Military officers in North Korea have pocketed and sold off supplies of South Korean-donated milk powder that was intended for babies but ordered by the Pyongyang regime to be distributed to undernourished soldiers, according to North Korean sources.
Private South Korean aid groups had provided the “Baby Love” brand powdered milk as part of humanitarian assistance to the impoverished country, but North Korean authorities earlier this year handed them out as rations for undernourished troops mobilized under a wartime alert, the sources said.
Military officers secretly diverted the supplies, selling them through brokers to local markets instead of distributing them to the soldiers, the sources said.
In the first few months of the year, supplies of the powdered milk coming from the military flooded local markets, where they were a sought-after item, one source in North Hamgyong province said.
“The South Korean Baby Love dry milk which was provided to the military by the North Korean authorities was the best-selling item at the local market until April,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“When the North Korean authorities provided it for soldiers, the local market overflowed with Baby Love,” the source said this month, adding that the infant formula was no longer available on the shelves.
The powdered milk, made by South Korea’s Namyang Daily Products Co. Ltd., came in four different types and in 700 and 800 gram (26 and 28 ounce) packages.
A source in Yanggang province said many of the packages sold in local markets had expiration dates of 2009 and 2010 on them, though some had had the dates removed.
Sources said the powdered milk originally came from South Korean aid organizations, which have provided food assistance targeting groups in North Korea most vulnerable to malnutrition, including with a 20-ton shipment of powdered milk sent by the Red Cross in 2010 for infants and other shipments delivered to orphanages.
Aid from South Korea has been cut back over the past several years amid tensions on the peninsula over North Korea’s nuclear program—tensions that hit a peak this spring following Pyongyang’s December 2012 missile launch and February 2013 nuclear test.
North Korea ramped up its war threats against South Korea earlier this year and, under a wartime special alert issued at the end of last year, mobilized soldiers and sent them to live in tough conditions in underground tunnels and caves, sources said.
'Wartime reserve' rations
The supplies of powdered milk that ended up for sale at local markets were supposed to have been sent as special “wartime reserve” rations to soldiers who were going hungry while stationed in tough conditions following the alert, the source in Yanggang province said.
Authorities had instructed that the formula be sent to units living in underground tunnels and caves and those along the Military Demarcation Line border with South Korea, he said.
“Because soldiers’ physical condition got worse, the North Korean authorities provided them with the powdered milk as ‘wartime reserve’ rations,” he said.
While it was still available on the black market, the milk formula was a popular item despite its overdue expiration dates because it was made in South Korea, the source in North Hamgyong province said.
Customers bought the Baby Love powdered milk at double the price of Chinese brands brought in through the thriving cross-border smuggling trade with North Korea’s eastern neighbor, the source said.
“Even though [800 gram packages of] Chinese dry milk sells for about 70 Chinese yuan [U.S. $11] and the price of Baby Love is 140 yuan [U.S. $23] at local markets, people were eager to buy the latter because they know Baby Love is a South Korean product,” the source said.
North Korea has relied on international handouts to feed its people since the mid-1990's, with its underage population suffering from years of malnutrition.
International food aid to North Korea has been drastically cut over the past several years amid tensions over the communist state's nuclear and missile programs.
Reported by Sung Hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.