Thursday, December 21, 2006

North Korea may be heading back to famine: aid worker

Reports from fleeing North Koreans of food shortages and the suspension of international aid after the country's nuclear test suggest the communist state may be slipping into famine, an aid worker said.

The comments by head of the charity Helping Hands Korea, Tim Peters, add to another recent report that North Korea could be heading back to the starvation it faced during the 1990s, triggering a mass exodus of refugees. "It's an extreme possibility we may see....(a return) to famine," Peters told reporters. "I hope it won't happen but the world needs to be aware it could take place."

Analysts say North Korea cannot produce enough food for itself even in the best crop years and that much of the food is diverted to the military. Summer storms are thought to have badly damaged crops in key grain areas.

Peters, a Seoul-based Christian pastor whose charity has wide contact with North Korean refugees, said increasingly sophisticated monitoring on the Chinese side of the border suggested Beijing was readying for a large-scale influx of North Koreans. Nearly all those who flee North Korea -- the numbers range from tens to hundreds of thousands -- do so to neighboring China. They either stay or seek refuge elsewhere in Asia.

Peters added there were indications China was slowing down its repatriations of refugees, but said it was unclear whether this was punishment for the nuclear test or a longer-term trend. The ICG report estimated China sends back between 150 and 300 North Koreans a week.

He quoted reports from refugees as saying that even in the capital Pyongyang rations had been reduced to just a third and in the north-east of the country -- near China and where many of the refugees come from -- the level was a third of that. "It seems like everybody is hungry and that includes the border patrol," he said.

[Washington Post, Reuters]

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