IT IS the time of year when the previous harvest has been nearly eaten and the next one has just been planted. Time, in other words, to worry about North Korea’s perennially hungry masses.
North Korea had long grown dependent on food handouts from its estranged brother, South Korea, and from the United States. But the South’s current president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a tougher line, tying assistance to less provocative behaviour by Kim Jong Il’s nuclear-tipped regime. So Mr Kim’s envoys have travelled further afield of late, reportedly doing the rounds of Europe.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is now preparing to distribute emergency aid to 3.5m North Koreans suffering from “severe malnutrition”. Programme officials are concerned about the possibility of a famine on the scale of the one in the mid-1990s, in which over 1m died. They blame a series of shocks, including the coldest winter in years, widespread flooding and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock. Some 297,000 tonnes of cereal and 137,000 tonnes of fortified blended food must reach the most vulnerable.
With murky data, and diplomats and foreign-aid staff restricted in where they may travel, not everyone agrees with the WFP’s assessment. Certainly, estimating North Korea’s food needs has long been a politicised business. A member of South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party, Yoon Sang-hyun, says that the North is hoarding 1m tonnes of rice, playing up a shortfall in order to get aid on the cheap. Some say Mr Kim wants the aid in order to announce a bumper harvest in 2012. That year is the 100th anniversary of North Korea’s founder, Mr Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung. Something approaching paradise has long been promised to North Koreans for 2012.
The South’s unification minister, Hyun In-taek, also suspects North Korea of exaggerating its troubles for political gain. Certainly, he says, starvation has begun to overshadow other topics that the South would rather discuss, namely denuclearisation and the North’s refusal to apologise for last year’s shelling of Yeonpyeong island and the presumed sinking in March 2010 of a naval corvette. This is apparently a view shared by Daily NK, an activist network and news source which says that the price of rice in the black market has actually fallen by around half in recent months.
Others, such as Good Friends, a South Korean Buddhist charity long working in the North, insist the situation is very bad—and that tuberculosis is on the rise owing to malnutrition. Rimjingang, a magazine with reporters secretly stationed in North Korea, says that in North Pyongan province by the Chinese border even the army is going hungry.
Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, both at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC, say that even though the WFP has overstated the case, “all indicators point to a deteriorating food-security situation”. What is more, they take issue with Mr Lee’s belief that withholding aid will temper the North’s behaviour. Rather, they argue, the response will merely be for the hermit kingdom to “hunker down and tighten repression”. The regime has been consistent chiefly in showing complete disregard for its people.
But arguing is pointless. Widespread malnutrition and starvation in at least some parts of the country is a reality in North Korea. For Jimmy Carter, the former American president, who visited Pyongyang recently, the fault lies mainly with South Korea and the United States. That is presumably tonic to the real culprit for the hunger, the chubby Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.