Hunger seen rising in N. Korea

Nuclear test saps international aid level

flood of refugees likely

October 25, 2006|By Mark Magnier | Mark Magnier,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIJING -- Amid fears that worsening conditions could spur an exodus of refugees across the border with China, humanitarian experts see even more difficulty ahead for long-suffering North Koreans after their government's nuclear test this month.

Aid shipments are exempt from restrictions outlined under the United Nations resolution that was passed in the test's wake. But experts say the international community is not in a particularly generous mood, especially after Pyongyang balked at measures designed to ensure that aid would go to ordinary people and not to the military or senior Communist Party members.

"The responsibility rests squarely on North Korea's shoulders," said Anthony Banbury, Asia regional director with the World Food Program.

"Donors are being asked to take a leap of faith, and blowing off a nuclear weapon reduces that trust. I just don't know how North Korea is going to fill the food gap."

Chinese officials said yesterday that North Korea is not planning a second nuclear test and is willing to return to negotiations under certain conditions, a step that could start it on the road to improved international relations and more aid.

"But if it faces pressure, North Korea reserves the right to take further actions," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, citing senior Chinese envoy Tang Jiaxuan, who recently returned from Pyongyang.

Among the North Korean conditions are an end to Washington's use of financial sanctions.

Experts with experience in global humanitarian crises, meanwhile, see a worsening situation in a country that is already impoverished and beset by structural problems.

The WFP said it would be able to feed only 1.2 million people this year given that it was shut down in North Korea for several months and since has been forced by Pyongyang to operate under tightened restrictions. This compares with 6.5 million people in 2005.

South Korea announced plans after North Korea's summer missile launch tests to eliminate the 500,000 tons in annual food aid it provides directly to North Korea.

Moreover, China's food aid is down about two-thirds from its 2005 level, aid experts say.

In addition, North Korea is still struggling from summer floods, which the government said killed hundreds and South Korean aid group Good Friends estimates might have killed as many as 10,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.

The North's food production is deteriorating under the impact of years of economic mismanagement and a nationwide drive to plant crops on the steepest parts of hillsides and adopt other unsustainable practices, experts say.

A policy change in late 2005 banned the selling of rice and other grains in the marketplace, returning instead to government distribution.

"Farmers are planting less grain and more products not subject to these restrictions," said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics. "The bulk of people are falling further behind."

With less food, humanitarian workers expect more health problems and more refugees flooding into China by January or February as the Tumen River freezes. Beijing has a history of returning refugees to North Korea over the objections of foreign governments, the U.N. and aid groups.

"I don't think they can contain people from crossing the border," said Joel Charney, vice president of Refugees International, a Washington-based refugee rights group. "There's been something of a breakdown in discipline in North Korea, and if things get bad, soldiers will be hungry too."

These additional shocks are hitting a population in which an estimated 40 percent of all children and 33 percent of pregnant women are malnourished or anemic.

North Korean farmers in recent years have been able to produce only about 80 percent of the 5.5 million tons of food needed to feed the population, with the rest made up by foreign aid.

Jean-Pierre de Margerie, WFP's North Korean country manager living in Pyongyang, said his tours of flood-affected areas show extensive damage. Fuel shortages are also evident as long lines of Pyongyang residents wait hours for buses that don't arrive.

"Koreans are very good at queuing," Banbury said.

WFP said there is no sign the regime is thinking of relaxing its restrictions on aid organizations operating inside the country, seen by analysts as a move to limit the amount of foreign influence and information about its activities.

"The food situation is pretty critical," said Steven Haggard, professor at the University of California at San Diego. "It's very discouraging."

Mark Magnier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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