Fear of famine stalks North Korea again as nuclear row hits aid
SICKLE in hand, a woman cuts through a field of rice. Oxen plod down country roads pulling carts piled high with harvested sheaves of grain.
This autumn, as farmers fan out into fields of corn, wheat, rice and cabbage, such scenes are also a reminder of the challenges North Korea faces in feeding its people.
Primitive farming techniques, a lack of arable land in a mountainous country and the suspected diversion of food to military and ruling party elites have all contributed to widespread hunger among the rural poor, aid groups claim.
This year, summer floods, soaring global food prices and the continued reluctance of America and its allies to provide aid to a hostile and nuclear-armed dictatorship means millions of children and pregnant women are slowly starving. So this autumn harvest is being watched particularly closely, and already there are concerns that it won’t be enough to feed a nation that has struggled with food shortages for more than 15 years.
North Korea faces a “potentially catastrophic food situation,” five charities warned in September, “with clear indications of acute malnutrition and slow starvation – especially in children.”
And a far greater crisis may unfold in six to nine months when stocks run low, said charities’ representatives after visiting three hard-hit provinces last month.
In the countryside near Wonsan, south of Hamhung, rice plants lay stacked in piles, corncobs dry on the tiles of farm cottages. A woman cradled bundles of Napa cabbage, which were to be used to make kimchi, the spicy staple of Korea.
But pull back the husks and it is obvious that the corn is stunted, the kernels shrivelled. The potatoes were tiny, the greens meagre – the result of the floods that engulfed the region’s southern breadbasket.
It’s a humanitarian crisis that threatens to stunt entire generations of North Koreans subsisting, at times, on just one potato or a fistful of cornmeal a day, aid workers claim. Already, a third of North Korean children under-five are chronically malnourished or stunted, according to the World Food Programme.
In April, the United Nations appealed to its member nations for £137 million in food aid for North Korea. Six months later, donors have coughed up less than a third of that, and the question of whether to help feed the North Koreans remains bogged down in political calculations by governments cautious about offering help to Kim Jong-il’s regime. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father Kim il-Sung, a milestone seen as a key occasion to express nationalistic pride.
One of the late president’s pledges was to ensure his people ate “rice and meat soup,” and filling bellies was one way to seal their loyalty. Current policy calls for building up the economy, including modernising farms. But even its newest showcase farms aren’t producing enough to make up for the damage from a bad winter and summer floods.
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