road, “we still have about an hour to drive until we reach Yontan. What would you like to see when we get there, Mr. Erich?”
Naresh had prepared me for this question. “Well, since this is my first monitoring trip, I want to see everything. Warehouses, kindergartens, nurseries, hospitals, PDS,[iii] and family visits.”
“County warehouse definitely. How many nurseries and kindergartens?”
I looked at Naresh.
“If we do hospitals, PDS centers and families…” he began, but Mr. Lim interrupted.
“I’m afraid those won’t be possible. We can only see nurseries and kindergartens.”
“But why?” I protested.
“Because, as Mr. Naresh can verify, the WFP has delivered food only for nurseries and kindergartens in this county. There is really nothing to monitor at hospitals or PDS.”
I glanced at Naresh, who shrugged his shoulders. “In that case, let us try three of each,” he said in a tone that indicated the discussion was over.”
As we traveled inland, we passed paddy fields in which rows of bent-over men and women transplanted rice seedlings into the flooded soil. Emaciated oxen, ribs protruding, pulled plows through the wet soil of neighboring fields.
“Those animals aren’t in any better shape than humans,” I muttered.
“Spring is always the lean season,” Naresh told me. “By this time, last year’s harvest has all been eaten, and this year’s crop has not yet matured. The UNDP has been experimenting with the introduction of double-cropping—planting winter wheat and barley in the paddies. The draw-back is that winter wheat matures in June, which delays the rice transplanting. And it also uses up soil nutrients that have to be replaced with more fertilizer. And fertilizer is always in short supply. So with rice not getting enough nutrients and the growing season shortened, the yields will suffer. Which means the benefits of double-cropping are not entirely certain.”
I had received my first lesson in North Korean agriculture, just as we passed by a giant billboard on which was pictured a bevy of pretty farm girls smiling at their revered Great Leader Kim Il Sung, as they frolicked through a sun-ripened rice field that seemed to promise an ever more elusive “bumper crop.” In this one scene, both illusion and reality impacted my senses with equal power.
Naresh was showing me more spreadsheets, while explaining the monitoring system to me. It was difficult to pay attention, partly because we were jerked and jolted over the uneven road that climbed higher into the mountainside, but more so because I was mesmerized by the panorama around our vehicle. There were many people moving along this road. Our driver constantly leaned on the horn to disperse groups of children walking to school, women carrying huge bundles on their bent backs, men pushing two-wheeled carts piled high with assorted cargoes, and bicyclists trying to avoid potholes.
“Before any ship reaches the port,” Naresh explained, “the FDRC proposes a detailed distribution plan for the arriving goods, on the basis of our requests, and of course always with our input and approval. Take for example this shipment of 6,250 metric tons of rice shipped by Caritas Internationalis.[iv] Here you can see that it arrived on the vessel Kumgang on the 27th of May, the day you also arrived. The rice was purchased in Vietnam. It is of lower grade, with a high percentage of broken kernels, and therefore cheaper. The Kumgang is a North Korean vessel. Caritas actually convinced DPRK authorities to cover the shipping costs. This is an excellent example of how to maximize nutritional impact with limited funds.
“This distribution plan tells us that 2,892 tons of rice from the vessel Kumgang are to reach North Hwanghae province. It is important that at each distribution hub, right to the end user, records show not only the quantities received, but also the name of the vessel that delivered them. This will become indispensable at a later stage, when we expect shipments to overlap. The detailed plan here tells us that 16 counties in this province should receive Kumgang rice for a total of 418,871 beneficiaries. At a ration of 450 grams per day, this shipment is to last at least 15.3 days. Yontan, where we are headed today, has only 5,000 beneficiaries and should have received 34 tons of rice.”
“So what exactly will we be doing when we arrive?”
“At the county office we will have to determine whether the shipment has arrived, how much has arrived, how it is being distributed. Then we will have a look in the warehouse and count bags. And finally we will do spot checks in a number of institutions. Our distribution plan allows us to determine exactly how much ought to still be in storage at any particular day at each institution we visit.”
Our car suddenly stopped shaking. We were on a paved road again. We were entering the county seat of Yontan. In the center of the town our driver pulled into a compound surrounded by a 3-meter high wall, topped with rusting barbed wire. An armed guard swung open the gate. We had obviously been expected. Some shouting toward the two-story building beyond produced three men in grey-brown suits similar to Mr. Lim’s. They lined up to greet us as we descended from our vehicle. The lead person was introduced as chairman of the county’s FDRC, although Naresh explained that he probably doubles as county chair, the person who runs everything in this town.
We were guided to a chilly room with a lengthy table surrounded by chairs. One of the men opened windows for warmth and light. The head of the table abutted the chairman’s desk, on which were scattered some well-thumbed ledgers and notebooks, a desk lamp and an old rotary telephone. On the conference table were several plates with apples, small bowls of roasted peanuts, cups made of colored plastic, and an assortment of bottles containing beer and what they called “cider,” a kind of carbonated fruit-flavored drink.
