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Archive for May, 2008

In recent months, there has been a small buzz in the news regarding food crisis around the world. But most people in the west still don’t understand the magnitude of the problem; in fact, they barely feel it. For them it is annoying that food prices have gone up, but it just means some adjustments to their personal budgets and consumption habits. They have the options of choosing to eat out less and buy less snack foods. In the developing world, there are no such choices, particularly in the so-called, bottom billion, or poorest population centers in the world. People in these countries spend a majority of their financial resources on food; moreover, their diets consist of elementary grains like rice and barley, supplemented by a few vegetables. When prices on these food products rise, poor people have few choices. If prices increase enough, they are simply unable to buy enough food to survive.

How big is the problem?
The UN World Food Program (WFP) stated last month that, “high food prices are creating the biggest challenge that WFP has faced in its 45-year history, a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger.” While Americans express dissatisfaction with rising food prices, the response in less well-to-do countries is has been fierce. There are already protests and riots springing up all over the world, in countries like Mexico, Pakistan, Haiti, Egypt, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Senegal, Maritania, Cameroon, and India to name a few, with the portent of greater chaos to come if solutions aren’t forthcoming. The New York Times (NYT) passed on a warning from the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick: “33 nations are at risk of social unrest because of the rising price of food.” Some hungry people in the world, just give up and die, many others get angry and fight. They know their fate if they don’t, and they know that there is a slim chance of something better if they do; so they risk their lives in bloody combat, hoping to force change to something better. In the US, rising food prices may stop people from getting an extra slice of cake after their full course meal. In the developing world, it is forcing some to just one meal a day, and we are not talking steak.

Why is this happening? Analysts cite a number of causes behind world food price increases. One of the main causes is the constant increases in oil prices. Oil (or gasoline) is necessary to transport food; it is also necessary in production, from running farm equipment to making fertilizer. As oil prices climb, farmers must either raise prices, or eventually go out of business.

Another cause of rising world food prices is, simply put, rising demand. Analysts typically note China and India because of their huge populations and rapidly rising standards of living; however, people in successfully developing coutries the world over are using their hard earned currency to buy more food. They want to eat apetizers and deserts too, not just the small portions of rice and vegetables that they’ve grown up on. They are also changing their preference from grains to meats. Increase demand for meats is significant because cows, chickens, pigs, and other “meats” require lots of grain as feed, which then cannot be used for human consumption. Increased demand (without increased supply) equals increased prices.

To make things worse, world food supply has not stayed the same, but has actually been constricted. In recent years, developed countries like the US, have poured subsidies into the development of biofuels, which are produced from crops like corn. This has made less agricultural products available for consumption as food. Also adding to the problem: severe weather in key crop raising areas. One of these is Australia, where the NYT reports that six years of unusually severe drought have led to a 98 percent loss in Australia’s rice crop. The drought has of course damaged other sectors of Australia’s agricultural industry as well. Australia is a key food exporter, so the decrease in its input surely affects world food prices.

There’s more. A substantial number of the world’s food producing countries have initiated food export controls in an effort to keep food prices down on the domestic front. Argentina, Vietnam, India, China, Egypt, and Russia, are among countries that have enacted special export bans or quotas . To make things worse, many farmers, expecting prices to rise even more in the future, are holding back on delivering their products to the market. Export controls and hording constrict the supply that is available to the world market. (US News and World Report)

Is there a solution? The first and most obvious thing that can be done, is that rich countries can step forward with aid to the hardest hit areas. We  must remember that this is not a solution, it’s just a temporary mitigator that allows time for action. The bad news is that, as hard as it is to get countries to donate substantial amounts of aid (in addition to the aid that has already been donated in the wake of such monumental disasters as the typhoon that hit Myanmar and the earthquake in China), this may be one of the easiest actions to take, among those needed. Second, countries should get rid of export countrols, and prevent farmers from holding their stockpiles back from the market. Some attention is being given to this, but it will be hard to talk some countries (and more importantly, vulnerable political leaders) out of protectionism. Also, rich countries like the US, can stop pouring subsidies into biofuels (but that could mean less development of renewable energy). Beyond the above mentioned actions, there are few short term options. In the long run, actions should be taken in lesser developed countries to improve their economies, so that poor peoples’ purchasing power rises. Sadly, the world’s best economists have been working on this for a long time, with far too little success (this is mostly due to the fact that politicians don’t want to implement strategies that destabilize their hold on power).

