The Real Crisis in North Korea? Food

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Lee Jae-Won / Reuters

North Koreans work on a field at the propaganda village of Gijungdong, in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas

As the world frets over an apparent collapse of an agreement to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program, another crisis may be unfolding in Asia's secretive Stalinist state: a worsening food shortage.

North Koreans are, unfortunately, no strangers to hunger. In the 1990s, a severe famine is thought to have left up to a million North Koreans dead. Though aid workers say the country is not facing a full-blown famine, the shortage appears to be the worst food crisis since the 1990s. Erica Kang, director of the Seoul-based human-rights group Good Friends, says a "few hundred thousand people are in danger or at risk of famine" in North Korea. Marcus Noland, an expert on the North Korean economy at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, believes that "hunger deaths are almost surely returning."

Anecdotal reports leaking out of the country suggest that life for some North Koreans is returning to the dark days of the 1990s famines. Families have been scavenging for wild roots and plants to supplement meager diets. Many children have stopped attending school because of hunger, while their parents are choosing to spend their days searching for food rather than show up for work. "So far, not many people are dying compared to the 1990s, but the situation is still bad," says Ham Myoung Sam, a manager with the Seoul-based aid group Korea Food for the Hungry International.

The shortages have again made North Korea a ward of the international community. At the request of Pyongyang, the World Food Program (WFP) has stepped up its relief effort in recent months. The agency plans to provide food in the coming weeks for more than 6 million North Koreans — about a quarter of the population. In certain parts of the country, particularly the northeast, the situation is "reaching a level of humanitarian emergency," says Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP's country director for North Korea in Pyongyang.

But feeding the north has become increasingly challenging. South Korea had been one of the biggest bilateral donors of both food and fertilizer for years, but Seoul has given no aid at all this year. Relations between the two Koreas turned icy after the inauguration earlier this year of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who reversed a decade of conciliatory police and linked further economic cooperation to the dismantlement of Pyongyang's nuclear program. Lee has said Seoul would continue to provide humanitarian aid, though Seoul's Ministry of Unification says Pyongyang has yet to ask for any.

The deteriorating food situation comes at an especially confusing time. Last month, reports emerged that North Korea's paramount leader, Kim Jong Il, may have suffered a stroke, and he vanished from sight for several weeks. (In early October, North Korean media reported that Kim attended a university soccer match, his first public appearance since August.) Then Pyongyang abruptly backtracked on its agreement with the U.S. and four other countries to dismantle its nuclear program. U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill flew to Pyongyang in an attempt to get the agreement back on track, but his talks with the North Koreans didn't produce a breakthrough. By alienating its neighbors — and potential donors — North Korea could make it harder to alleviate its food crisis. "It is in the capacity of the North Korans to act in ways that will terminate aid," says Peterson's Noland.

Nor are there any signs that Kim Jong Il's regime is making any efforts to resolve the country's food problem at home. In fact, government policy has been responsible for the crisis. Part of the way North Koreans coped with the crippling famine in the 1990s was that food distribution, usually dominated by the state, became somewhat privatized. The regime allowed farmers' markets to pop up around the country, and their emergence gave people an alternative source of food. But in 2005 the government tried to reassert its control, broke up the markets and confiscated grain from the farmers, which led to a fall in output. Then in 2007 severe flooding delivered another blow to the agriculture sector; by this year, the country's shortfall of grain was the worst since 2001. The regime's leadership "would rather have a proportion of their population starve to death" than pursue reform, says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Pyongyang believes market reform "would risk ideological and cultural infiltration, which is how they see the Soviet system going down."

All eyes are on this year's grain harvest, which has just begun. In mid-September, the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial that "all workers should take part in the autumn-harvesting battle," in the hope of a bumper harvest. The crops might give a respite to the food crisis when they become available later this year, but some aid workers and North Korea watchers believe the relief will be only temporary. Early estimates predict this year's harvest will be as much as 30% below average, because of a lack of fertilizers, which means the food shortage in 2009 could well be worse. For the North Koreans, the coming months could provide a sickening feeling of déjà vu.

(See photos of the New York Philharmonic in North Korea here.)

— With reporting by Jennifer Veale / Seoul