Summary of the food crisis, June 2012

The conditions on the ground in North Korea are rapidly deteriorating with the severe drought hampering farming in key grain basket provinces of Pyongan and Hwanghae since April. There are reports of people starving to death, unable to cope with the emergency supply of only one or two kilograms (2.2-4.4 pounds) of corn to each household.

Last month, North Korean premier Choe Yong-rim publicly urged workers to drive efforts to ease the food shortage, a rare admission of the problem by a high-ranking official. North Korean soldiers were reportedly mobilized to assist with food production, but extra labor cannot reverse the effects of systemic, structural problems, created by decades-long mismanagement, and the immediate environmental challenge created by unusually high temperatures.

The UN announced that its agencies need $198-million for their activities in the North this year, but less than 40 percent of this had been donated as of May. In addition to the food shortage, the most recent UN statement also raised issues regarding clean water, sanitation and electricity, citing diarrhea and other diseases as a major health concern in the country.

UN Resident Coordinator Jerome Sauvage called on donors to separate political issues from humanitarian needs in North Korea: “We think that humanitarian assistance should be not dependent on the ups and downs of the political situation,” Sauvage said. “As we said, this [assistance] is going for the most vulnerable people, and certainly, if we see our funding going down for whatever reason, this is what is happening really to affect the population. We think that humanitarian aid should be separate from politics.”

The consequences of long term exposure to starvation and malnutrition have been receiving greater attention. Signs of stunting among children, which endangers not just the physical health of the individual but also his cognitive abilities, are prevalent throughout the country and according to UN officials, “nearly a third of under-fives are showing signs of dwarfism caused by severe malnutrition.”

South Korea stated that it may consider dispatching food aid to North Korea after assessing the extent of the conditions. However, the last offer of emergency food assistance to North Korea was rejected by Pyongyang who preferred fertilizers and cement.

Meanwhile, Russia has sent 670 tons of wheat as humanitarian assistance to North Korea as part of the World Food Program. Indonesia has also committed $2 million for aid to North Korea. Even Iran plans to provide assistance by purchasing food items such as powdered milk from China and delivering them to North Korea.

Since the fallout of the “leap day deal,” Washington has not shown any serious intent on engaging the North Koreans regarding the food crisis. A White House official said Wednesday (June 13, 2012) that the U.S. will again consider food aid for North Korea if it stays away from provocations and averts a confrontational course. Glyn Davies noted that the “the United States has been historically very generous when it comes to the provision of nutritional assistance,” having provided more than 2.2 million metric tons of food, valued at over $850 million, to North Korea since the mid-1990s.

On Thursday (June 14, 2012), Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton directly appealed to Kim Jong Un, asking him to stop investing in “implements of war” and feed his people. Secretary Clinton warned that if Kim Jong Un continued the model of the past, “eventually North Korea will change because at some point people cannot live under such oppressive conditions: starving to death, being put into gulags and having their basic human rights denied.”

During the same meeting, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan said that the US and ROK agreed “that should North Korea provoke again, then that we will show a very decisive response to such provocation,” indicating that North Korean provocations such as the most recent rocket launch dominated concerns. Although Pyongyang suggested that it had no intentions on detonating a third nuclear device in the near future, satellite images have shown that the regime is making progress on its main nuclear site.

Meanwhile, Robert King, envoy on North Korean human rights, stated that the US is working to break an “information blockade” that allows North Korea to hide its rights abuses and keep its people away from news of the wider world. In response, North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said Washington has the “bad habit of malignantly slandering the independent countries opposed to its high-handed practices” by “politicising human rights” and stated that “if the US is to truly respect the human rights of the Korean people, it should immediately roll back its hostile policy towards (North Korea) and stop military provocations against it and moves to tighten the sanctions and stifle it.”

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About Yong Kwon

Analyst of international relations, writer of history, observer of North Korea's food and monetary policies, and Korea blogger for the Diplomat
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