Following a more detailed introduction in which Lim explained who we were and why we came, Naresh switched into interrogation mode. What is the population of this county? What is the annual requirement, in metric tons of grain, to feed this population? What is the total land area? What is the area under cultivation? What are the chief crops grown? What was the average yield per hectare before the floods of 1995? What was the yield in 1996? What was the total harvest in 1996 of rice, maize, and other crops? How many PDS distribution centers are there in the county? How many of them are functioning, i.e. have anything to distribute? What are the current PDS rations in grams per day, minimum and maximum?
Both Naresh and I recorded answers in our notebooks. These would later be fed into a WFP computer database, where comparisons could be made with other counties and provinces for a more accurate needs assessment. It would also serve to highlight discrepancies between figures quoted by county officials and distribution plans composed by the centralized FDRC. The figure of 5,000 beneficiaries, for example, seemed too round a number to be accurate.
I was impressed with the county official’s patience and willingness to consult the records in order to give us more precise numbers. No question seemed taboo. That is, until we expressed our wish to see the county warehouse.
“There is nothing in there to see,” Lim translated.
“What about the 34 tons of Caritas rice?” I protested.
“As the chairman explained already, the county has only one functioning truck, which has a maximum load of only ten tons. So far they have been able to make only one trip to Nampo.”
“Then let’s go see the ten tons.”
“They’re not in the warehouse. As soon as the truck arrived, it distributed the sacks directly to the kindergartens. The chairman suggests we come back again next week, when we will be sure to see the remaining sacks in the warehouse.”
I turned to Naresh. “Aren’t there other WFP commodities that should be here?”
“Not really. What we have shipped would already be consumed by now. This is a small and remote location, so there hasn’t been a great volume of inputs. In fact, this is the first time any of us came here.”
But noting the disappointment on my face, he asked Mr. Lim, “Could you not convince the chairman to allow Mr. Weingartner to just have a glimpse into the warehouse? Explain that this is his first monitoring trip, and he just wants to see with his own eyes the capacity this county has. Tell him we don’t expect to count anything.”
Minutes later we walked around the back of the office building. The warehouse was located on the same property, accounting for the need of such a tall surrounding wall. In any country experiencing a famine, food supplies would require a high degree of protection from theft.
The sliding door was big enough to let a mid-size truck pass through. Just as the chairman had foretold, the cavernous interior was completely empty, except for a small stack of sacks in one corner. I glanced at the labels printed on each sack. “Gift from the Eugene Bell Foundation.” Is that what the chairman didn’t want me to see? That another NGO was already providing food to his county?
After the warehouse visit, we were invited to take lunch at the county chairman’s home, which was within walking distance. His wife and daughter-in-law had prepared a modest meal of cooked chicken pieces, small fried freshwater fish, boiled corn, the ever-present kimchi, and yachaejeon, a Korean-style vegetable pancake. At the end of the meal we also received a bowl of rice and a bowl of thin soup. The county chairman tried to ply us generously with a variety of alcoholic beverages. I declined after my first glass of beer, and Naresh didn’t drink alcohol as a rule.
As the conversations dragged on over the meal (mostly in Korean), I kept glancing at my wristwatch. Was this a case of hospitality, or were the local authorities wasting time in order to shorten our monitoring experience? When we finally got moving, there was time for only two nurseries and two kindergartens, before we would have to make our way back to Pyongyang. We headed for a small town nestled in another valley for the first two schools, then returned to Yontan where we visited a larger nursery and the kindergarten attended by the chairman’s own grandchildren.
In each case, the appropriate number of sacks were found in locked storage rooms. The nervous bookkeeper would fumble through her records, whose brittle yellow pages looked like do-it-yourself paper made from corn husks. Regardless of the scared look on her face, or the stern gaze of the officials, Naresh bombarded her with questions: How many children are enrolled in this institution? How many are present today? What is the average attendance? What was attendance like prior to the arrival of food aid? What was the percentage of malnourished children prior to food aid? What is that percentage now? How many meals are served each day? What does a meal consist of? What ration is applied per child per day? What is eaten in addition to food grains? What about fruit and vegetables? How is the rice or the corn prepared and served? What opinion is there with regard to the quality or appropriateness of the commodities that have been received? What are the other sources from whom food is received?
No question was taboo, it seemed, although the response to some questions was ambiguous or remained unanswered. No one seemed to be aware of the Eugene Bell Foundation sacks in the warehouse, until the chairman reluctantly told us they were destined for the local hospital. But one question no one seemed able to answer, not even the county officials: What is the name of the vessel that delivered the Caritas rice?
