North Korea at risk of losing vital foreign food assistance

Need, cost and politics put Pyongyang, other nations in competition for help

January 03, 2003|By Sonni Efron | Sonni Efron,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON - Which hungry baby is more deserving of food: a North Korean or an African?

Humanitarians reject the premise of that question. But U.S. and international aid officials and private relief workers say the wrenching truth about the global politics of food aid is this: If the North Korean government renounces its nuclear program, aid will pour in to feed its babies. If it doesn't, most of the world's food donations will go to the starving children of Africa.

Because of problems monitoring aid distribution in North Korea, the United States - the largest donor last year - has not said when, or even whether, it will provide more aid. And that might leave the newly elected president of South Korea nearly alone in offering food, fuel and fertilizer to his needy neighbor.

It is never easy to decide which poor countries should receive how much food aid. But because the developed nations do not give enough food or money to feed all the hungry, choices must be made.

This unpalatable process is about to get uglier, with needy nations essentially forced to compete for a shrinking supply of food and the Bush administration under fire for allegedly politicizing the aid process.

World production of the cereals that are the chief form of food aid has dropped each year for the past five years, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Consumption has increased just as steadily. Food stockpiles are shrinking. The predictable result - soaring prices - is good news for grain farmers but a disaster for the hungry.

"As commodity prices go up, it causes a tremendous strain for the World Food Program because donors give us money in U.S. dollars, and the dollars don't go as far," said Charles Vincent, a WFP official in New York.

The price of a ton of wheat, for example, soared to $195 in October from $130 last January, he said, adding, "Humanitarian budgets are being super-stressed this year because of huge crises, and the well is going dry."

The mismatch between supply and demand, caused mainly by unusual simultaneous bad harvests in the United States, Canada and Australia, is particularly ill-timed.

Aid organizations are warning of hunger crises in the Horn of Africa and in southern Africa, and they're projecting that from 24 million to 28 million people will need food donations in the coming months. In Africa, 38 million people are facing starvation, according to the WFP.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is still a problem, Vincent said, and hundreds of thousands of Central American coffee growers don't have money for food because of a collapse in prices of their commodity.

Enter North Korea. How dire its food needs are is in dispute, though conditions are much improved since a long famine that peaked in 1996-1997 killed about 2 million people. The change was caused partly by better weather, but also by an aggressive program of international aid, which is drying up.

In a radical effort at economic reform last summer, North Korea vastly increased both salaries and official prices for food. Prices had been set absurdly low but were meaningless because the only edibles for sale were black-market items at black-market prices, often sold in dollars.

The North's economy is so distorted that it's difficult to judge how well the lurch toward a freer market system is working, but early reports are positive.

New farmers' markets, however, could be victimized by runaway inflation, according to the World Food Program. The agency estimates that although last year's cereal crop in North Korea is up about 5 percent over that from 2001, the nation will need 564,000 tons of food aid this year.

One of the last shipments of American grain is being unloaded, and food will start running out next month, said Rick Corsino, director of the World Food Program's operation in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. Then the agency will have to stop feeding nearly 3 million of the 4.5 million "most vulnerable" aid recipients it feeds.

"We won't be feeding around 760,000 kids in nurseries, from 6 months to 4 years" old, Corsino said in a satellite-phone interview. "Then the kindergarten kids - that's 385,000 we won't be reaching. Primary school kids, 830,000. Pregnant and nursing women, 130,000. Elderly, around 550,000. Finally 225,000 what we call caregivers, mainly women who work in children's institutions and hospitals."

Although the plight of Africa's hungry is generally well-documented, the North Korean government has long made it difficult to even figure out where best to send aid. Donors, particularly the Bush administration, have lost patience.

For reasons that it will not specify, Pyongyang will not permit foreign visitors or World Food Program monitors into remote areas where about 13 percent of the nation's population lives - and where food conditions are rumored to be worst.

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