Food crisis goes from bad to worse in North Korea

A decade after loss of Soviet support, frail economy and bad weather bring shortages.

North Korea, stricken by years of near famine, faces another populationwide food crisis. Food staples were depleted by the end of January after a poor fall harvest and the worst winter in North Asia in 50 years, said Pyongyang-based UN aid officials in Beijing yesterday.

Food distribution systems are now "partially operating." But by early next month, supplies will run out, says David Morton, head of the World Food Program (WFP) in North Korea. Once they do, there is "no formal distribution that we are aware of... until the harvest next fall."

"As in previous years, most of the population of the country will be affected, with the exception of those in aid programs," Mr. Morton said. "Adults will feel the pinch right away."

Despite the society's deep need, aid workers say they see no diminution of loyalty to leader Kim Jong Il. Last year the reclusive Mr. Kim began cracking open the doors of his country to South Korea and Western countries, hinted at sweeping economic reforms, and has visited China twice, once showing up at the Shanghai stock market.

Program officers like Morton note that farmers can now choose crops, accept microcredit loans, and conduct private trade with China. But little of the economic restructuring the country needs to feed itself is yet evident.

The new Bush administration has been far less enthusiastic about efforts to promote the North-South Korean dialogue than was the Clinton White House. However, aid officials say they don't foresee a lessening of US assistance. The bulk of food aid to the North comes from the US.

No access to some areas

Most of the country's children are in aid programs, with the exception of those living in areas that Pyongyang will not allow access to, citing reasons of "national security." Little is known about conditions in these places, about 20 percent of North Korea. Under a "no access, no aid" policy, the small number of nongovernmental organizations and aid agencies operating in North Korea have made a pact not to fund regions they cannot enter.

Pyongyang critics say that much of the food and humanitarian assistance that arrives is siphoned off by the military, elite classes, and government loyalists. Two years ago, Nobel Prize-winning NGO Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) quit its North Korea program, citing the problem of working only with official interpreters, local doctors who had been coached about what to say, and for being allowed only to hand off expensive supplies and goods to hospitals, never seeing where the aid went.

WFP is the largest distributor of food aid in the world. About one-third of its food budget is spent on North Korea - where it feeds 8 million people, 90 percent of whom are children, a figure equivalent to Switzerland's population. With a staff of 56 and restrictions that forbid workers to travel freely, WFP officials admit they can't make proper checks on the aid.

Between June and late October, adults will survive on scattered harvests of potatoes and other vegetables; every home now has private plots, according to the WFP. Rooftops are used for pumpkin growing. Even one square foot of soil can support a 15-foot pole with string beans.

"Alternative foods" also will be on the menu - usually cabbage stalks, edible plants, roots, and so-called "raw materials" that are ground together. By adding wheat flour, a digestive enzyme, and then heat treating the mixture, a noodle or food bar is created. International health officials say the food bar is not nutritious, but is a stomach filler that has in some cases been harmful.

Next crop outlook

Indicating that poor harvests may continue, agriculture specialists say only about 25 percent of the fertilizer needed in the coming season is on hand. About 20 percent of the land is arable - the rest is mountainous. Rural people are expected to handle the coming months of shortages and hunger better than those in urban areas along the eastern coast. Working people such as miners and factory hands have in the past experienced the toughest times.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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