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North Korea evokes pity and condemnation

by John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Amid severe food shortages affecting up to a quarter of the population, horrific human rights abuses, and an expanding and costly nuclear weapons program, the United Nations has tried to respond to North Korea with a combination of carrots and sticks.

U.N. humanitarian agencies have warned that approximately 5 million North Koreans face food shortages “despite a relatively good harvest.” An assessment by the Rome-based World Food Program found that the country confronts a 542,000-ton food deficit. The relief agency recommends sending 305,000 tons of food aid to the most vulnerable people.

“The cereal rations provided by the government through its public distribution system will likely contribute about half of the daily energy requirements,” Joyce Luma, WFP chief of food security analysis. “A small shock in the future could trigger a severe negative impact and will be difficult to contain if these chronic deficits are not effectively managed.”

The WFP adds that in recent years cereal production in North Korea has “stagnated at around 4.5 million tons annually,” compared with the 5.3 million tons that are needed.

Food shortages are nothing new in communist North Korea; they are usually blamed on the weather or a natural calamity. A continuing problem, however, is that the rigidly applied socialist system has not brought about productive collective farms. This was the case with mainland China in the 1950s and 1960s, but China has changed since then.

The memory of North Korea’s epic famine of the 1990s still haunts people. As specialist Jasper Becker recounts in his riveting account “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea,” the WFP initially appealed for 21,000 tons of food for 500,000 people in 1995. Three years later “it was feeding 8 million people, nearly half the population.” In the 1990s between 2 million and 3 million people died.

Fast-forward to 2010. soberly: North Korea’s economy has been growing at a sluggish pace of less than 1 percent annually and, for many years now, has suffered significant food deficits, warns an economist with the Food and Agriculture Organization. The economist adds that “the performance of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector has been erratic with negative annual growth rates.”

The contrast is all the more glaring against the abundant food and prosperity in neighboring South Korea.

Meanwhile, a tough U.N. resolution on the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) recently passed a General Assembly committee, 100-18. Those opposed to the resolution included China, Burma and Indonesia.

Cosponsored by Canada, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and the United States, the resolution expresses “serious concern over the persistence of reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” in the DPRK including “torture, inhuman conditions of detention, public executions, imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons, collective punishment . . . the large number of prison camps and the extensive use of forced labor.”

The U.N. resolution equally decries restricted freedom of movement and religion, forced abortions, gender-based discrimination, abductions of Japanese and South Korean nationals and the “prevalence of chronic malnutrition.”

The DPRK regime has long pursued nuclear weapons development over nutrition, a cruel contradiction even in the lexicon of the communists. The Security Council has regularly slapped Pyongyang’s wrist, but the weapons program continues unabated.

Let’s face it: Once the DPRK diplomatically hoodwinked the Clinton administration with the Geneva Framework Agreement in 1994, the cat was out of the proliferation bag. The North relentlessly pursued the nuclear genie until it was finally able to develop an atomic bomb. When the device was tested in October 2006 — on the very day that South Korean Ban Ki Moon was elected U.N. secretary general — it was too late to turn back the atomic clock.

DPRK dictator Kim Jong Il runs a neo-Stalinist regime frozen in time even as he makes a risky and uncertain transfer of leadership to his son. North Korea’s unprovoked and deadly artillery bombardment of a South Korean island last week may reflect an internal leadership struggle between the Kim Dynasty and his restive military.

Diplomats nervously debate what the nuclear North may do next, humanitarian workers try their best to help its starving people without enriching the rulers further, and Pentagon planners peer into the DPRK’s darkest recesses to try to gauge the scope of the nuclear threat.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent on diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Trans-Atlantic Divide: The USA/Euroland Rift?” (jjmcolumn@earthlink.net)