Principals and record-keepers looked blankly at each other, shrugging their shoulders toward an increasingly embarrassed Mr. Lim. At the final kindergarten, the largest, cleanest, and best equipped we had seen that day, we sat in a circle on child-sized chairs in the school’s empty dining room. When Lim once again inquired about the vessel’s name, the chairman could no longer suppress his annoyance. He muttered something under his breath in Lim’s direction, then turned physically away from him in his chair.
At this point, Mr. Lim jumped to his feet. He barked what appeared to be orders at the assembled Koreans. Both men and women instantly rose and lined up at attention next to the wall. Only Naresh and I remained seated. Lim marched back and forth in front of the line-up, speaking sternly, like a general reprimanding his troops.
When he had finished, he asked in a loud voice what I assumed must have been, “Is that understood?” because the response was in unison, also loudly. Some equivalent of “Yes sir,” I guessed.
When we left, the county chairman was all smiles, thanking us for our visit and inviting us back at any time we chose.
Back on the road, I asked Lim, “What was all that about?”
“That stupid man is supposed to be heading the county’s FDRC,” Lim responded, obviously still angry. “He of all people should know better!”
“What did he say that got you so upset?”
“He said, ‘Who the hell cares what ship the rice came on!’”
“They’re not used to WFP procedures,” I tried to placate.
“I told them that they had better care what ship the rice came on, because if our orders are not followed to the letter, they will no longer receive any shipments. Period.”
With that, Lim turned back facing the road and didn’t say another word until we reached Pyongyang. The driver turned on the radio, which was broadcasting what sounded like a North Korean comedy show, complete with a laugh track.
In the back seat, Naresh and I quietly continued our discussion about perception and reality.
“So what is your impression?” Naresh asked me.
“To tell you the truth, I am a bit disappointed. To begin with, I can’t get over the feeling that everything is staged. I have this pervasive feeling that everybody is conspiring to lie to us.”
“The Potemkin village[v] hypothesis.”
“Well, it’s not exactly random access, is it? Why the hesitation about looking at an empty warehouse? Does it make sense that most of the cargo hasn’t arrived as yet, and that they immediately distributed it without first unloading and counting at the warehouse? The lunch we were served certainly wasn’t a starvation diet. Why were we stuffing ourselves with chicken and fish, when the kindergarten teachers say no one has seen meat for more than a year? And those kids at the kindergartens and nurseries? I’m no doctor, but they all seemed pretty healthy to me—and rather well dressed too.”
I rambled on with doubts about what we had seen and heard. Naresh listened patiently and attentively, occasionally wobbling his head somewhere between agreement and disagreement. I stopped after expressing my complete puzzlement at the scene we had witnessed at the end.
“I couldn’t believe everybody lining up at attention like that! It sure would have been interesting to understand what was being said there. Do you buy Lim’s explanation? Because they didn’t know the name of the vessel? That hardly seems sufficient cause for all the anger I was sensing on both sides!”
“I appreciate your observations,” Naresh began, no condescension in his voice. “I have found that there are at least three approaches to monitoring. The first could be compared to detective work. If you have no trust in your counterpart, you will look for evidence to convict those you suspect of crimes. You assume guilt until innocence can be proven. The second approach might be compared to a defense lawyer. You gather evidence to prove to donors that their money has not been misused. You assume innocence before guilt can be proven. I personally prefer a third approach. And that is to be an agent and advocate for those who are in need. I don’t find police work or court proceedings appropriate models for humanitarian assistance.”
“But Naresh, judging by what I saw today, I cant even convince myself that there is any need, other than the general appearance of poverty and underdevelopment.”
“That is because your perceptions are determined by your preconceptions. We expect famine to look like pictures of children with thin limbs and bloated bellies. You have to take into account that after half a century of Japanese colonialism—during which Korean culture and language were brutally suppressed—Korean identity has become a matter of intense pride. It doesn’t matter what regime is in power. Koreans will never show foreigners their worst side. The children you saw were wearing their best clothes today, because they knew we were coming. Those with the worst malnutrition were kept at home or in the clinic. The lunch you had represented the best they were able to offer, even if they had to deny their own children the same fare.”
“But that’s crazy, Naresh. Surely they must realize that our donors are looking for concrete evidence of real need!”
“Not at all. This sort of cause and effect relationship is a foreign concept in a command economy. Even FDRC headquarters are still trying to put all the pieces together about what humanitarian agencies require. At the local level this is a total mystery. Under normal circumstances, when officials arrive from the central administration, the locals know exactly what Pyongyang wants to hear. And that is what they tell them. As long as the locals meet production quotas, their everyday reality is of little interest. Everybody knows this and puts forward an acceptable face. It may not be the whole truth, but neither is it telling a lie, as far as they are concerned.
