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.
While South Korea will probably end up providing some aid without conditions, a long and politicized debate in Seoul about how much to give and under what conditions is delaying delivery.
"I will not rush but wait until the time is ripe," South Korea's new minister of unification, Kim Ha-joong, told reporters this week.
It seems unlikely that South Korean fertilizer -- a key to preventing crop failure in the coming fall harvest -- will arrive in time for planting, analysts here say.
"Crunch time for fertilizer is now, but negotiations haven't even begun to arrange for delivery," said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea specialist at Kyungnam University in Seoul. "This means that North Korea's dependency on China has to grow."
But China, the North's closest ally and main trading partner, also seems to be stiffening its food policies.
It has quietly slashed food aid to North Korea, according to figures compiled by the World Food Program. Deliveries plummeted from 440,000 metric tons in 2005 to 207,000 tons in 2006. Last year there was a slight increase in aid, but it remained far below the levels of the past decade.
The reason for the cuts has not been made public, but some analysts believe it is related to North Korea's decision in 2006 to detonate a nuclear device. "China decided to punish the North Koreans," said Andrei Lankov, a professor who specializes in North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul.
The nuclear explosion led the Bush administration to begin negotiating directly with Kim's government. But it also brought on a drastic reduction in the willingness of the United States and much of the rest of the world to give food to North Korea.
Total donations under a World Food Program project declined by more than 80 percent between 2005 and 2007, and U.S. donations fell to zero.
China also appears to have tightened its food squeeze on North Korea for domestic reasons. In order to meet local demand and control inflation, Beijing slapped a 22 percent tariff on grain exports to the North.
China is by far the country's major source of food imports, and the tariffs have resulted in higher prices and less grain in markets across North Korea, according to several aid groups.
Still, if hunger inside North Korea threatens to become widespread famine, China -- host for the Summer Olympics in August -- is certain to rush in large amounts of food, according to diplomats and aid experts.
"China will be elastic," said Lankov, a Russian who studied in the North and is a periodic visitor there. "They are unhappy with North Korea and they want to keep pressure on Kim, but they don't want collapse and they don't want to risk a refugee mess on their border during the Olympics."
In the 1990s, weather-related crop failures in North Korea combined with a reduction in aid from China and from states of the collapsed Soviet Union to cause widespread famine that killed an estimated 2 million people. Since then, though, the risk of famine has fallen substantially, according to food aid specialists and political analysts.
Behind its closed borders, the country has undergone a fundamental change. Analysts say North Korea now has two economies: the crumbling state system, which often fails to pay salaries and supply food, and a growing network of neighborhood markets, where people buy and sell, free of government controls. Kim's government grudgingly tolerates these places.
In the markets -- despite periodic police raids and crackdowns -- euros and dollars can buy Chinese gadgets and clothes. Local and imported food is also available for purchase or barter and would no doubt increase, arriving illegally if necessary, in response to a sudden spike in demand.
"You will never see mass starvation again," said Lee Seung-yong, secretary general of Good Friends, a Seoul-based charity with contacts across the North. "Except for some isolated areas, people have found ways to survive. They know they cannot depend on the government."
Institutionally, mechanisms are in place in North Korea to ring the international alarm bell before hunger turns into mass starvation. The World Food Program monitors nutrition in 50 counties, and the Kim government has become expert in asking for help.
But while famine is much less likely than in the 1990s, so is loyal public tolerance of food shortages, analysts and aid officials say.
These experts agree that cynicism and restiveness have increased because of the highly visible failings of Kim's government, the willingness of poorly paid police to take bribes and the now-proven ability of markets to deliver food and other goods that the state cannot provide.
"There is a small but growing potential of rebellion if the food supply dries up -- and Kim's government knows it," said Lankov, echoing several other analysts and aid experts.
All this could make the coming summer a test of Kim's ability to procure food and keep the lid on inside North Korea while maintaining good relations with his most important patron, China.
Unless foreign aid arrives, food shortages are expected to worsen just as Beijing begins to host the Olympics.
Special correspondent Stella Kim contributed to this report.