Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Debate over food shortages in North Korea continues

The U.N. says hunger is driving some North Koreans to eat wild grass, and humanitarians are pressuring the U.S. and South Korea to send food. But South Koreans who study the North say the crisis has been overstated.

American televangelist Franklin Graham, who has warned of famine and joined calls for more food aid, arrived in the North Korean capital Tuesday to discuss possible contributions from a Christian charity.

After a visit there last month, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter blasted Washington and Seoul on the issue. "One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and the U.S. and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people is really a human rights violation," Carter said.

The U.N. in March called for more than 430,000 metric tons (474,000 tons) of food aid to fend off disaster, and activists want the U.S. and South Korea to override any political reasons for not giving.

"It is an exaggeration to say there is a looming crisis," said Kwon Tae-jin, a South Korean expert on North Korean food and agriculture.

Figures for the North's food production are likely to undercount the total, said the Daily NK, a Seoul-based media outlet that specializes in the North and has sources inside the country. Many collective farms in the North underreport their food production to the central government so they can sell extra food to raise money for fertilizer and farm equipment, Daily NK said in a report posted online.

There also are suspicions Pyongyang is exaggerating shortages and seeking food donations in part so it can devote more resources to its campaign to build a prosperous society during the 2012 centennial of the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.

The U.N. report from March paints a stark picture: More than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the population, need urgent international food aid. The World Food Program said last month it is launching an emergency operation to help feed 3.5 million hungry people in North Korea.

Activists say that if food is sent and if the North allows outsiders to properly monitor it, the aid generally gets to the intended recipients.

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