- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 16, 2005

PYONGYANG-KAESONG HIGHWAY, North Korea — The hillsides are mostly bare. People can be seen collecting twigs and herbs. The concrete buildings of the dusty villages — set well back from the road — look cracked and shabby.

During a two-hour bus ride down this broad road, a group of foreign reporters counted a grand total of four buses, three minibuses, four tractors, four trucks, one car and one motorcycle — along with people, on their own and in small groups, walking the road with no clear destinations in sight.

Despite its apparent poverty, the area is considered one of the breadbaskets of a nation described by one expert as “a tired country.”

Authorities said North Korea enjoyed a bumper grain harvest this year, and indeed, parts of Pyongyang were virtually deserted last week as urbanites were sent to help farmers bring in the crop. But much has to be taken on faith, because photographers were not permitted to get close-up shots of agricultural workers.

Bolstered by the improved crop and increased aid from China and South Korea — which this year agreed to send food aid directly the North, rather than through the World Food Program — Pyongyang is pressuring international aid agencies to pull out or to reconfigure their operations from humanitarian to development aid.

On Oct. 1, the government stipulated that cereals should no longer be sold in markets, pulling the staple back into the state-controlled public-distribution system.

Foreign experts are divided over whether the measure was designed to reassert control over the country’s economy and society or to protect the vulnerable from rising grain prices.

“They were really proud of agricultural mechanization, but there is much less now than in 1979,” said Bradley Martin, author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader,” who first visited the country in that year.

“Ox carts outnumber tractors. I even saw a person pulling one.”

Floods drowned the country’s agriculture in the mid- to late 1990s, sparking a half-decade of famine that killed as many as 2 million people. Mr. Martin, who was on the bus trip, noted that hillsides have been largely stripped for fuel and still are not terraced — meaning water and mud could again slide down into the fields, submerging crops.

Aid agencies, including the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP), which assists 6.5 million North Koreans with food, are under pressure to pull out.

“Some countries have helped us, but actually, not from their hearts,” said Choe Jong-hoon, an officer with the Central Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.

Other officials have called for an end to “a culture of dependency.”

“Rhetoric about food self-sufficiency has been pretty constant,” said Richard Ragan, the WFP’s North Korea director. “Cereal is the basis of existence: That’s one of the things [the central government wants] to have.”

Mr. Ragan, the only American citizen based permanently in North Korea, said 70 percent of the population gets half its food through sources other than the “limping” public-distribution system.

The WFP is preparing to close down its 19 food-reprocessing plants, which produce such items as noodles and school biscuits, by year’s end. The process would be the fastest such withdrawal that the U.N. agency has ever implemented.

“Our future is very uncertain,” Mr. Ragan said, adding that other foreign-aid agencies are also preparing to depart.

A foreign resident of Pyongyang said the pressure on aid organizations is the latest in a series of moves to centralize control since April, when a mysterious explosion devastated the town of Ryongchon hours after President Kim Jong-il had passed through.

News of the incident spread rapidly, spooking authorities and prompting a ban on cell phones. Telephone networks also were delinked, with separate systems for foreign organizations and Koreans.

But one foreign academic involved in agricultural aid said market pressures had been driving grain prices beyond the means of the most vulnerable North Koreans.

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