Saturday, December 30, 2006

Food shortage in North Korea could deteriorate into widespread famine

North Korea’s chronic food shortage could deteriorate into widespread famine similar to the mid-1990s when an estimated 1 million North Koreans died from starvation, according to aid agencies.

Aid workers attribute the dire situation to cuts in the North’s government-provided ration, the inability of the urban poor to buy food at market prices, and the international community’s reluctance to give aid.

Tim Peters, founder of aid agency Helping Hands Korea, said that “enlarging pockets of areas” are again experiencing famine, and in the northeastern city of Cheongjin, the food shortage is worse than 10 years ago.

“It’s backpedaling to the situation of the 1990s,” Peters told The Korea Herald.

He said urban areas are the worst-affected. Farmers are able to cultivate a private patch whereas city dwellers cannot. Through a network of North Korean refugees in China, Peters learned that during the planting season in May, city government offices were emptied as workers were mobilized to work on farms.

With the average North Korean wage being 2,500 won a month, most can afford only 3 kilograms a month, putting rice out of reach for most North Koreans.

Peters met a woman last August who had crossed the border to seek medical attention for her daughter’s heart condition. She told him that her husband worked in a factory and earned 1,500 won ($1.20 at that time) a day and their family of four lived mostly of corn meal which cost 200 won per kilogram. As they lived in a semi-rural area, they did not receive any government distribution, but they kept two pigs, chickens and dogs which they would sell so that they could buy more corn. They were able to eat three times a day on a diet of corn meal, kimchi and doenjang (soy bean paste). In their community they were considered well-off.

“Usually I’m optimistic by nature, but the situation is very grim at the moment,” said Peters who has been working with North Korean refugees for 9 years.

His Seoul-based nongovernmental organization currently supports a bakery in China that produces high-nutrition buns which are distributed in North Korea, by North Koreans at the grass-roots level, to schoolchildren and orphans. This is more effective than handing out raw grain as cooking fuel is expensive he said.

“It’s indicative of what little grass-roots organizations and ‘mom-n-pop’ NGOs can do. We can make a difference,” Peters said.

[Excerpt of an article by Jane Cooper, Korea Herald]

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