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N. Korea cuts off U.N. food, ignites famine fears

As Pyongyang’s Stalinist government moves to reassert control over the food supply, some experts fear that it could lead the isolated country into another famine. By Kari Huus.
To match feature Korea-North-Food
North Koreans work on a rice field outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in October. Reinhard Krause / Reuters file
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The New Year seldom brings much to celebrate in North Korea — where food and energy shortages regularly accompany a long, bitter winter. This time around the outlook is even more uncertain, as Pyongyang’s Stalinist government moves to reassert control over the food supply, a move some experts fear will lead the isolated country into another famine.

With the end of 2005, the U.N.'s World Food Program is slated to shut down its decade-long food distribution effort in North Korea after Pyongyang told the organization that the aid was no longer needed. The program was the biggest multinational humanitarian program in the country and was instrumental in pulling North Korea out of a famine that killed up to 2.5 million people in the mid-1990s and drove many to flee the country.

At the same time, the government announced it would revert to central control of all grain distribution, shutting down market-based experiments in grain sales that started in 2002. Then the military reportedly seized grain earmarked as incentives for growers, while promising increased rations across the board.

‘The state has ... reneged’
“After implementing incentives for growers … the state has basically gone in and reneged,” said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the International Institute for Economics in Washington. The combination of these policy changes could be lethal, he says. “They may be setting themselves up for another humanitarian crisis.”

North Korea fell on hard times after the end of the Cold War when support from Moscow dried up. While the Soviet Union dismantled and communist ally China moved towards market reforms, Pyongyang remained one of the most insular nations in the world under Kim Il Song, with tight controls over political and social realms. It has remained so under his son, President Kim Jong Il. While its 22 million people struggle with poverty, the regime largely shuns outside interference. Allowing food aid over the past 10 years was a rare exception.

In the short run, Pyongyang may well be able to make ends meet. Satellite photos reportedly show that the country’s 2005 harvest was better than in previous years, by some accounts 10 percent above levels of recent years. And both Beijing and Seoul, seeking to prevent a collapse and chaos in the neighborhood, are set to continue sending food aid to North Korea on a bilateral basis.

But the margin is narrow at best. Chronic malnourishment and food insecurity is widespread in North Korea. The population outside the main cities lives perpetually on the edge of hunger, and natural disasters like the drought and flooding that contributed to the emergency a decade earlier could easily plunge the country back into a food crisis.

Strings attached
And it is unclear whether the needs of high-risk populations targeted by the WFP will be met. In its largest humanitarian effort ever, WFP has been running 19 factories employing about 2,000 Korean women to produce enriched noodles and biscuits for about 6.5 million people in high-risk groups, including small children and pregnant and nursing mothers. In all, it has delivered nearly 4 million tons of food to North Koreans since 1995. It also has had 40 to 50 staff members in the country and offices outside the capital to ensure that products reached the most needy.

"If you give the food through the WFP, it is more likely to reach vulnerable people," said Noland. "If you give the food to the North Korean government, it will distribute according to its own preferences, which are basically political."

Since the regime's priority appears to be its own survival, experts say, it will naturally favor loyal military and political elite, rather than the most needy.

The move to eject WFP may be a Faustian gamble for more help from its neighbors, said Robert Dujarric, a North Asia expert and visiting scholar at Japan's Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry. "They may be hoping that they can get enough aid from Korea and China, which comes with fewer strings attached."

Or it may be a ploy to get the WFP to relax rules for its aid. Even though the organization's plants and satellite offices were shut down by mid-December, a WFP staff member confirmed Thursday that WFP is still in talks with donors to reformulate the program in a way acceptable both to Pyongyang and to major donors — primarily the United States, Japan and South Korea. While donor nations insisted on extensive monitoring, Pyongyang is insisting that the WFP operation be scaled back to a skeletal staff with no field offices, essentially making dependable monitoring impossible.

Giving food aid without the monitoring would be a mistake, says Clark Sorenson, a professor of Korean Studies at University of Washington. "From my point of view, what the international community needs to do is avoid supporting the public distribution system, because it just reinforces the power of (Kim Jong Il's) Korean Workers Party and the political elite," he said.

Reverse on reform
Longer term, the ban on private grain sales bodes badly for production. For the last few years, after meeting obligations to the state, North Korean farmers have been allowed to use or sell excess grain on the free market. But that incentive to farmers will disappear in the next growing season.

The limited free market experiment was modeled after China’s free market reforms of the late 1970s, which ultimately launched that country's economic boom. In North Korea the reforms were barely in their infancy, but analysts say they were beginning to help people supplement meager rations.

"(The government) may be concerned with control issues when it comes to the market," said Dujarric. "And obviously to them politics has priority over feeding the people."

The disappearance of the incentive could prompt the farmers to resort to strategies used in other desperate times — secretly growing crops up on the hillsides, cutting, hiding and hoarding grain before harvest time — or simply cutting production.

It will be difficult to track how it plays out on the ground. Without the presence of the WFP, North Korea will become that much more opaque to the outside world. The program's monitors have long been the main conduit for information on the insular nation, particularly the situation in the countryside, which is largely off limits to foreigners.

“We are heading back toward a situation like in the 1990s in which you are foreclosing the mechanisms by which people actually access food,” said Noland. “At the same time you are shutting off information.”

In the last crisis, by the time the world understood the severity of the famine, and Pyongyang finally called for international food aid, it was too late for hundreds of thousands of its citizens.