Nuclear North Korea entreats Mongolia for help in feeding its people

Kim Jong-un, the young leader in Pyongyang, finds that destabilizing East Asia can help build quite an appetite.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
A food shop keeper sweeps the sidewalk with a broom while people line up outside a shop in Pyongyang, North Korea, last week. The ambassador from Pyongyang to Ulan Bator officially has claimed that a 'severe food shortage' may be in the offing, and his country is seeking relief.

Koreans and nearby Mongolians share an ancient ethnic and lingual heritage, and now it appears North Korea is hoping those ties will help them borrow a bit of needed butter and sugar.

The ambassador from Pyongyang to Ulan Bator officially has claimed that a “severe food shortage” may be in the offing, and his country is seeking relief.

North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un has been threatening nuclear war, raising tensions, using scant fuel resources to drive his mobile rocket launchers around in anticipation of another test; last week Mr. Kim shut a joint North-South industrial park at Kaesong that earns hard currency.

But when it comes to actually feeding people at a time of expected shortfall in the corn crop, Kim is apparently hoping that Mongolians will take pity.

Koreans and Mongolians trace their linguistic heritage to the Altaic family of languages – of which China is not a part – and there is a robust back and forth of tourists and trade between Seoul and Ulan Bator on East Asian Airlines, with Koreans often fascinated by their roots among the plains peoples. 

The Wall Street Journal today reported that:

“North Korea may face (a) severe food shortage,” [North Korean] Ambassador Hong Gyu told [Mongolian] President [Tsakhiagiin] Elbegdorj, according to the account. Mr. Hong then asked for Mongolia to consider the possibility of delivering food aid to North Korea, the Journal reported.

For years, photos of malnourished children and adults with stunted growth have been synonymous with reported conditions inside the secretive kingdom of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, which has been run by the Kim family dynasty for more than 60 years.

The central daily preoccupation of Shin Dong-hyuk, born in a labor camp, and who is the subject of Blaine Harden's recent book, "Escape from Camp 14" – is food. 

Actually, experts say, North Korea’s much-discussed food crisis has steadily improved since the 1990s when floods and drought killed as many as 2 million from hunger. Yet a cessation of the kind of catastrophic hunger of years past, combined with vague promises of fuller bellies, may constitute its own kind of internal demand on Kim, experts say. 

International food agency assessments last fall gave one of the relatively “best” shortfalls in recent years, of only some 200,000 tons. Those figures are gathered under the eye of the government and do not include the situation in the extensive networks of prison and labor camps. But previous food shortages have run in the millions of tons. Chalk up some help in recent years from China and South Korea.

Analysts say the DPRK is simply shaking as many local penny jars and seeking as much new sources of aid as possible.

In the North Korean scheme of things, the greatest food amounts are distributed in the capital, Pyongyang, which is considered the purest and most loyal element of the population. Outside Pyongyang and into the periphery, the amount of available food lessens. Some analysts say shortfalls and hunger are already present in outlying areas among the so-called wavering classes of citizens purportedly less loyal to the regime.

Citing information gleaned from NK Net, a human-rights group of North Korean defectors based in Seoul, the Journal offers that: 

During the annual April 15 birthday celebration for North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, Pyongyang didn't distribute food to the northernmost province. This is a bit shocking as Il Sung's birthday is the biggest holiday of the year.

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