NKorea food crisis complicated by politics: WFP

Philippe Agret

After being ravaged by famine in the 1990s, North Korea again faces serious food shortages, with a UN official based here saying that politics are making things worse.

On the road from the capital Pyongyang to Kaesong in the south, every hill lot is developed for agriculture, with all farm work done by hand.

But only 17 percent of the land in North Korea is arable, one of the lowest ratios in the world, according to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP).

“North Korea is suffering a chronic food shortage due to structural problems and limited food imports and food aid,” said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP’s representative in the communist state.

He lamented the international community’s lack of commitment to North Korea amid the deadlock in six-nation talks on disarming Pyongyang, and what some consider to be “hidden sanctions” linking a large part of aid to politics.

“There is no evidence that holding back food or humanitarian aid destined to civilian populations would have an impact on the government or its behaviour,” he said.

North Korea’s worst period came from 1995 to 1999 when drought, flooding and the disappearance of Soviet aid led to a famine that killed between 800,000 and two million people, according to independent estimates.

The scars of the famine still run deep, with a 2004 United Nations study finding that 37 percent of North Korean children suffered chronic malnutrition.

Some experts use the term “7, 8, 9, 10” — as an adult, a seven-year-old born during the famine will be eight kilograms (18 pounds) lighter, stand nine inches (23 centimeters) shorter and live 10 years less than a South Korean of the same age.

The groups most at risk are young children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

After a record harvest in 2005, 2006 was “very difficult” due to heavy floods in the summer and a dramatic drop in food aid and food imports; 2007 could also be dire, de Margerie warned.

Amid the international furore over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests last year, China reduced its aid by half and        South Korea temporarily halted shipments.

Seoul has since resumed fertiliser aid and promised to provide 400,000 tons of rice to North Korea starting in late May.

But the food aid is linked to political conditions, such as Pyongyang shutting its nuclear reactor in line with a multilateral disarmament deal reached in February.

The impoverished country faces a shortfall of one million tons of food this year, or 20 percent of its needs, according to the WFP and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Up to one third of North Korea’s 23 million people may need assistance ahead of the next harvest, warns the WFP.

So is there a danger of another famine?

“No, not yet,” said de Margerie. “But if the trend continues, pockets of severe malnutrition could develop.”

In Pyongyang, not everyone is pessimistic as there is a lack of reliable agricultural data. Some observers say the problems lie in the distribution system and access to food, rather than in actual production.

North Korea’s leaders — whose ruling motto is “juche,” or self-reliance — say they have made food security their priority, but Pyongyang has nonetheless relied on foreign help.

The WFP has collected two billion dollars in 10 years, supplying four million tons of food between 1995 and 2005 that assisted one-third of North Korea in its biggest operation at the time.

Since 2001, multilateral aid from the WFP has been gradually replaced by assistance from China and South Korea. While bilateral aid goes to the government and may be distributed to the elite, the WFP says it closely monitors its aid so that it reaches those most in need.

This year, donor countries have promised only 12,000 tons of food.

The WFP has received only 20 percent of the financing for its programme up to March 2008, assisting three percent of the population, or 600,000 people, instead of the initial objective of reaching nearly two million North Koreans.

De Margerie says he hopes the international community will set aside political concerns to focus on the human tragedy unfolding in North Korea.

“You only see negative images of North Korea. But it has a human face,” he stressed.

“An eight-month-old child or pregnant woman does not engage in politics. It’s the most vulnerable in the civilian population who pay the price.”


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