What does the future look like? This is just a bad year right? Things will go back to normal next year. Right? While I like to be optimistic; NO! especially if we don’t give attention to the problem because we think it will solve itself. The biggest reason I say no, is the demand for oil; barring some amazing discovery of a substitute source of energy (or a substantial amount of rich oil consumers contracting a virulent and deadly form of bird flu), demand will rise yet again next year; and with it, price will rise. Another reason: developing countries like China are still developing, and their demand for meats, deserts, and apetizers is still increasing. While there may be some slowdown, there’s no sign of them slamming on the breaks in the near future.

Is there anything that you and I can do? We can donate to aid groups like the WFP; it’s easy, you can do it with a credit card or even a paypal acount. We can also push for change (in our respective countries) in domestic laws and practices that hurt developing nations. Does the US really need a high sugar tariff for security reasons? We can also consume less resources, and tell a significant amount of our friends to consume less resources. I know it’s overly idealistic, but if enough people consume less (particularly oil and food) it will constitute a decrease in demand. One more suggestion: food storage, and again, tell your friends.  If enough people store food gradually, then during abnormally bad times, they can fall back on their reserves, taking pressure off the market (effectively, this will be like an increase in supply that keeps the market price from rising). Perhaps the last two suggestions would be better accomplished by governments–which ought to have programs in place to discourage wasteful consumption, and also to build up substantial food reserves for lean times–but they never will be without sufficient demand from the masses.

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(read the previous post explaining this entry)

Journal Entry:

I had the chance to visit North Korea for the first time a couple of days ago. My mind is still full of impressions so I would like to get them on paper before they fade away. My trip was to Kaesong, where the industrial complex is; it’s also the capital of the old Koryo Dynasty, so it is home to some important historical sites.

From the minute that I crossed the DMZ, I had my eyes wide open trying to observe and analyze everything that came into view through my bus window. I had read so many books, and watched so many films; this was the opportunity to see for myself what I could find that measured up, and what I could find that was different. I was anxious to gain my own impression, my own experience, and while I only saw just one small corner of North Korea, the knowledge that I gained is so valuable to me.

I think the first thing that I noticed was the North Korean soldiers standing serious and at attention on the side of the road at random posts, and sometimes at what didn’t seem like posts at all. They would be at all the dirt road entrances to all the villages, no matter how small. Sometimes there were only two or three houses, but there was a soldier standing there, dressed in a dark green uniform, holding a red flag, and completely motionless. I would also see a soldier here and there as the bus passed by lurking out from the trees. Later, when we got into the city of Kaesong, the number of soldiers dramatically increased. There was one on almost every street corner and walkway. However, the North Korean citizens walked or rode past them on their bikes as if this were perfectly natural; I assumed that to them it was. In fact I believe I assimilated to the new condition somewhat myself, as I found myself noticing the military presence less after a while. I still, however, could not ignore the stark contrast between the world that I had just come from, and the one I was experiencing.

The second thing that I noticed was a large picture of a smiling Kim Il-sung above a building in the distance. I saw it as I was waiting to get back on the bus after having gone through entry formalities at Dorasan. While waiting, I also heard North Korean music in a beautiful woman’s voice, coming from a distance: “pan-gap—-sum-ni-da, pan-gap-sum-ni-da (nice to meet you, nice to meet you).” Later, as we traveled, there were large monuments, posters, and plaques at the entrances of many of the villages and throughout the city of Kaesong, lauding Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. In the west we have public art (some might say propaganda) in remembrance of people, but it’s not all dedicated to two overarching figures. In particular, I noted a painting of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, smiling with arms outstretched at the top of mount Baekdu; it was outside on the road, but it was so clean and bright. I think it must have been brand new. I also noted a poster of North Korean citizens with fists in the air; the lettering read, “as long as we have our great general, we are winning.”

