Starvation Feared in North Korea

2006-11-08
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July 19, 2005: North Korean cooperative farm workers spread fertilisers in a rice field in Unpha county, North Korea. Photo: AFP

SEOUL—Millions of people could soon face starvation in North Korea, with aid supplies likely exhausted by January, international aid organizations say.

World Food Program (WFP) South Africa representative Michael Huggins, just back from a visit to North Korea, told RFA’s Korean service that the WFP faces holes in the food pipeline from November, and the situation will get progressively worse until January, when it will run completely out of food.

Huggins said he went to North Korea to publicize the arrival of 12,000 tons of wheat from Russia, pledged in 2005. “It's actually not going to help much,” he said. “The 12,000 tons is already allocated to feeding programs in about 30 counties of North Korea.”

“The problem is we [are already] seeing holes in our food pipeline from November, and it gets progressively worse until January when we totally run out of food. So the Russian wheat will help, momentarily it will keep us afloat for another couple of months, but in January, people will face a really bleak new year,” Huggins said.

“I think they are facing a very harsh winter, which is going to be combined with the fact there has been a sudden halt to bilateral aid…as well,” he said.

I think they are facing a very harsh winter, which is going to be combined with the fact there has been a sudden halt to bilateral aid…as well.

“South Korea and China have not given as much as they have in the past. Japan also halted its bilateral aid. This is all going to impact on the government's ability to respond with food aid over the leanest months of the year, and most dire month when the country is coldest.”

Bilateral aid dried up

The WFP operates in 13 North Korean counties in North Korea, feeding about half of the nearly 2 million people it says require food aid. The organization made an international appeal for $102 million for North Korea last year but has received only 10 percent of that amount.

Monitoring food distribution is difficult in North Korea, he said, adding that “it's very difficult to know how much is actually distributed by the government of North Korea down to the poorest people.”

“I know that WFP should be feeding 2 million people in the country, [but] we have resources to feed only 1 million. A year ago, we were feeding over 6 million people at this time, and one of the reasons the government asked us to reduce our assistance to the country was because it was expecting a larger amount of bilateral aid, which of course, dried out following the nuclear test.”

U.N. sanctions imposed after Pyongyang’s Oct. 9 nuclear test take aim at military technology, nuclear weapons components, and luxury items, he said, and won’t dramatically affect international aid.

But North Korea had also told the WFP to reduce its program in anticipation of increased bilateral assistance, and in the wake of the nuclear bilateral aid is drying up, he said.

Aid still badly needed

Much of North Korea now survives on basic rations, experts say. As many as 2 million people are believed to have died of hunger and related illnesses during the worst years of the North Korean famine of the 1990s.

Anthony Banbury, WFP regional director for Asia, estimated that through October 2007, about 20 percent of North Korea’s needed food supply—one million tons—will have to come from foreign donors.

And donors are now increasingly fearful that aid is being channeled not to the hungriest people but to the North Korean military.

Experts say North Korea needs about 5 million metric tons of food a year, but domestic production amounts to only 4.5 million tons. South Korea has provided 500,000 tons, China 20,000-30,000 tons, and the WFP 200,000, to make up the difference this year.

Gopalan Balagopal, UNICEF representative in North Korea, said more North Korean children are at risk of starvation beginning in 2007.

“Immediately, the vulnerabilities are already teetering on the edge, [with] high levels of maternal malnourishment, underweight children, and so on,” he said.

“To some extent, we may be able to protect the vulnerable people by giving them vitamins…but that cannot be a real substitute for real food....Things have improved, but not improved enough to be out of the danger zones.”

“We will be critically hampered from the middle of 2007 to be able to continue all the operations and maintain our staff if the process, which are already in motion for negotiating additional support to move on, does not go forward,” Balagopal said.

Four out of 10 North Korean children still suffer from malnutrition, he said, and many more children are underweight.

Aid group is hopeful about returning

Tereza Byrne, marketing and development chief at the Maryland-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), said her organization had figured out early on in talks with North Korean authorities that aid groups would be asked to leave—as happened in December 2005.

“We knew this was coming, because the negotiations had been going on for a while among NGOs and the government, and most of our projects were phased out by August of last year,” Byrne said.

“The North Korean government claims that its interest in development, rather than humanitarian assistance, was the main reason for asking NGOs to leave North Korea.”

“However, it is inadequate to categorize most ADRA projects as exclusively humanitarian, as all of them also had a strong development component....We emphasized this aspect in our discussions with North Korean authorities, but they wouldn’t change their mind regarding the decision to ask NGOs to leave North Korea. However, ADRA hopes to return to North Korea, should the North Korean authorities change their minds regarding the presence of foreign NGOs there,” Byrne said.

Original reporting by Jinhee L. Bonny and Naeri Kim for RFA’s Korean service. Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu and written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Original reporting in Korean

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