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North Korea heads toward hunger

World Food Program says it needs $100 million to battle food shortages.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 19, 2006


Even as missile and nuclear tests alienate humanitarian aid donors, North Korea is facing a cold winter in which it is unlikely to be able to feed its people.

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The danger of widespread suffering raises the critical question of how the world can unite in a forceful response to North Korea's nuclear test – the focus of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visits this week to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing – and still rescue the North's hungry people.

Compelled to ask for huge donations of food at the height of a famine that killed some 2 million people in the 1990s, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was confident enough last year to order the World Food Program and other aid-givers to leave or vastly reduce their programs.

But the North may again need aid – at a time when missile tests in July, followed by the nuclear test this month, have reduced donors' desire to rush in to help.

"There is relatively little humanitarian assistance going in now," says Anthony Banbury, the UN World Food Program's regional director for Asia. "The willingness of donors to meet those needs has not been very strong."

The WFP says it needs $100 million this year to fulfill its goals for North Korea. So far, it has received only 10 percent of that total.

The United States has given more than $1.1 billion since 1995, 60 percent of which has gone to food aid. Forty percent was energy aid sent through the 1994 program – now shut down – designed to provide twin energy reactors in exchange for a shutdown of the North's nuclear program.

The US cut donations to the WFP this year after North Korea ordered the WFP to slash the size of its mission in Pyongyang from nearly 50 people to 10 people and shut its five regional offices, from which inspectors tried to monitor distribution.

South Korea, which suspended food aid after the North's nuclear test, sharply reduced food donations, on which the North depended to make up a shortfall of more than 1 million tons of rice, after the July missile tests. It relented when North Korea pleaded for help after severe flooding in August.

But it sent only half of the 100,000 tons it had said it would send in "emergency" aid – compared with 500,000 tons last year. That was the largest source of food for the North after China, which is also believed to have sharply cut shipments. Both the Chinese and South Korean programs have been entirely independent of the WFP – and monitoring has been weak.

The reluctance to try to stave off another famine contrasts with the response in 1995, when North Korea for the first time asked the World Food Program to help.

By 1997, aid shipments through the program crested at more than 500,000 tons a year, with the US leading all donors. But the WFP last year sent in less than 100,000 tons, half of it from the US.

South Korean officials oppose shutting off economic contacts, much less boarding and interdicting North Korean ships, but say they are in a quandary when it comes to donations of rice.

"It's a kind of dilemma," says Kang Jong-suk, an official at the Unification Ministry, which had been avidly pursuing reconciliation. "South Korea wants to send some humanitarian aid, but there is a barrier because of the UN resolution."

He says as well "the problem of transparency" inside North Korea, which means that, "We cannot monitor what will happen."

That inability to monitor has played a significant role in other donors' willingness to offer aid.

"The US has very strong reservations ... because of conditions imposed by the North Koreans," says Mr. Banbury of the WFP.