North Koreans: Still hungry. Who
cares? By Aidan Foster-Carter
Warning: This article is really boring.
And ever so depressing. There's lots far more
exciting than this at Asia Times Online. Why not
go read something else instead? ATol's excellent
Korean page is full of sexy stuff: tensions,
missiles, conflict. All true, too. Anxious times.
Whereas my tale isn't even news - or
rather, the news has been the same for years. I'll
give away the punchline right now, upfront. North
Koreans are hungry. Old story. Yawn, yawn. I've
written here in this vein before, all of eight
years ago.  Apologies if I repeat myself.
In Kim Jong-il's realm of misery, nothing
gets better. You knew
that. But now, some things -
the most basic thing of all: having enough to eat
- are actively and urgently getting worse.
Who says? The government, for a start.
With no sense of contradiction or public
relations, North Korea is simultaneously rattling
the sabre and the begging bowl. Even as Pyongyang
threatens to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, and to
gun down Southern activists - many in fact
refugees from the North - who launch propaganda
balloons across the border, its envoys around the
world are demanding that we should feed them.
Obviously Kim Jong-il isn't up to the job. The
United States and the United Kingdom both confirm
that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
(DPRK) has recently asked them directly for food
Is your first instinct to trust the
Kim regime? Me neither. Skeptics mutter that the
North isn't really short of food. But they need to
build up a stockpile, so a year hence they can
throw a convincing party for the centenary of
Great Leader Kim Il-sung: still president, though
dead since 1994. Look, rice! And this is called
meat! Bow and be grateful, you lucky peasants.
In a slogan that sounds a real hostage to
fortune, April 2012 is the official target date
for the DPRK to become a "great and prosperous
nation" (kangsong taeguk). Won't that
backfire, like the emperor's new clothes? Comrade,
we're rich now! So how come I can see your ribs?
Skepticism is one thing, cynicism another.
I don't trust Pyongyang, but I do trust Christian
Friends of Korea (CFK). Southern Baptists: what
image does that conjure up? Right-wing, preaching
hellfire? Not the ones I know. CFK feeds the
hungry and heals the sick - in North Korea.
They've been going in and out since 1995, raising
US$42 million to date for food and medical aid,
especially for tuberculosis. But don't believe me;
read more at www.cfk.org, or a new paper from the
Korea Economic Institute (KEI) about their and
others' work on TB. 
Nor is CFK alone.
Eugene Bell does similar work, as do several other
US non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as
Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan's
Purse and World Vision. Last month, those four and
CFK sent a team of seven experts - all with
in-country experience; two are Korean-speakers -
to assess current food needs in North Korea. They
were there for a week, visiting 45 sites -
hospitals, orphanages, ordinary homes, cooperative
farms, warehouses - in 17 counties and cities in
three provinces in the northwest. Access was
excellent: they could and did ask to visit places
on the day, rather than an itinerary pre-planned
by North Korea.
It's not looking good. It
never does, but right now it's getting worse.
Nature has dealt North Korea a double whammy. Last
summer brought heavy rains and flooding, which hit
staple grains (maize and rice) and saw the
vegetable crop cut by half in some areas. The
harvested grain in granaries was further damaged
Then came winter: always
bitter, but this was the worst in 66 years. The
latest newsletter (no 390)  from the
well-informed South Korean Buddhist NGO Good
Friends is a grim litany of people freezing to
death. Most vulnerable are the kkotjebis:
literally "flower swallows", far too pretty a name
for these sad bands of ragged orphans who survive
if at all on their wits:
It is impossible to avoid
bone-penetrating hunger even though they were
successful begging … Some lucky children wrapped
themselves up with vinyl, most of them shakes
terribly only with torn rag. It is painfully
pitiful to see the blackened bony body covered
in dirt. Many children have pneumonia symptoms
and there are no children without frostbite due
to the torturous starvation and cold.
But back to food, lack of. The big
freeze killed half the spring wheat and barley,
which would have softened last summer's blow. A 2
million tonne gap between supply and demand leaves
three options: buy food abroad, get aid, or
starve. In the past Pyongyang has cut food imports
when it got aid, which doesn't exactly encourage
donors. The US team were told the government had
planned to buy 325,000 tonnes of food this year,
but with prices soaring this has been cut to
200,000 tonnes. Only 40,000 tonnes has actually
been purchased so far.
under the Public Distribution System (PDS) have
been cut to a meagre 400 grams daily. That only
gives 61% of the minimum calories, 58% of protein,
51% of vitamin A and 32% of the iron a body needs.
