Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Human Rights

NORTH KOREA: Food At Last for the Hidden Hungry

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 3 2011 (IPS) - “Even if 100,000 people die of starvation in North Korea, foreigners working there will not see it,” says a humanitarian worker who spent three years in the impoverished, communist country.

“Any foreign agency working in the country has to give the government seven days notice to visit any place,” added the worker, speaking with IPS on condition of anonymity. “That is enough time to cover up evidence.”

Chronic food shortages now stalking North Korea are reviving memories of a famine in the mid-1990s which was reported to have killed between 500,000 and a million people.

As a result, hurdles routinely put in the way of the few international aid workers permitted to operate in the notoriously secretive Asian nation are being eased.

Which explains why the humanitarian worker chose words like “unprecedented” and “groundbreaking” to describe a four-month-old agreement signed by the World Food Programme (WFP) and Pyongyang to feed 3.5 million hungry mouths, most of them mothers, children and the elderly.

The early April agreement endorsed by the U.N. food relief agency and the regime permits WFP staff rare freedom to monitor food deliveries to 107 of the north-east Asian nation’s 208 counties. It allows for 24 hours notice to make “site visits”, Internet connections to monitor aid convoys and visas for Korean speakers of “any nationality”.

“We have secured the most stringent operational conditions in the 15 years of our operations there,” says Marcus Prior, spokesman for WFP’s Asia office, based in Bangkok. “Access to visit local markets in rural areas to understand the food picture is new.”

Such a concession in a country that has been under the grip of a dictatorship since 1948 has enabled the WFP, one of only four U.N. agencies permitted to operate in North Korea, to ensure that food aid unloaded at the port of Nampo reaches the intended beneficiaries.

“The WFP staff has access to the entire delivery chain – the port, warehouse, trucks and physical checks at the final destination points in schools, hospitals and orphanages,” Prior explained in an interview.

The WFP’s operations since May are part of an emergency measure to meet the “urgent hunger needs among 3.5 million vulnerable people,” most of whom live in the rugged mountain terrain of North Korea.

In March the U.N. agency had assessed that about 430,000 tonnes of food aid were needed to feed over six million of North Korea’s estimated 24 million people facing a crisis.

“Allowing WFP such access to monitor its relief operations should be welcome,” says Vitit Muntarbhorn, a former U.N. envoy assigned to monitor human rights violations in North Korea. “It conforms to the principle of ‘no access, no food,’ which the U.N. has maintained.”

“Humanitarian aid should be unconditional and subject to transparency to ensure food gets to the victims,” the Thai law professor, who was denied access to North Korea during his six years as special rapporteur, told IPS. “They have eased up, periodically, before.”

North Korea’s food crunch became clear in January when Pyongyang informed the WFP of depleting food stocks. This year’s shortages in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have more to do with adverse weather conditions than South Korea slashing food aid.

Heavy rainfall that lashed the 20 percent of cultivable flatland in late summer last year destroyed seasonal crops, including vegetables for ‘kimchi’, the country’s popular dish of pickled cabbage, according to a special report by U.N. agencies on food security in North Korea.

The harsh winter that followed froze barley and wheat fields and “a higher than normal production of potato seed in winter storage has been damaged,” the U.N. report said.

South Korea, which stopped an annual shipment of 400,000 tonnes of rice since 2008, was hardly moved. The administration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is sticking to its hard line in reaction to North Korea’s stated plans to expand its nuclear arsenal.

Relations between the two Koreas soured further after two attacks by the North Koreans killed 50 South Koreans last year.

Seoul’s current conservative administration has linked aid to its northern adversary with nuclear disarmament, unlike the two previous governments which advocated “Sunshine Diplomacy,” an initiative which provided food aid with minimal strings attached.

Even China, a strong ally of North Korea, has not responded favourably to an appeal made by Kim Jong- il, the North Korean dictator, for half a million tonnes of grain during a visit to Beijing last August, according to an Asian diplomatic source.

“He has made three trips to China in a year, but Beijing has not helped to fill the void created after the South Koreans stopped their cereal supplies,” the diplomat said.

“If the U.S. government and South Korea are satisfied that the WFP’s monitoring mechanism is working, then more food aid will be shipped to North Korea,” the diplomat added.

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