North Korea's Actions Put Food Aid at Risk

Times Staff Writer

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 in 2002 -- has not said when, or even whether, it will provide more aid. And that may 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 food aid, and how much. But because the developed nations do not give enough food or money to feed all the hungry, choices are 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 process.

World production of the cereals that are the chief form of food aid has dropped each year for the last five years, according to the U.N. 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, an official with the WFP, another U.N. agency, in New York.

The price of a ton of wheat, for example, soared to $195 in October from $130 in January, Vincent 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 U.S., 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 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 a matter of dispute, though conditions are much improved since a long famine that peaked in 1996-97 killed an estimated 2 million people. The change is due partly to better weather, but also to an aggressive program of international aid, which is now 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, since 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 WFP. The agency estimates that although last year's cereal crop in North Korea is up about 5% over 2001, the nation will need 564,000 tons of food aid this year.

One of the last shipments of American grain is now being unloaded, and food will start running out next month, said Rick Corsino, director of the WFP's operation in Pyongyang, the North Korean 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 it won't specify, Pyongyang will not permit foreign visitors or WFP monitors into remote areas where about 13% of the nation's population lives and where food conditions are rumored to be worst. The agency's ability to monitor the food distribution is restricted in ways that wouldn't be tolerated in any other country, said a senior U.S. aid official. For example, the agency has not been permitted to bring in its own translators and must interview food recipients with the help of government minders, the official said.

"You can't go to a kindergarten that's supposed to be distributing food without six days' notice," he added.

Worse, there are persistent, though unverified, reports from North Korean refugees that the military takes food once it is distributed. However, Corsino said access and monitoring gradually are improving. Diversions are rare and involve only small amounts of food, he said.

Aid workers insist that powerless and suffering North Koreans must not be punished for the sins of their government.

"Are we going to sacrifice children and the elderly in order to achieve 100% perfection in monitoring?" asked Karin Lee of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group.

"The lack of transparency creates a horrible choice," said a well-informed North Korea watcher in Washington. "Do you believe the refugee reports that say the aid is being diverted wholesale, and cut it off? Or do you send it anyway, hoping that some of it gets through?"

Last year, the United States gave North Korea 170,000 tons of food, more than any other country provided to the regime through the World Food Program, a U.N. agency. But in June -- several months before Pyongyang acknowledged its secret program to enrich uranium -- the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it would give no more food aid to the country until U.N. officials could properly monitor where it goes.

In August, the Bush administration sent a delegation to brief the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations.

According to a senior U.S. official, the Americans handed the envoy a newspaper article on the bad harvests and told him: "We have increased demand, reduced supply, and we can't argue on your behalf because we can't find out what your real needs are. People are saying we're using [food] as a weapon, but we're saying, 'If we give it to you, we have to be able to monitor where it goes.' " North Korea has not yet responded. "We've got a fantastic record," a senior administration official boasted recently, noting that the U.S. has given nearly $650 million worth of food since the mid-1990s to the communist country.

The official said no decision had been made on what the U.S. donation would be this year. "President Bush has made clear all along that food is not going to be used as a weapon, and we're not going to do that."

U.S. officials categorically deny overseas media reports the administration is pressuring the governments of Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to use all means, including food, fuel and trade, to pressure North Korea to agree to a verifiable end to its nuclear programs.

Officials insist that the U.S. will base its decision on whether to provide more aid purely on need.

"But the North Koreans would never believe a story like that: 'Gee whiz, Africa is hungrier than you are,' " said the North Korea watcher in Washington. "And that's the tragedy of it."

Moreover, the administration doesn't need to say it is cutting off food donations; it can achieve the same effect by delaying a decision on aid, while the food now in the pipeline runs out, analysts note. And it can allow other governments to hint that plenty of development help -- including construction of irrigation facilities and fertilizer plants so that North Korea could feed itself -- will be forthcoming if the nation abandons its atomic ambitions.

Japan had a good harvest of rice, one of the few cereals whose price hasn't soared, and has large stockpiles. But amid continuing public fury over the abduction by North Korea of Japanese citizens during the 1970s and '80s -- and the communist regime's demand for the return of five of the abductees who are visiting their homeland -- Tokyo has said it has no plans to give food aid.

That puts South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun, who campaigned on continuing aid to North Korea, on the humanitarian hot seat. Outgoing President Kim Dae Jung's government donated mainly fertilizer, which is considered the best kind of developmental help because it revitalizes the farm economy and increases self-sufficiency. But it also is the most expensive form of aid and far more likely to irk the Bush administration. Sources said both the Clinton and Bush administrations have opposed developmental assistance until North Korea reforms.

"The U.S. government has been undermining development assistance to North Korea since 1997," said one source familiar with the aid process. "There was a big hullabaloo when the South Koreans started sending fertilizer."

It is symptomatic of the controversy that most of the more than a dozen officials, aid workers, agriculture experts and private analysts agreed to be interviewed for this article only on condition of anonymity. Their reasons varied widely.

Many argued that the crisis demands that the U.S. -- and the rest of the world -- dig much deeper to provide food aid for all.

"For the price of a 747 [aircraft] -- $300 million -- you can buy North Korea out of 80% of its food problem" by sending fertilizer and fuel, said agriculture consultant Tom McCarthy, who has visited North Korea a dozen times in the last 12 years. "What's one 747 to Asia?"

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