North Korea is facing food shortages. International aid agencies report that the situation is dire, with millions facing the prospect of starvation in coming months without help. Even if those estimates are exaggerated, there is no escaping the fact that North korea cannot feed its own people.
What is not so clear is why that is so. The Pyongyang government blames nature for the shortfall, but experts insist that the problem is political — poor decisions and misplaced priorities. But even if North Korea’s problems are man-made, what does that imply for the response?
It’s “another” food crisis in North Korea. Since the 1990s, the country has suffered chronic food shortages and malnutrition. It is estimated that at least 1 million people, out of a population of 22 million, died of hunger in the last great famine. Today, an estimated 5 million people — almost 20 percent of the population face food shortages. One in every three children is malnourished.
Chronic malnutrition has stunted the growth of the population: North Koreans are physically smaller than Koreans who live south of the demilitarized zone. Today, the daily food ration made available through the public distribution system is 380 grams, less than half the estimated daily caloric requirement.
Some of the shortfall is made up in private sector transactions or foraging — diets are often supplemented with grasses and bark, when they can be found. The government is cutting the daily ration to 360 grams per day. But even with those reductions, government stocks will run out in May. Last November, the United Nations put the cereal shortfall at 867,000 tons, but that estimate has been increased and is approaching 1.1 million tons.
North Korea blames the shortages and impending emergency on bad weather — heavy rains in August and September and an unusually cold winter — and an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. But imports have not picked up: The U.N. says the North has bought only 40,000 of the 325,000 tons it said it would purchase. Again, Pyongyang blames circumstances beyond its control, pointing to rising food prices worldwide as the problem.
The failure to import raises suspicions that the chief source of North Korea’s problems is policy decisions in Pyongyang. Many fear that the government is hoarding food, either to ensure that the military is well fed and does not have reason to challenge the regime or to have enough in stock to “reward” its citizens in 2012, the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, president for life (although he died in 1994). That year is to be marked by spectacular celebrations. Those suspicions are fueled by reports that the North Korean staple food output actually increased by 3 percent in 2010-11 from the previous year.
Western governments have refrained from giving assistance out of fear that aid will be used to prop up or even be seen as vindicating the policies of the Pyongyang regime. Those concerns are sharpened by the policies of the North Korean government. Its nuclear program and missile tests represent continued defiance of the U.N. and the oft-repeated will of the international community.
Even South Korea, which has demonstrated an enormous concern and readiness to help the North, has run out of patience. Last year’s attacks on the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan and the shelling of the island of Yeongpyeong, acts of war by any definition and which resulted in the loss of dozens of lives, hardened their hearts.
There are also fears that a third nuclear test might be in the works and that the North wants to acquire as much food as possible beforehand in case the test results in even more international sanctions.
Aid providers are demanding that any assistance be monitored. That is a difficult condition for the North to accept. Pyongyang’s refusal to follow through on that demand — despite accepting it in negotiations — led to the suspension of aid from the United States in 2008. U.S. officials say they will need the level of access agreed then — at the least — to go ahead.
Aid groups say they had “unprecedented access” (access unavailable) when they were preparing their assessment of conditions in the country. The debate over assistance to the North raises the basic question of how much the people of a country must suffer for the mistakes of their rulers. Ordinary North Koreans have nothing to do with the misbehavior that has made their country an international pariah.
Some misguided advocates may even harbor dreams that difficult conditions will ultimately undermine the regime in Pyongyang. That is fantasy. Starving populations do not revolt; they weaken and they die. While governments in Tokyo and Washington rightly seek to coordinate policy with their ally in Seoul, it is also right to ask if Seoul is so emotionally connected to the Cheonan sinking and the Yeongpyeong shelling that its reasoning is suspect. By holding out for an apology for the attacks in 2010, is not Seoul making the same mistake as Pyongyang, and forcing the innocent to pay for the deeds of the guilty?
There is no satisfying answer when dealing with North Korea. The pain that the country suffers is largely self-inflicted. Poor policy decisions lead to “chronic hunger and food crises” and the government’s foreign policy belligerence has stripped it of friends and allies. But millions of ordinary people are suffering for those mistakes. That is too high a price to pay.