Just how bad is the food crisis in North Korea?
The government of Kim Il Song says they need massive food aid to avoid a catastrophe this winter. Floods and typhoons significantly affected the rice harvest and without a concerted effort by the world community, millions would be at risk of starving to death.
You can never tell with North Korea when they are lying or when their assessment of the situation is accurate. In the current "crisis," the US and South Korea are withholding aid on the assumption that the North Korean government would divert the shipments to feed their military and regime elites first. Even the UN has questions about how bad the situation is.
The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), for instance, said last month after visiting the North that "the damage was not so significant." Another U.N. body, the World Food Programme, which has a regular presence in the North, warned in March of growing hunger. The sharp divergence of views is one reason why the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator will visit this month to assess the situation.
North Korea's Economy and Trade Information Center, part of the foreign trade ministry, invited Alertnet to see the extent of the crisis on a rare reporting trip to its rice bowl in South Hwanghae province in the southwest.
Alertnet (www.trust.org/alertnet/), a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation which covers crises worldwide, saw evidence of alarming malnutrition and damaged crops, but also signs of some promise for the coming rice harvest.
Although tightly controlled by government officials, an Alertnet reporter and Reuters photographers and video journalists were able to conduct a week-long trip into the South Hwanghae region. The visit included rare access to collective farms, orphanages, hospitals, rural clinics, schools and nurseries.
The regime's motive in granting the access appears to be to amplify its food-aid appeals. North Korean officials at first asked Alertnet to reach out to its subscriber base to mobilize help--and at one point asked the Thomson Reuters Foundation for a donation. Alertnet declined, saying all it could do is visit and report on the situation.
The picture the regime presented in South Hwanghae was largely one of chronic hunger, dire healthcare, limited access to clean water and a collapsing food-rationing system, all under a command economy that has been in crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago threw North Korea into isolation.
The question asked should actually be is the food crisis any worse than it has been over the last two decades? There are many in the international community who don't believe that food should be used as a weapon - that withholding food in return for getting a government to do something is uncivilized.
But the North Korean government may be a special case. They don't care about ordinary people starving in the boonies. Their goal is to maintain power and supplying the military and elites with food is far higher on their priority list than feeding the common North Korean citizen.
In short, it is the North Korea government that is using food as a weapon against its own people. Under those circumstances, the world has no responsibility to help unless we can be assured that the aid is being distributed to the people who need it most.