It's not clear how many people even get this. The
PDS collapsed during the 1996-98 famine, and has
never fully recovered since. In today's North
Korea, Juche (self-reliance) carries an
ominous new sub-text: You're on your own, mate.
The effects are already showing up. Most
vulnerable, as always, are the chronically sick,
the elderly, households with few earners, pregnant
or lactating women - and small children, the
under-fives. Smaller than they should be. The US
visitors saw children suffering from acute
malnutrition, as well as stunting, wasting, and
listlessness from hunger. Stunting and wasting -
that means low height for age, and low weight for
height - are already endemic: in 2009 the rates
were 32% and 6% respectively. That means almost
one in three children is stunted.
the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? Well,
the not visibly underfed Kim Jong-il did it for
real - and marked them for life. A study in South
Korea of 103 young defectors found them on average
5-11 centimeters shorter and 6-10 kilograms
lighter than their Southern peers. 
what are we going to do? That's we as in you and
I. You may feel the only real cure is for the Dear
Leader to go the way of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and
(hopefully) Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. Sure, the
regime is the problem. But children are children.
They didn't ask to be born North Korean. Their
plight is not their fault. As former US president
Ronald Reagan (no less) once said, "A hungry child
knows no politics."
Also in North Korea is
a mission from the United Nations World Food
Program (WFP); it will report in late March.
Depending what this finds, the US and other
governments might cough up; but I wonder. Everyone
is just utterly fed up with North Korea. The US
envoy on human rights, Robert King, said in Seoul
on February 11: "It's hard to give food to
He's right. The Kim regime
doesn't just flaunt a new nuclear facility and
attack the South. It also bites the hand that
tries to feed it. WFP, whose DPRK operation was
once its largest on the planet, was brusquely
ordered out in 2005, along with all the resident
foreign NGOs that has been helping the DPRK for a
decade. Eventually WFP was permitted a greatly
reduced footprint, feeding just 1.9 million North
Koreans: barely a quarter of the peak of 6.5
Despite severe flooding in 2007
and fresh fears of famine in 2008, WFP was not
allowed to resume a larger presence - until May
2008. Food aid should be a politics-free zone, but
for the George W Bush administration in its dying
months to give North Korea half a million tons of
grain was patently a reward for what looked like
progress on the nuclear front. Most of this (80%)
was to be distributed by WFP, the rest via five US
NGOs: the same ones that just visited.
this too went pear-shaped. In 2009 the US quintet
were kicked out before the program was finished,
as the DPRK's missile and nuclear tests caused
political relations to plummet again. The fact
that these NGOs have just gone back shows a
graciousness sorely lacking in Pyongyang. They
freely admit there is no guarantee they won't get
messed around again.
There are some
positives. In 2008-09 Korean speakers (a problem
in the past) were allowed. And monitoring, often a
bugbear, was excellent. In just nine months the
NGOs made 1,600 monitoring visits - at all stages,
from unloading in port to provincial and county
warehouses, recipient institutions, and right down
to individual households - to ensure the food
really did reach almost a million people in the
northwestern Chagang and North Pyongan provinces.
But above all, the need is still there and
getting ever more desperate. Spring means a
blessed end to winter - but it is also the classic
lean season of hunger, which if unchecked will
last through summer all the way until the next
autumn harvest: itself unpredictable.
Plenty, maybe most, will walk away. The
world is full of need - and most of the needy have
better manners than the DPRK government. Should we
starve them into submission, then?
is, the "them" who need to change their ways are
not the them that are hungry. If North Korea
interests you - and if it doesn't, then why are
you reading this? - then please, care too. Don't
harden your heart. Leave that to the Kim regime.
This article names seven NGOs working in
North Korea. You can find their websites easily
enough. There are more, plus UN and other
international bodies: WFP, Red Cross (IFRC) et al.
All are under-funded. They, and North Korea's
children, need you. Right now. Please.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary
senior research fellow in sociology and modern
Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance
consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean
affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he
has followed North Korea for over 40 years.
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