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North Korea: And still they starve
By Aidan Foster-Carter

What's news? In my country, apparently, it's the rutting of three unmarried people who work - or did - for England's Football Association. (FA for short, perhaps appropriately.)

Not that such trivia wholly blots out the real world. As ever, crises come and go. Darfur in Sudan is currently the new flavor of the month, and rightly so. But our attention spans are short, and the media circus will soon move on to horrors new. Darfur may still fester, but it will be off our television screens. As TS Eliot said, "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." (So-called "reality TV" is, of course, the exact opposite: arch navel-gazing narcissism.)

After almost a decade, hungry North Koreans are no longer news. But they're still there, and still hungry. On Monday the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported the latest in what seems an annual weather onslaught: usually floods, but sometimes drought.

According to KCNA, the July rains have flooded at least 100,000 hectares of fields, and made 1,000 families homeless. Harvests in affected areas are expected to fall by at least 30%. Roads and railways have also been hit in the center and south of the country.

No specific places were named, so maybe this is a nationwide roundup. The figure for homelessness could be worse, but 100,000 hectares is almost 4% of North Korea's total arable land.

Moscow sends wheat
All of which makes new grain just in from Moscow all the more timely. Also on Monday, but seemingly before this latest flood news (which went unmentioned), the United Nations (UN) World Food Program (WFP) praised its first donation ever from Russia. On Sunday the ship MV Kallisto (Greek for "most beautiful", if memory serves) began discharging 34,700 tonnes of wheat, worth US$10 million, at Nampo, the port for Pyongyang. Moscow had long been a, indeed the, major all-around aid donor to North Korea, mainly in the Soviet era. But this seems to be the first time it has chosen to channel food aid multilaterally.

A week earlier, the other power that sundered Korea in 1945 chipped in too. On July 23 the United States said it would give 50,000 tonnes of grain to WFP. That's a lot less than the 100,000 tonnes it gave last year, let alone the 200,000 tonnes in 2002. Ironically, axis of evil or no, US President George W Bush has kept feeding North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The politics of US farm support plays a part here; plus, as now, the timing is usually political. Bizarrely, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was at one point the top recipient of US food aid in Asia: since 1996 it has received something more than 2 million tonnes.

Yet it isn't enough. As other calls have arisen - Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur - while Kim Jong-il prefers guns (nay, nukes) to butter, donor fatigue has set in. Initially WFP saw its appeals for North Korea almost fully met - although other agencies, like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), have all along had difficulties securing funding for their far more modest budgets in North Korea.

Donor fatigue
Now WFP is feeling the pinch too. Having appealed for 484,000 tonnes this year to feed 6.5 million of North Korea's most vulnerable - that's almost 30% of the population - with 2004 more than half over, it has received confirmed pledges for just 125,000 tonnes.

I should rephrase that. When aid dries up, it's hungry North Koreans who feel the pinch. For the past two years, falling donations have forced WFP to halt crucial supplemental rations to millions of designated recipients for long periods. In June and July just gone, over 2 million core beneficiaries, including many young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, went without cereal rations. Thanks to Russia, these can now resume.

But 300,000 elderly people will still have to go without. Nor will the new aid last long. WFP's country director, Richard Ragan, warns that there is "little aid in the pipeline for the latter months of the year ... We urgently need firm commitments to plug that gap."

Some aid comes through other channels. South Korea is giving (lending, in theory) its usual 400,000 tonnes of rice; Seoul may buy some from Vietnam, as part of last week's deal on South Korea's receiving the North's refugees via Vietnam. Some southern rice has already been delivered - overland, which is a first. Japan, once a major donor, will give rice worth $10 million now that Pyongyang has let the children of Japanese abductees leave (though Washington purports to deny any linkage.)

Barely surviving
Still, and though the acute famine of the late 1990s has passed, many North Koreans are barely surviving. Here's what counts as progress in Kim Jong-il's 21st century people's paradise. Whereas a 1998 survey found 60% of children suffering acute malnutrition, by 2002 "only" 40% were so afflicted. Even this gain may be eroded, if food doesn't come.

Adults suffer too. According to WFP, "much of the population is afflicted by critical dietary deficiencies, consuming very little protein, fat and micronutrients." In a country two-thirds urban - yes, North Korea had an industrial revolution, once, before they blew it - the worst-off are city-dwellers outside Pyongyang, the relatively privileged capital.

These people rely on what is left of the Public Distribution System (PDS), the old state rationing system. Once comprehensive, the PDS now provides just 300 grams a day, less than half a survival ration. WFP adds that 70% of households dependent on PDS can't get the daily calories they need.

Meaning, presumably, that they can't afford to supplement this from the private markets that have sprung up in the past two years to bridge the gap - if they could afford them to begin with. Ironically, if typical of transition economies, the belated slow dawning of economic sense in North Korea since mid-2002 has aggravated unequal access to food. Though essential, market principles are no instant panacea; indeed, they create new divisions and vulnerabilities.

Defectors: What aid?
What to do? The humane urge to help - and I do urge you to help - then stumbles on the likes of Lee Kum-kwan, who fled North Korea in 2002 and now works for a South Korean religious group helping North Koreans in China. Lee told the Korea Times on Monday that his first taste of South Korean ramyon noodles was as a security policeman in Pyongyang. Before that, "I'd never heard of or seen international aid, not to mention South Korean food aid. Most North Koreans would be the same."

More privileged still than noodle-eating police, said Lee, 28, were the guys right next door: Kim Jong-il's guard corps, "the most powerful military unit in the North, whose soldiers are only allowed to eat rice". Lee claims that most of the North's national budget and international aid is funneled to Kim's guards - and also that German beef aid was taken back after being handed out, as soon as international monitors were out of sight.

The latter, he admits, is hearsay from an aunt. Even if some such tales are exaggerated, anyone aiding North Korea must do so in full knowledge of some unpalatable truths.

First, all this suffering is the fault of a vicious and obtuse regime. In 2004, Kim Jong-il still chooses guns over butter. Under the Songun (army-first) policy, the military gets the lion's share of resources; the civilian economy just gets the crumbs. Nukes don't come cheap. They also have a huge opportunity cost - meaning aid and investment forgone, or which would flow in if only the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il followed Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and saw the light.

Second, it was lousy policy that created the famine. Even floods aren't just an act of God. Reckless terracing of steep hills caused deforestation and erosion, increasing vulnerability to floods and loss of cropland. Third, whether or not actual food aid is diverted, North Korea obviously is free to send more of its own rice - or that of donors who don't ask awkward questions, like China and South Korea - to the military. To that extent, the diversion debate is a bit of a red herring.

So what to do? To me, the humanitarian imperative - feed my sheep, to coin a phrase - is still paramount. WFP, and the many non-governmental organizations active in North Korea, indubitably save lives. Hopefully, too, they are winning hearts and minds, showing that not all foreigners are the imperialist devils of Pyongyang propaganda.

Indeed, while their own so-called "great leaders" inflicted famine, it was and is foreigners who mainly helped. One day, North Koreans will know this. That should be interesting.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea, Leeds University, England.

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Aug 5, 2004

Aidan Foster-Carter's page

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(Jul 29, '04)

North Korea chooses guns over butter
(Jul 27, '04)

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(Jul 8, '04)

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(Jul 8, '04)


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