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The Koreas





PYONGYANG WATCH
Waste and want: Will North Korea starve again?

By Aidan Foster-Carter

It's been a few months since this column last looked at North Korea's food shortage. As of October 2001, we concluded that the overall situation was not as bad as it might be - and far better than it had been.

For two reasons it seemed then as if most North Koreans were getting fed - albeit at bare subsistence levels. A better harvest helped, but aid and imports, as ever, were crucial. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP)'s appeal for US$316 million to buy 800,000 tons of grain was already 70 percent funded, as usual, thanks to donors such as the United States and South Korea - whose motives had to do with the disposal of farm surpluses as much as charity. Those wanting to help, we concluded then, would do better to support severely under-funded medical aid.

That may have been too complacent, especially a headline referring to "North Korea's gravy train". Yet it did look that way. Thailand and South Korea were offering 500,000 and 300,000 tons respectively, and neither seemed too bothered about payment. But things change, and five months later the situation now appears more ominous.

It's not clear that the Thai deal went through - or why would Kim Yong-nam, the DPRK's titular head of state, have just paid a visit to Bangkok? (He went to Malaysia, too, which supplies palm oil on easy terms.) Word is that Thailand, kind as ever, is ready to deal - if it gets paid a token $6 million of the $120 million that Pyongyang owes on earlier rice sales.

Meanwhile, Seoul's 300,000 tons fell through after North Korea froze contacts with the South again last fall - just after reopening them. Piqued as I was that the regime responsible for this suffering seemed able to collect handouts indefinitely - and maintain the criminally perverse policies which have made hunger endemic - still, I really shouldn't have said gravy train.

Myself visibly overfed, I apologize to millions of North Koreans who, even in that relatively "good" prognosis, were having to survive on a lousy 300 grams of food a day. That's less than half the 630 grams minimum that the WFP recommends and it is mainly grain with precious little protein or vegetables.

Now, even that minuscule amount is under threat. On February 28, the WFP reported that this year's appeal for North Korea - $215 million, for 673,500 tons - is only 25 percent funded so far. This time last year 50 percent had been secured. The sole donors pledged are the US - to give George W his due, Iowa corn still flows to the evil axis - and South Korea, which began sending 100,000 tons in March.

And now there is stiff competition - especially from Afghanistan, which the WFP's Beijing spokesman, Gerald Bourke, said has "been drawing away resources". He allowed, too, that after five years of aid, "maybe there is a degree of fatigue". Yet the need looks set to continue indefinitely: "Our sense is that North Korea will not be self-sufficient in food in the foreseeable future." Right now, with daily rations likely to fall as low as 200 grams soon, "the situation is precarious and any kind of break in the [food] pipeline could have very, very serious consequences".

Another WFP source says that it's broken already. On February 15, as North Korea celebrated Kim Jong-il's 60th birthday, the agency's weekly emergency report highlighted the true dire state of his realm. "The earlier forecasted cereals pipeline break is now affecting beneficiaries along the west coast. Food supplies for east coast beneficiaries will run out within the next two weeks ... sugar will run out next week."

Hopefully the interruption will only be temporary. This year's new grain promised is being expedited, which should last through until June - by which time the local wheat and barley crops should be in hand. But the main maize and rice harvests aren't until autumn - and the WFP is worried about all of these. I quote the WFP source again, "Low snowfall ... could have a negative effect on the winter and spring crops. Warmer temperatures have led to premature sprouting of wheat and barley, while resulting lower soil moisture content may adversely affect crop harvests in the traditionally dryer months between March and May. Inadequate snow may also lead to lower water levels in reservoirs, which could later impact the main crop."

Not much comfort there. But back to sugar. Why was that singled out? In richer countries, sugar is a no-no. Those of us who still add it to tea and coffee are made to feel guilty: calories, tooth decay, you name it. Not in North Korea. The WFP again, "[Sugar] is critical as it is a basic ingredient in the locally processed, fortified food blends given to young children. Unmet needs for the remainder of the year are in excess of 8,000 tons. Without further, immediate contributions, WFP will be compelled to scale back rations and reduce beneficiaries during the most difficult period of the year, ie, the pre-harvest months before July."

So, as you ponder that sweet spoonful, spare a thought for a benighted land where skinny, stunted little children right now need every darn calorie they can get. If they don't get their fortified biscuits they'll go hungry, or even hungrier than they already are. How much does 8,000 measly tons of sugar cost anyway?

Finally, here's a statistic to make the jaw drop. A government survey just published in Seoul reveals that last year South Koreans threw away more food than North Koreans ate. Two million tons of vegetables, a million tons of meat and fish, half a million tons of grain, 200,000 tons of fruit ... a grand total of 4 million tons, costing $300 million to dispose of.

Meanwhile, Northerners had 3.9 million tons to eat, total. Throw it out? In North Korea, they go gleaning in the fields for single grains. Unification, anyone?

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