The United States government has announced that it will contribute $10 million in food aid to mitigate the effects of severe flooding on the food supply in North Korea. The only problem is, the aid isn't nearly enough. Unfortunately, the international community still has not grasped the necessity for a major relief effort if massive famine is to be averted.
The US contribution will provide roughly one-third of the 110,000 metric tons sought by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). But even if the WFP obtains the full amount, this would fall far short of the immediate requirement: 1 million metric tons to meet minimum survival needs over the next several months.
Refugees International is deeply concerned that famine could prompt large numbers of North Koreans to leave their homes in search of food or asylum. Indeed, past experience with refugee emergencies shows that when famine-induced flight occurs, death rates soar.
If North Koreans flee north into China or south toward the demilitarized zone, casualties from mines along the borders would almost certainly result. A southward flow would also raise war tensions dramatically. North Koreans who might flee by boat also would be vulnerable. Food aid aimed at reducing the need for flight would diminish all of these risks.
Aid could dampen tensions
The recent defection of senior North Korean official Hwang Jang-yop shows how quickly tensions between North and South Korea can escalate. Sending a significant amount of food aid immediately would help dampen these tensions, thereby creating conditions conducive to North-South peace talks.
Stability on the Korean peninsula, a principal US foreign-policy goal, can no longer be maintained through military deterrence alone. An insertion of food, significantly above the amount requested in the WFP appeal, is also required to blunt destabilizing famine conditions.
The time to act is now, and Refugees International recommends that the following steps be taken:
*The World Food Program should, if North Korea requests, immediately issue an international appeal for 1 million metric tons of grain.
*The US should be prepared to provide 300,000 metric tons toward such an appeal; the US has traditionally given up to 30 percent.
*All donor government food contributions should be provided under the aegis of the WFP to ensure that adequate needs assessments and monitoring can be performed.
*North Korea should, in return for food aid, agree to permit UN and nongovernmental organizations personnel to work throughout the country.
North Korea should enter into peace talks as soon as possible to demonstrate its own commitment to regional stability. A peace agreement would pave the way for increased economic cooperation, which in turn would help resolve the structural problems that lie behind North Korea's food shortages.
Because post-cold-war US foreign policy has lurched from crisis to crisis, there is growing recognition of the need to spot and defuse emergencies before they escalate. Today the international community has plenty of early warning of an impending famine in North Korea, and only a program of massive food aid can prevent it from having disastrous humanitarian and strategic consequences.
* Donald M. Krumm is senior advocate with Refugees International in Washington.