May 4, 2006

SEOUL  'Choongoong," which means "spring food shortage," is well under way in North Korea, as farmers run out of food from the previous year's harvest. For many people dependent on state food rations, it's the season when food starts to disappear. It's the time of the year North Koreans dread.

That dread may be especially well founded, given a series of recent policy changes by the government of Kim Jong Il. In October, Pyongyang told the World Food Program to stop providing emergency food aid by the end of 2005.

The agency, which for the past decade has been assisting millions of vulnerable people, such as young children, pregnant women and the elderly, is now negotiating to provide sustenance to less than a third of its former beneficiaries. Other aid providers, such as China and South Korea, do not make up the gap and do not monitor distribution to make sure their aid actually goes to hungry civilians, rather than the elite.

North Korea has also banned the buying and selling of grain by individuals at farmers' markets and ordered workers who abandoned their jobs during the famine of the 1990s to return to work, or be punished. It also announced it was reviving the Public Distribution System, under which only the state can distribute grain, through workplaces and schools.

These are dangerous moves. Only 10 years ago, North Korea experienced a famine that killed from 500,000 to three million people, according to economists, demographers and aid agencies. Young children and the elderly were among the first victims. Many children who survived became orphans.

North Korea still hasn't recovered from the famine: After a decade of WFP assistance, a large number of children remain malnourished. According to WFP's most recent survey, more than a third of children up to six years old remain stunted. Large numbers of North Koreans continue to go to bed at night without the day's minimum caloric intake.

Even if North Korea were capable of delivering enough food to all its citizens, it's hard to believe that it would do so fairly. The government, which remains on a war footing against the United States, has long taken a portion of each year's harvest and put it into "war-preparation storage." It first feeds the elite class, including high-ranking military, intelligence, police and other law-enforcement officials, and then gives smaller rations, often less than the minimum needed to keep a person healthy, to the general population.

To end the famine, the government unofficially allowed the private sale of grain. Draconian restrictions on freedom of movement also were relaxed so that people could literally walk across the country to find food or the money to buy it. Many went to China. Private farmers' markets were allowed. More food aid was allowed in. Slowly, the situation stabilized.

Yet these reforms are now being rolled back, apparently because Kim is afraid that WFP monitors were having too much contact with ordinary people, learning too much about what is really happening in the countryside, and threatening the Workers' Party's iron grip on the population.

Many experts worry that the latest policies are the same as those that helped to exacerbate the famine. While food stocks may be stable at present, there is no certainty about what the next harvest will bring. And if there is a shortage, the ban on private sales of grain, the reliance on the rationing system, and the absence of WFP monitoring would again put the most vulnerable segment of the population at risk of severe hunger or even famine.

Once food shortages appear, North Korea is obliged by international law to distribute its available resources, including food aid offered by international donors. But in the meantime, the only way for an individual to avoid hunger, disease and starvation is to grow food or to buy it illegally from a private trader. If North Korea is concerned about its citizens' survival, the last thing it should do is to ban a hungry person from buying food.

The international community - particularly China and South Korea, the two main providers of food aid and the only countries with sufficient influence - must press North Korea to reverse its present course. The North Korean government must either ensure that its distribution system is fair and adequately supplied, or permit citizens other ways to get food, through direct access to markets or as humanitarian aid.

Kay Seok is consultant on North Korea for Human Rights Watch.

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