“The intrusive questions that we foreigners tend to ask upset the apple cart. You noticed that they were ready to report rather precisely about the commodities they received. But whenever we asked unexpected questions, they became nervous and glanced at each other. In their minds they were trying to guess what answers would result in more food deliveries. They had no way of knowing. They certainly didn’t know enough about us to orchestrate a Potemkin scenario. Had that been the case, why didn’t Lim tell them how to answer our questions, or simply include the name of the vessel in his translation?”
“Exactly. Why didn’t he?”
“It is very important to keep in mind that Korea is a Confucian culture. Hierarchical thinking is deeply ingrained in the psyche. Let’s take as a given that everybody up and down the ladder wants food deliveries to continue. The way to do this is to please those above you. But your status is maintained or improved only if you can impress those below with your authority.
“The fact that Lim acted merely as our interpreter confused the lines of authority. Lim knows that he has to demonstrate to us that monitoring procedures agreed between the WFP and his government are being properly implemented. He expected the locals to simply implement FDRC guidelines about how to deal with WFP commodities. He was clearly embarrassed before us whenever locals were unable to answer our questions. That’s why he kept on pressing the locals, to show us the government’s sincerity on the issue.
“The county chairman on the other hand expected Lim to take their side, covering for any mistakes in the presence of the foreigners. When Lim insisted on emphasizing what to the chairman seemed only a minor fault, it was the chairman’s turn to be embarrassed in front of his own subordinates. He saw his authority slipping and became increasingly annoyed.
“Lim knows the level of his own authority. For the DPRK government this relationship with the WFP is of high importance. This is the first time in the history of the DPRK that they sought international humanitarian assistance. Lim himself is still learning what will please the WFP and donor countries so that assistance will continue to increase. Part of his job is to try to reconcile two completely different accounting procedures. The success of this unusual venture to some extent rests on Lim’s shoulders. And while trying to impress us and gain our trust, he felt he was being undermined by local officials who don’t seem to grasp what is in their own self-interest. You can easily imagine how annoyed he might become at this small-town chairman’s flippant remark and gesture. He had no choice but to re-establish not only his own authority, but also that of the central government.”
“Fascinating!” was all I managed to say. My mind was churning. This assignment was beginning to resemble a jigsaw puzzle without any indication what the assembled picture was supposed to represent. Lots of jumbled pieces of information without any organizing principle. Or perhaps a Rorschach test: a picture that each observer interprets in a different way.
We had slowed down at a checkpoint, but the guard recognized our vehicle and waved us through. Soon we were back on the smooth superhighway in the direction of Pyongyang. Our driver accelerated like a racehorse returning to the barn.
“And what about you?” I asked Naresh. “What did you see on this field trip?”
“This is one of the poorer counties, compared to others I have seen. There is less arable land, much of it on slopes, unfit for rice cultivation. The size of the warehouse, the lack of operational vehicles, the fact that we ate at the county chairman’s home… all indications of limited infrastructure. Yet I was impressed with the cleanliness of the town, as well as all the institutions we visited. The pride they exhibited in their hometown is evident. The care with which nursery and kindergarten teachers and staff treated the children warmed my heart. It made me miss my own grandchildren. I was pleased that all the way down the line, everyone was aware that the food came as a gift from overseas. Even though they were confused about the vessel’s name, they did record that the donor was Caritas. They probably didn’t know—until you told them—that Caritas is a religious organization, but they were aware that it was a gift from well-meaning and concerned people in other countries.”
“So in general, you were satisfied with this field trip.”
“Yes of course,” Naresh answered with a smile and a wobble of his head. “Every field trip is an educational opportunity. This is only the first of hundreds of field trips you will take if they allow you to stay here long enough. Your perception will be sharpened by every experience, whether or not it meets your expectations.”
“Indeed,” I responded sarcastically. “Because reality is illusion.”
“Monitoring can never reveal the absolute truth.” I pictured Naresh talking to his grandchildren in this manner. “Monitoring is always an unconsummated marriage between donor expectations and the monitor’s personal conscience.”
The sun was setting as the Pyongyang skyline came into view. The pyramid-shaped shell of the unconsummated Ryugyong Hotel was pointing an accusatory finger at the evening sky.
Next episode: Preparing a home in Pyongyang
[i] Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee: a unit established under the Foreign Ministry to serve as DPRK counterpart to international humanitarian agencies.
[ii] As the number of WFP and NGO monitors proliferated over the coming months and years, advance notification time increased as well.
[iii] Public Distribution System: all North Koreans except farmers receive their rations at assigned distribution points of the PDS.
[iv] Caritas Internationalis is the official humanitarian relief and development agency of the Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in the Vatican City in Rome. All assistance to North Korea during the time period described in this article was managed by Kathi Zellweger of Caritas Hong Kong.