Nibbling at famine's edge N. Korea: Economic mismanagement and floods that wiped out the rice crop have left North Korea desperate for food. The government radio is offering recipes for grass.

June 13, 1996|By IAN JOHNSON | IAN JOHNSON,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TUMEN, China -- Returning to China, Tian Jijun told of his frustrating business trip to North Korea. "They have nothing to sell," he said.

North Korea is desperate for food. Chinese traders have food to sell. But 50 years of economic mismanagement have left North Korea with little cash and nothing to sell other than scrap metal, smuggled cars and the few remaining trees on its mountains.

North Korea remains off limits to most foreigners, but its problems are evident even from the periphery.

Here, in northeastern China's Yanbian district, 40 percent of the population is ethnically Korean, with hundreds of Chinese-Koreans a day crossing into North Korea carrying rice for impoverished relatives.

After months of gathering intelligence, U.S. officials say they now agree with international relief agencies that famine could occur and formally announced yesterday that they will offer North Korea food worth $6.2 million.

The country's food shortage comes after floods devastated much of the countryside in August. Some areas received 80 percent of their annual rainfall in just 24 hours, leading to flood waters that carried away homes and crops. Paddies were buried under mud and rock, making it impossible in many areas to plant new crops.

North Korea claimed it had suffered $15 billion in damages, a figure that other countries thought was exaggerated to mask long-term economic mismanagement. But it became apparent that even though the country's economic policies of self-reliance and collectivization had ruined agriculture, a genuine disaster had taken place and aid was needed.

Recently, for example, North Korean radio has broadcast recipes for using grass to make the national staple, kim chee, which is usually made of pickled cabbage. Visitors say people can be seen scrounging along roadsides for edible plants.

"It's not at the famine stage but the initial signs of malnutrition are appearing slowly and consistently," said Robert Hauser, head of the U.N. World Food Program office in Pyongyang.

Besides its failed economic policies, many observers blame North Korea's leadership for allowing part of its population to go hungry while preserving privileges for others, such as urban residents and the army.

"The leadership has decided to write off the rural population," said a Western diplomat in Beijing.

"I would not underestimate the ability of the North Korean people to endure," the diplomat said. "But sometime in the future [the system] will collapse. Their economic system is a failure on the most basic level: the ability to provide food for its people."

North Korea is making use of its reputation for unpredictability. With a huge army facing South Korean and U.S. troops, the thought of starvation and a desperate leadership makes outsiders doubly willing to offer aid.

Cui Shunjin, an ethnic Korean who is general manager of Taoyuan Co. Ltd., said that during a recent business trip to the North the country's fuel shortage meant that buses did not run and cars were few. Restaurants served cold noodles, while tourist sites were empty.

"At this time of the year, all the hotels should have been full," said Cui, "but they were almost empty" -- for lack of fuel for buses and lack of electricity for the hotels.

Residents of the capital, she said, had to spend a day a week working in the fields, while food was so severely rationed -- 700 grams of rice a day -- that people went hungry. Relief agencies estimate that North Koreans are receiving 900 calories of food a day, 1,400 calories less than an average manual laborer needs for survival.

But Cui and other visitors inevitably point out that North Korea is tightly disciplined and not imploding. Food is distributed, people go to work, government agencies function.

Still, the signs of a failed economy are visible.

Cui, whose company carries out barter trade, said she imports from North Korea handicrafts, cars that were stolen from Japan and steel. Other traders say the steel is scrap from dismantled factories and railroads. Seafood also is for sale -- when North Korean fishermen have enough fuel to leave port.

She and other Chinese exporters sell the North only food, primarily flour and sugar. China, which imports grain itself to feed its huge population, discourages the export of grain. Nevertheless, Cui and others say they could export more food products if North Korea had products worth buying.

Recently, a Chinese government official said, North Korea was buying grain on credit, promising bartered products when they are available. But with North Korea's economic situation worsening, the Chinese government stepped in to forbid state-run firms from selling grain on credit.

With trade falling, most contacts are personal. Cui makes regular trips to bring help in the form of rice for her relatives. Although her family and the other city people she visits are surviving, Cui is unsure about conditions in the countryside.

So are the relief agencies.

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