Another thing that I noticed was the surrounding countryside. I saw that the hills had much less vegetation, particularly trees, than the hills just a few miles south. I knew that in natural circumstances the hills and mountains would still be covered with trees and shrubs, but somehow most of this had been removed. I figured that this was likely due to agricultural practices or a need for firewood among the people. I also pondered whether the land may have been cleared so that no one—from either north or south—could slip around unnoticed close to the DMZ, but I couldn’t give that notion much weight. I saw the remains of old underground bunkers and lookouts in the hills; they were almost imperceptible—just a thin line in the grass from which soldiers could look out and shoot their weapons. Oh, and they were all facing south and usually near the tops of the hills. I saw quite a few of them in one area, but they were either better hidden, or absent in other areas, because I didn’t notice them anywhere else.

The lack of vegetation was met by what seemed an overabundance of cultivation. Many hills were cultivated right up the side and over the top. There were rows of what I thought looked like wheat, barley, and rice growing up, sideways, and even in gullies. Around the houses and villages on just about every piece of land, no matter how small or sloped, there were crops being tended. I would have thought they had an abundance of food had I not understood the aggregate situation, with the dire need that the country is actually facing. The farther we got away from these small communities, of course, the less cultivation I saw, and the mountain slopes gradually began to have more trees on them. One other thing that I should mention is that the cultivation and lack of trees had lead to very visible signs of erosion on the mountainsides.

As we traveled on the tour bus, I began to see more and more people. I would see much more in Kaesong later, but my first glimpses were just of small groups of people, probably not ever more than five or six, working in the fields or resting. Keep in mind that this was a Sunday, but North Koreans don’t practice religion other than Juche, which is a sort of faith in the nation-state. However, I surmised that the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where many of these people worked, would not be running on Sunday since its South Korean managers were at home. I also saw a lot of people alone tending to a field, pulling a cart, or just walking. None of them seemed overly stressed or in a hurry; in fact many of them seemed quite slow. Of course I made my own guesses about them: they were bored of doing the same thing every day, they weren’t being personally compensated for their labor so why would they feel compelled to sweat hard, or perhaps they were weak from not having eaten well—maybe it was a combination, maybe it was something entirely different. Some of them were hunched over and very small, particularly the old, but most of the people looked entirely healthy and they didn’t look to be experiencing hunger. But I was also aware that if anyone in the world knew how to bear hunger, and even start to die without admitting or otherwise showing signs of their predicament, it would be the North Koreans. Concerning the older North Koreans, I have seen old South Koreans, very weathered and hunched over in the same manner in Seoul, so I wasn’t greatly alarmed by their presence in the north.

Our first official stop on the tour was Pakyon (박연폭포) waterfall, reputed as among the three most beautiful in Korea. The mountains close to the waterfall had much fewer people and quite a few more trees; it was very beautiful and serene. The tour buses got to a place where they could park and I, and the hordes of tourists I had come with, unloaded and hiked the short distance to the waterfall. There were vendor stands here and there with young North Korean women selling North Korean snacks. I bought a small sweat gelatinous candy flavored with ginseng. I was impressed by the polite and soft manners of the two women at the stand. They were eager to explain the different products, be of service, and, no doubt, make foreign currency; but the biggest impression I got was that they were simple, refined, and helpful. I can’t help but note the stark contrast between them and the vendors at Emart in Seoul who are impatient, loud, and aggressive. Perhaps the comparison is unjustified since the customer bases, and even the market bases, are different. I thought that at least some of what I was seeing was a cultural difference though, which would be significant considering that both North and South consider themselves to be one-and-the-same Korean nation.

