Global Changes Skew Calculus Of Food Aid For N. Korea

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 15, 2008

SEOUL -- A grim rite of spring in Northeast Asia is the calculation of how many North Koreans could starve before the fall harvest -- and what the neighbors are willing to do about it.

This year, though, the famine bailout season is more urgent, more complicated and more politically explosive than at any time since the mid-1990s, when millions starved behind North Korea's closed borders.

Severe crop failure in the North, surging global prices for food and tougher behavior by donors, particularly South Korea and China, are putting unaccustomed pressure on Kim Jong Il's dysfunctional communist state.

"For Kim Jong Il, this will be his most difficult year," predicts Park Syung-je, a scholar at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul, referring to the North's dictator. "North Korea does not have much choice for food."

The threat of a calamitous 1990s-style famine has fallen substantially because of the emergence of grass-roots private markets across North Korea and a U.N. system for nutrition monitoring. Still, large numbers of people stand to suffer severe hardship, although probably not death, joining the ranks of the millions of North Koreans who go hungry even when harvests are good and food aid arrives.

Roughly a third of children and mothers are malnourished, according to a recent U.N. study. The average 8-year-old in the North is seven inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than a South Korean child of the same age.

This year is anything but good. Floods last August ruined part of the main yearly harvest, creating a 25 percent shortfall in the food supply and putting 6 million people in need, according to the U.N. World Food Program.

Over the winter, drought damaged the wheat and barley crop, according to a recent report in the official North Korean media. That crop normally tides people over during the summer "lean season" until the fall harvest.

North Korea's ability to buy food, meanwhile, has plunged, as the cost of rice and wheat on the global market has jumped to record highs, up 50 percent in the past six months.

Equally important for North Korea, its reliably generous neighbors seem to be operating under new, less tolerant rules for charity.

For nearly a decade, South Korea had led the world in providing assistance to the North, while setting almost no conditions on aid and asking few questions about who was getting it.

But South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-bak, wants to condition some of his country's gifts of food and fertilizer on progress in removing nuclear weapons from the North, on improvements in human rights and on guarantees that food will go to poor people, not to the North Korean military.

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