- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Nearly 3 million North Koreans are facing starvation this winter, despite massive food pledges made by Western nations in recent months, the U.N. World Food Program said yesterday.

“There will be a food shortage. 2.7 million people won’t get food — the staple part of their ration, cereals — this month,” Brenda Barton, WFP spokesman in Rome, said yesterday.

“And the shortage is coming at the worst time. Korea is in the heart of winter, when it is coldest and they need more energy,” Ms. Barton said.

As she spoke, a blast of Arctic air sent temperatures plummeting in North Korea, with daytime highs barely reaching 6 degrees Fahrenheit in a nation where fuel for heating is always in short supply.

Ms. Barton said the WFP has enough “pulses” — peas, beans and lentils — and vegetable oils for immediate needs, but it was in desperate need of cereals — corn, wheat and rice.

On Christmas Eve, the United States responded to an early December WFP appeal and pledged 66,000 tons of food to North Korea.

The European Union donated $5.2 million in aid, enough to buy about 10,000 tons of food, and Australia had also pledged an unspecified amount.

The WFP says that North Korea needs $171 million in food and cash to handle its food crisis for the coming year.

So far, it has pledges of $26 million, $18 million of that amount in U.S. cereals that will not arrive in North Korea until March.

Ms. Barton said the only way to avert a tragedy is with cash, so WFP can purchase grains and cereals in markets near the Korean Peninsula, rather than wait for the food aid to make its way by ship.

Even after the latest food shipment arrives, Ms. Barton said, North Korea will face another food crisis in four to six months, unless more pledges are forthcoming.

North Korea has been in a perpetual food crisis, compounded by floods and droughts, since at least 1995. Economic mismanagement and the fall of the Soviet Union exacerbated the situation.

But after eight years of making massive donations to North Korea, donor fatigue has set in. The world’s patience with North Korea has been further strained by its attempt to build nuclear weapons.

The WFP estimates that the one-third of North Korean women are malnourished or anemic, and 40 percent of the children are chronically malnourished.

About 70,000 of those are severely malnourished and in danger of dying.

Ms. Barton said the WFP has 40 international staff members in North Korea making some 500 visits each month, to make sure the food is getting to the proper place.

Yesterday, the WFP said that most of the food was getting to the people in need.

“We know our food aid is reaching the right people. We are making a huge impact. It is reaching the most vulnerable,” she said.

She dismissed critics who charge that much of the food aid is diverted to the military and government officials, and propping up the communist regime.

“We are doing everything we can [to prevent aid diversion]. We know it happens. But we have no choice. The innocent have to take precedence. The humanitarian imperative is to respond,” she said.

Marcus Noland, a specialist on North Korea at the Institute for International Economics, released a report last week saying that a “military-first” economic-reform package introduced by the North in mid-2002 has sent inflation and income inequality soaring in the short term without any noticeable increase in production.

A total international aid embargo would sharply increase the chances the North Korean regime would collapse — up to 50 percent under one scenario — but Mr. Noland said last week that policy also contains major risks.

“A lot of eggs would have to be broken to make that omelette,” he said, “and we really don’t know how the North Koreans would react.”

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