At first I just saw people far away from the bus, then I saw those who had been selected to interact with the foreigners on the tour, and then the people in the city of Keasong. I noted that the North Koreans at the tour sites seemed to keep to themselves; often, they formed small groups to the side and chatted with each other. I saw one foreign woman who seemed to know Korean well approach two North Korean men at one of the tour sites and try to have a conversation with them. She looked to be having a nice conversation that lasted more than a couple of sentences; what was surprising to me was that this occurrence seemed to be a lone outlier. I did not see any South Koreans conversing casually with the North Koreans. I think the most I saw was a question here or there about an explanation given by a North Korean toting a loud speaker, but it was followed by a short answer and nothing more. I guessed that the main function of the North Koreans that were allowed to have contact with us was to watch us or sell something to us, rather than to converse with us. I thought that this was quite different from the videos of the North Korean guides in Pyongyang that I have seen, where the guides enthusiastically interact, and they tell as many details as they can about North Korea, its leaders, and its culture.

At some of the sites on the tour, I was able to see over the walls or out the gates, where lots of Kaesong citizens were passing by on foot or bicycle. They were all dressed very plainly and modestly, almost never departing from three or four regular colors: military green, dark blue, black, and beige. Their clothes were not new, but usually not tattered either. Many of the women wore pants, and they usually had long straight hair clasped with a pin in the back. Many of the North Koreans looked over to get a glimpse of the foreigners on the other side. I was surprised that many of them openly stared. None of them stopped walking as the stared, but it seemed clear to me that they were not getting in trouble for looking. I was further surprised on the bus when some people in the city would wave and smile at us. For some of them, it even appeared to have developed into a routine.

I was able to get glimpses of some North Korean social interaction, which helped me to see more of the human element there. I saw North Koreans greeting each other on the street and also engaged in what appeared to be cordial conversation. I saw energy and genuineness in their faces, which was not what I saw in the faces of the field workers, tour guides, or soldiers, especially not the soldiers. Those short glimpses were valuable to me because they gave me something more than the robotic brainwashed communist image that was all too easy to see. Those glimpses showed something beyond the façade—a real human flame, with sparks of individuality and genuine character; I imagined and hoped that it burned just the same in many North Koreans, though it might remain largely covered and hidden in public.

Our tour guides, or rather, those chosen to interact with the foreigners, are worth noting a bit more. Both men and women were dressed well. The men had button-up shirts with a simple overcoat, and a small Kim Il-sung pin over the heart. The women were beautiful in their full and colorful hanbok dresses. None of the guides were what you would call gregarious or sophisticated. They impressed me as being simple, perhaps a bit naïve and a bit cautious; for the most part they were reserved. Perhaps the only departure from this was in the souvenir shops. There, a beautiful young woman explained to me the appeal of a handmade cell-phone trinket, along with other small memorabilia. She was so polite, but still forward. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated (and so polite at the same time) to selling a small trinket. I imagined her saying more: “please sir, our country is poor. My family needs me to have this job; if I don’t sell well I may lose it.”

I guess lastly, I should say a few more words about the city of Kaesong. For the most part it looked well organized, but the buildings, especially the larger ones, looked in serious need of repair. Almost everywhere the tour bus traveled, the road had been newly paved. In fact, I could usually tell which way the bus was going next based on the newly paved one-lane path ahead; it felt like a big black carpet had been rolled out just for the tourists. Something tells me it was probably paid for and constructed by Hyundai Asan and Kaesong Tour, but I could be wrong. I noticed a number of factories in Kaesong. Some of them were clearly abandoned, but others looked still in use. There were small stores along the streets, although much fewer than in a capitalist country, and there was one big department store. There were virtually no advertisements anywhere, a touch that I appreciated; in fact, it was like a big breath of fresh air for someone living in thick pollution for so long. I had not anticipated this feeling. In Seoul, it seems that the minute I walk outside my apartment the world is screaming; bright lights flash and scantily clad women smile out of ads from every direction saying remember me, and buy this product. In Kaesong, there was nothing of the sort, just simple store names. I felt relaxed and focused; I could look anywhere and develop my own thoughts, rather than having ideas shoved at me by billions of companies. Oh, and since I mentioned ad “pollution,” I should note the difference in real pollution. Breathing was nice in Kaesong, something that I cannot say about Seoul.

