LYNN NEARY, HOST:
North Korea recently declared it is experiencing the worst drought in 100 years. It's not the government's usual sugar-coating of conditions there. Such pronouncements raise fears of a repeat of the famine in the 1990s where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, starved to death. But North Korea is not the same country it was 20 years ago. Pyongyang has quietly allowed agricultural and market reforms, which North Korea watchers say will spare the country another famine. To explain some of the changes, I'm joined by Greg Scarlatoiu. He is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and he spoke to us from Orlando, Fla. Welcome to the program.
GREG SCARLATOIU: Thank you very much.
NEARY: So how is this current drought affecting people in North Korea at this point?
SCARLATOIU: This drought in North Korea may be affecting people, but not on a level comparable to what happened in the 1990s. The people of North Korea have developed coping behaviors. In the 1990s, those who decided to go by the rules and wait for their government rations died. Small, informal markets have developed. Ever since, people have relied on those markets rather than the public distribution system. Secondly, the outside world is much better informed about North Korea than it was back then in the 1990s. The international response is likely to be very swift. Thirdly, farmers are now allowed to trade grain in North Korea. This is likely to result in more trading and less hoarding as it happened in the 1990s.
NEARY: Is it better this time because of some of the changes that have been put in place in North Korea, some of the agricultural changes? Is that why?
SCARLATOIU: We have had some reports about apparent measures to decentralize the North Korean economy. In 2013, the North Korean government allowed families to keep about 30 percent of their agricultural produce.
NEARY: So it sounds like because of what happened in the 1990s, the government in North Korea at this time is more sensitive to the situation; not going to let it get quite as out of control as it did.
SCARLATOIU: It's simply a matter of seeing the social contract change in North Korea. Before the North Korean famine of the 1990s, the social contract was obey your ruler. We will provide everything that you need from food to clothing. During the North Korean famine, the North Korean government lost the capacity to provide to its citizens. The new social contract is be absolutely loyal to the Kim family regime, and you will be allowed to seek limited economic opportunity to ensure your own survival by, for example, trading at these open markets.
NEARY: And just one other question. How do you confirm what's going on in North Korea? What - it's so hard to know what's happening in that country.
SCARLATOIU: North Korea continues to be the world's most reclusive regime. What has changed is that now we have the ability to contact sources inside the country on smuggled Chinese cell phones. We are now able to acquire more information from inside North Korea than we were able to do during the 1990s and the days of the great famine.
NEARY: Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Thanks so much.
SCARLATOIU: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.