Reports of North Korea food shortages overblown, say US, South Korea

The US and South Korea disagree with the United Nations World Food Program about the extent to which North Koreans suffer from lack of food.

Hyungwon Kang/Reuters
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan speaks about North Korea food aid as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during a joint press availability in the Benjamin Franklin Room following the signing of the US-Republic of Korea Development Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the Department of State in Washington, on June 24.

The US and South Korea are at odds with the United Nations World Food Program over how seriously North Korea is suffering from lack of food and are in no hurry to resume feeding the North’s hungry people.

That conclusion emerges from a study by a US government team that spent 10 days in North Korea assessing the needs – and how likely North Korea is to guarantee enough transparency to determine who gets the food.

South Korean leaders appeared relieved when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently made it clear that the US did not believe North Korea had addressed “serious concerns about monitoring” food distribution. The US still wants to know what happened to 20,000 tons of rice that’s strongly believed to have gone to North Korean soldiers when a US food aid program was suspended two years ago.

Ms. Clinton’s remarks echoed those of South Korean officials who have been extremely anxious to see whether the US would yield to North Korean entreaties after a team led by US human rights envoy Robert King went to North Korea last month.

“We should be sure the food should not be misdirected and we have a clear monitoring system,” says Park Jin-eun, director of the inter-Korea policy division at South Korea’s foreign ministry. “The US is in the same position.”

How hungry are North Koreans?

A central question is whether North Korea needs emergency shipments as called for by the World Food Program. Yes, Ms. Park acknowledges, “The problem this year is changed by flood and winter cold,” but the widespread view here is that North Korea basically has enough food.

It’s believed that North Korea wants to stockpile food for celebrations planned next year to mark the 100-year anniversary of the birth of the late Kim Il-sung, the long-reigning “Great Leader” who died in 1994 after passing on power to his son, current leader Kim Jong-il.

“There’s a need, but we don’t know how great it is,” says a knowledgeable western observer. “My hunch is it’s less about a shortage of food and more about unequal distribution. You can buy rice in the markets if you have the means.”

He strongly questions the “emergency assessment” issued by the World Food Program last winter that indicated more than six million people would need food assistance this year. “How do you generalize?” he asks. "Six million people is a quarter of the country... It’s overstated."

Marcus Prior, the WFP’s Asia spokesman, says “the situation is not at the level of the mid-1990s” when as many as two million people are believed to have died of starvation and disease. But he notes that “bilateral and humanitarian assistance has declined dramatically in recent years.”

South Korea’s conservative President Lee Myung-bak cut off almost all food aid in 2008 after a decade in which his two predecessors, in pursuit of the “Sunshine policy” of reconciliation, had authorized shipments of several hundred thousand tons a year of rice and fertilizer.

The UN's concerns

The WFP is concerned at the level of food stocks and the health of the most vulnerable women and children, says Mr. Prior. “High food prices have meant commercial imports have been hard hit, and the bitter winter has damaged stored food and reduced the early spring harvest of winter and barley,” while cereals distribution is “only about a quarter of the full ration.”

Kwon Eun-kyung, an editor at the Daily NK, which puts out daily reports here about North Korea problems, says defectors and other sources inside North Korea contradict the WFP’s assessment.

“Within the boundary of authority, the food situation may be difficult,” she says. “People get by, farming themselves. They find a way to survive by bartering or selling goods. It is not the same as the report by the WFP.”

North Korea “uses many tactics to get more aid, she says. “The US right now is not in such a hurry to help North Korea with food. The situation is not so desperate.”

Nor is Ms. Kwon impressed by recurrent reports of cannibalism.

“That is not the latest news,” she says. “We have had many stories since the last famine” – that is, in the 1990s. “Some defectors have testified to that. Not many people believed that story.”

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