The ravages of floods and soured diplomacy have turned North Korea’s chronic food shortages into an imminent humanitarian crisis, the World Food Program warned Wednesday, declaring that the secretive dictatorship will require massive food aid in the coming months if it is to avert widespread hunger.
The United Nations agency projects that North Korea’s food shortages will be double last year’s deficit. Prices on food items including rice, potatoes and pork have soared 25% over the last three weeks in the capital, Pyongyang, a bastion for the regime’s loyalists.
“Local officials are openly asking us for support, something we’ve never seen before,” said the head of the World Food Program’s North Korea operation, Jean-Pierre de Margerie, in a telephone interview from Pyongyang. “They are telling us that they are going to have to suspend distribution in some places because there simply is not enough food in the system.”
The North Korean government has made no request to widen the U.N. agency’s existing effort, which is feeding or supplementing the nutrition of about 1 million people in the country of 23 million.
The shriveling food stocks come after massive flooding last summer that washed away soil and crops in the rice- and maize-producing lowlands known as the Cereal Bowl. North Korea’s own statistics show that the rice harvest fell by a quarter and maize production was off by a third.
The U.N. agency says it has no reports of people starving, though it has been barred since 2006 from northeastern regions where shortages are usually most severe. De Margerie added that high fuel costs had severely curbed North Korea’s ability to truck food supplies to non-food-producing regions of the country.
Human rights organizations say sources in North Korea report increasing absenteeism from factory jobs in some provinces, with workers no longer able to survive on government handouts and scrambling to earn money elsewhere.
North Korea has long been forced to make up annual shortfalls in production by buying food in foreign markets and through massive food aid from China, South Korea and other donors that funnel their contributions through the U.N. agency. South Korea alone typically provided its neighbor with about 500,000 tons of food aid annually and met more than half the 2007 shortfall.
But those usual avenues are closed, for the moment at least, by shifting political conditions. The election in December of a conservative South Korean president prepared to openly criticize the government of the North’s Kim Jong Il, known as “Dear Leader,” has led to a chill in relations. South Korean conservatives berated the previous, liberal administration’s practice of providing unconditional humanitarian aid to North Korea. Now, President Lee Myung-bak has signaled that food aid will be tied to North Korea’s improving its human rights record and fulfilling its pledges to come clean about its nuclear weapons programs.
Kim’s government responded by denouncing Lee with even more incendiary language than usual, warning that it had the capacity to turn the South into “ashes.” Pyongyang has since evicted several South Korean officials working on joint economic projects and test-fired short-range missiles off its west coast.
Though Lee has said he will provide food aid if North Korea asks for help, no requests have come and no aid has been sent this year. South Korea also has withheld crucial donations of high-grade fertilizer, a move expected to diminish yields from this summer’s rice crop.
“It is probably already too late for the fertilizer to be shipped and applied to the fields in time,” De Margerie said.
North Korea’s troubles are compounded by the shock that has hit global food prices and sent the cost of rice to record levels. Several major rice producers, including China, are curbing exports through higher tariffs, and cash-strapped North Korea cannot afford the higher prices on open markets.
Food experts say the unknown variable is whether China, anxious to avoid a humanitarian crisis on its borders as it plays host to the world at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, will ultimately bend and provide enough aid to at least keep North Korea’s soldiers fed.
But few analysts expect Kim’s beleaguered government to ask South Korea for help.
“They believe if they ask for food aid it will show their weakness and they are probably right, so they have decided just to take the blow,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “They are saying we will do it without you. We will always find enough money for cognac for Dear Leader, even if a few peasants have to die.”