Copyrighted material


by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Desperate N Koreans Seek Asylum In China (2001)

(IPS) BANGKOK -- North Korea's desperate need to feed its citizens has prompted a United Nations agency to warn of a "humanitarian crisis" looming up in the months ahead.

The price of basic food items in Pyongyang, the country's capital, offers a stark picture of the reality average workers face when buying provisions. A kg of rice currently sells at 2,000 North Korean won (14 U.S. dollars), up from 700-900 won a year ago, while maize costs 600 won ($4.20) per kg, up from 350 won for the same amount in April 2007, states the World Food Program (WFP).

Other staples, such as pork, potatoes and eggs have also risen so much that these items are a "luxury for most people," adds the WFP. A kg of pork now sells at 5,500 won ($35), almost touching the average monthly wage in the Stalinist nation -- 6,000 won ($42).

"Now it takes a third of a month's salary just to buy a few days worth of rice," said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP country director in Pyongyang, in a statement. "Families and especially vulnerable persons will suffer from lack of access to food, eat fewer meals and have a poorer diet, increasing their vulnerability to disease and illness."

A miserable domestic agriculture harvest in 2007 due to heavy floods in August is being fingered for the spike in the price of food and severe food shortages. "Based on the most recent government estimates, total cereal production in 2007 is about three million tons, a significant reduction from the four million tons of the previous year" states the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The country saw a drastic drop in maize -- 650,000 tons less, 33 percent down from the previous year -- and rice -- 400,000 tons less, or 25 percent down from the previous year, adds the Rome-based UN agency. "With this low 2007 production, the cereal deficit for the 2007/2008 marketing year is estimated at 1.6 million tons.'

"That is the largest gap in the country since 2001,' Paul Risley, Asia spokesperson for the WFP, said in an interview. "External assistance will be needed to bridge this gap.'

But such an urgent need for food aid to a country that has long depended on similar assistance could not have come at a worst time. The rapid global price hike of commodities, including rice, poses a challenge that relief agencies like the WFP did not have to deal with when buying rice and other cereals in previous years to feed North Korea's most vulnerable people.

The WFP feeds close to a million people out of the country's 23 million population in a program that began in 1998. To meet the new challenges posed by the spike in global food prices, the WFP is appealing for a further $15.9 million to add to the $26.5 million estimated to fund its North Korea program.

"If we are lucky, we will be able to provide 75,000 tons of food, which is less than five percent of the total shortfall for this year,' says Risley.

The WFP's current assistance to North Korea is a dramatic drop from the figures in 2005, when it was feeding nearly a quarter of the country's population. At that time, the country received close to one million tons of rice aid, the highest recipient at the time.

"In 2005, the latest year for which official data is available for rice, the delivery of rice in the form of food aid stood at 2.3 million tons, (up from) 1.2 million tons in 2001,' says Abdolreza Abbassian, secretary of the intergovernmental group on grains at the FAO. "Total cereal food aid in 2005-2006 was estimated by the FAO at around 8.5 million tons, of which wheat alone stood at 5.3 million tons.'

"Rice aid grew largely to meet the demand in North Korea,' he revealed during a telephone interview from Rome. "FAO expects food aid in cereal shipments to decline to around seven million tons in 2006-07, with a further decline to five million tons in 2007-08 also likely because of higher prices.'

If rapidly rising commodity prices are not enough, North Koreans have to grapple with a political challenge from neighboring South Korea, the main supplier of food aid such as rice, beans and other pulses. The new leader in Seoul, President Lee Myung-bak, has come to power promising a tougher line when dealing with Pyongyang.

Instead of the assistance without any strings, which was part of the previous food package by Lee's two predecessors, who advocated "Sunshine Diplomacy,' South Korea's current leader wants to see assistance linked to improvements in human rights.

In fact, the unprecedented pressure from three fronts striking North Korea is pushing the country in the direction of one of its worst food crises -- a famine in the 1990s, which, according to some estimates, killed between half a million to three million North Koreans.

North Korea has been under the grip of a brutal dictatorship since 1948. Its current leader, the reclusive President Kim Jong-il, presides over a country where malnutrition is widespread, with about 37 percent of the children stunted and 23 percent of them underweight.

In 2005, Kim reintroduced a public distribution system of food that collapsed in the 1990s and paved the way for the famine. Under that system, all the grain in the country was collected and distributed by the state.

Currently, over 6.5 million people in North Korea "suffer from food insecurity -- a figure that can be expected to rise if action is not taken to address the growing food shortages,' states the WFP.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   April 19, 2008   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.