North Korea’s Grim New Famine

North Korea’s perennial food shortage is expected to turn acute again this year as global grain prices soar and more countries compete for limited aid resources.

The seemingly never-ending provision of food relief to the Kim Jong Il regime in Pyongyang, a 15-year international basket case, has been rendered more controversial because of its rogue state image in developing nuclear weapons at the expense of feeding its 23 million starving people. Today, however, as rising grain prices become an increasing concern for China and South Korea and as transport costs rise, the amount of aid destined for North Korea is set to shrink precipitously.

China has already cut back on its shipments by imposing quotas on all exports and diverting more rice and wheat for its domestic stockpiles. Although Seoul and Beijing – the two traditional donors – and Washington have promised to provide half a million tonnes of grains this year, all are likely to reduce volumes because of rising prices.

In South Korea, the changing political mood with the arrival of the new conservative government has made it difficult for President Lee Myung Bak to increase the budget for procurement of rice for the North. Even though he has backtracked on his campaign promise to link economic aid to denuclearization, the appropriation already budgeted by the National Assembly will secure less than half the targeted amount, as international rice prices have doubled from US$500 per tonne last year to US$1,200 this year, officials say.

On average, the North has received about half a million tonnes of grain annually, including rice, much of it purchased on the international market. Officials in Seoul complain that the rising cost of energy has driven up international freight and shipping costs by 30 percent. All of the food aid moves by ship as Kim has forbade transport by land over the Demilitarized Zone, lest it be watched and noted by his people. Officially, North Koreans have yet to be told that they are kept alive by food aid from South Korea or the United States.

International aid agencies are concerned over widening starvation. Officials of the UN World Food Program have appealed for more food donations, saying the country faces the worst food shortage since 2001. More than a million North Koreans are estimated to have died in the famine of 1995-2001, caused alternately by droughts and flooding, but more fundamentally by many decades of erratic farming policy and mismanagement. The Washington-based Peterson Institute of International Economics, an independent think tank, has released a report saying North Korea is in its “most precarious position since the famine.”

Analysts in Seoul agree. In an average year, the North needs 5.2 million tonnes of grains just to provide subsistence levels of food. Historically, crops have never reached that level, but last year two strong periods of flooding, partly from torrential rains but also from deforestation for terrace farming, made things even worse. Total production of grains including rice last year amounted to 4.01 million tonnes, not a bad crop given the scale of damage, but nonetheless down 11 percent from the previous year. That suggests a shortfall of close to a million tonnes.

China has squeezed its shipments to a bare minimum this year, although exact figures are hard to come by. But anecdotal evidence abounds: the Friendship Bridge spanning the Yalu River dividing China from North Korea is mostly deserted and quiet these days, with fewer and fewer trucks loaded with food moving to North Korea. On one recent day in Dandong, not a single truck was seen transporting food across the bridge, in contrast to the several dozen heavily-loaded trucks that rumbled over it each day last year.

That means economic hardship is reaching a new crisis point. The North appears headed for a more humanitarian disaster less than a decade after the last famine.

One consequence would be a new outflow of hungry refugees illegally crossing the border to forage for food in China. In the last 10 years, an estimated 100,000 North Korean refugees crossed from two major border points along the Yalu and Tumen rivers, of whom about 30,000 are said to have defected by hiding in China.

Recently, worried by an increase in refugees, China has installed barbed-wire fences and remote camera equipment along the Tumen River estuary to detect and deter refugees. At the same time, the North has increased the number of concentration camps inside their border to detain those forcibly repatriated by Chinese border guards. Refugees who contact South Korean relief groups or seek help at Christian churches inside China are reportedly summarily executed upon repatriation. Those who escape only because they are hungry are spared, ethnic Korean villagers along the border say.

[Tensions over the treatment of North Korean refugees erupted into an ugly incident early last month in Seoul when thousands of young Chinese students gathered ostensibly to defend the Olympic torch relay from protesters angry over Beijing’s policy toward refugees. The Chinese threw rocks and steel pipes at protesters demanding better treatment for North Korean refugees in China. Many South Koreans were appalled and criticized the Chinese behavior on the streets of another country.]

Tighter control on both sides of the border has greatly reduced the number of refugees, so much so that today they number in the dozens annually, not hundreds as in the last year. Bribing North Korean guards as a means of escape has become harder as they are constantly rotated to reduce laxity and corruption, refugees say.

Even so, no one suggests that refugee outflow is ending. “There’s no way of stopping us from coming so long as there are hungry people who want to live (by escaping),” said one North Korean woman who spoke at a village where she was in hiding near the Tumen River. She should know. The young woman, in her 20s, had succeeded in escaping to China on her third dangerous run.