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On Sunday, I had a truly amazing opportunity to visit Kaesong, North Korea (just north of the DMZ) for the first time. I went with the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch, of which I am a member, and we tagged along with a much larger tour group called Kaesong Tour. The tour just opened up at the very end of last year. In the group that I went with there were twelve full-size tour busses; I estimated it was around 300-400 people. I’m told that the tour runs every day of the week except for Monday.

I think this tour is a very significant move for North Korea. They have had a tour to a mountain resort (Mt Keumgang) since around 1998, but the area is isolated and not close to any larger population centers. There are also the tours in Pyongyang, where minders escort small groups of tourists to chosen locations. As far as I know though, North Korea has never had anything like the Kaesong tour before, where large groups of tourists are bussed around the city to get out and take pictures at specified sites. I imagine that if I were a normal resident of Kaesong, the start of the tours would mark a big change in my life, and in the city. My head would be reeling with questions about who these foreigners were and what life they came from.

Already, many people have been curious about my trip, and they all want to know the details. I’ve decided to provide my journal entry of the trip–not normally something that I would do, so perhaps I should explain. I realize that not many people have been to North Korea, and many are looking for more understanding about what it is like there. Note that my trip to Kaesong was very rigid, and it was confined to tourists sites (you can read more about them at this website). I was not allowed to stroll around and chat with ordinary North Koreans, but I tried to get as much information as possible given the constraints. Since it is a journal entry, some of it is reflectional. Since it’s not every day I go to North Korea, I tried to write as many details as possible. I appologize ahead, since it is quite long. Finally, this is what I saw, and what I experienced that was interesting to me. I emphasized the positive aspects of North Korean society that I observed. To some, it may seem that I am overlooking, or at least not giving much attention to the atrocities and bad aspects, or that I am not being fair to South Korea in my limited comparisons. Well, you’re probably right. I will post on North Korea’s atrocities and South Korea’s superior qualities another time; however, that information is more well publicized. I tried to step back and reflect on things that are harder to see.

Enough explaining on my part. Enjoy the next post.

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Well, here it is, my own little public voice, my own little mark on the world. Now the challenge will be to say something intelligent, interesting, and important, which is what I aspire to do with this blog. My name is Daniel, and you might call me a budding young economist, which is how one of my economics teachers used to refer to me and my fellow classmates. Someday I hope to be a full fledged economist, but there is much work ahead. You could also just call me a concerned global citizen who wants to make sense of the problems that we face in the world today, particularly before they grow monstrous and uncontrollable. Making sense of the larger problems that face humanity is the first step to finding solutions. However, if it were easy even just to make sense of these issues, then they wouldn’t be vexing problems in the first place. My aspiration is a tall order, but I feel compelled to try.

I want this blog to be a way for me to explore complex political, economic, and societal issues, and also a way to get feedback on my ideas. However, I also plan on posting about some things that just have to do with my life and experiences. If I can identify information that I have that would benefit someone else, I will post on it. I will be happy if I can share something that benefits others.

A note about the title and web address of the blog: “Ourselves” could refer to the United States, some other country, humanity in general, or a political group. I think that as human beings, our ideas and our habits get us into trouble a lot; at times, collectively, we are a threat to our own vitality–and even our own existence. While we all do dumb things as individuals or small groups to threaten our lives at one point or another–I remember the time I obliviously ran a red light while talking to my wife-to-be across from me–this blog will generally not focus on individual blunders or family issues. The levels I wish to focus on are the societal and international ones. I want to look at problems in the realms of poverty, war, pollution, government, corruption, nationalism, inequality, disease, and so on. I don’t intend to be abstract–as I am being now–rather I hope to look at real-life issues; perhaps issues that regular people don’t care to spend much time reading about, but that nonetheless are very important to the survival of many human beings across the world.

For the time being I am living in Seoul, South Korea, as a junior Fulbright researcher, so many of my posts will deal with issues in East Asia. However, I am also interested in a number of other areas of the world and their corresponding issues, so I will blog on them as well. I will also occasionally blog on personal interest, or areas in which I believe that I can provide some useful information. I still feel new to blogging, as well as to the investigation of complex world issues (who doesn’t); so I am a little bit nervous, but I’m excited t learn and improve.

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