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Handling the Next North Korean Famine

When Pyongyang needs food aid, donors can—and must—insist on meaningful monitoring.

Published in: The Wall Street Journal

The annual North Korean flower festival, celebrating today's birthday of founder Kim Il Sung, began this week in Pyongyang. Given the theme-"President Kim Il Sung, the sun of humankind, is immortal along with the flower of the sun"-no wonder money is apparently no object. The festival organizing committee supplied tissue culture-bred seedlings to greenhouses around the country to boost the growing of Kimilsungia, a hybrid orchid named after Kim Il Sung. According to the Pyongyang Times, cultivators "have ensured the right temperature in day and at night and prevented damage from blights . . . despite climate change and the low percentage of sunshine this year."

What is particularly outrageous about this year's festival is that it comes at the same time that bad weather, compounded by the state's economic mismanagement and ineffective collective farming methods, is causing a failure of the overall agriculture sector. Experts in the United Nations' World Food Program are warning that this year North Koreans may face the worst food shortage since a famine claimed a million lives in the 1990s. Mid-April also happens to be when the so-called choongoong, or spring poverty, season begins. This is when North Korea runs out of the last bits of the previous year's fall harvest but before summer crops can be harvested.

In a still largely command economy, many North Koreans are left without a safety net against starvation. Disastrous monetary "reform" last November effectively wiped out the savings of many North Koreans, stripping them of purchasing power that could be used to buy food. Hoarding and barter trade are once again prevalent. Periodic crackdowns on private-market activities certainly haven't helped either.

As severe hunger looms, the question for donors is whether to resume food aid to North Korea and, if so, how to ensure the assistance reaches the people most in need and is not diverted to the military. Proper monitoring is essential. Some critics think it would be impossible to monitor food deliveries, as the North Korean government would simply reject such a condition, fearing foreigners would learn too much about the world's most secretive state.

But there is some precedent for meaningful, if not optimal, monitoring of food aid. For instance, the United Nations' World Food Program conducted an average of 388 monitoring visits a month in 2005, and 440 a month in 2004. For much of these two years, U.N. employees had access to 160 of the country's 203 counties and districts. More than half of the World Food Program's international staff, numbering 32 at the end of 2005, were directly engaged in food aid monitoring during the year, and some of them spoke Korean. Such monitoring meant at least some of the young children, the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant and nursing women received food aid.

The North Korean government can hardly afford another period of severe nation-wide hunger. The country's leaders know that at some point a social explosion is possible as people become desperate. During the years of the famine in the 1990s, North Koreans were still so brainwashed by government propaganda that they died in massive numbers at home, waiting for rations that never came, not letting go of their faith in Pyongyang to save them. North Koreans are now better informed about the outside world, and know whom to blame for their hunger. The survivors have learned that it is foolish, even dangerous, to blindly depend on the government to deliver food.

This means renewed massive hunger could pose a risk to the continuity of the North Korean government. As the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, works to ensure another leadership succession to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, he should consider that North Koreans may not endure another epoch of massive hunger as quietly as they did the last one.

That political imperative may force Pyongyang to act sooner, rather than later. Given that, the foreign-aid community can-and should-insist that aid workers be allowed to properly monitor aid distribution according to standard international protocols for transparency and accountability. The North Korean government must also pledge to end discrimination in government distribution of food in favor of ruling party officials, the military, the intelligence services and the police-and against the "hostile" classes deemed politically disloyal to the government. Otherwise, most donors will remain reluctant to give food aid to North Korea. And that would be a tragedy, on a truly massive scale.

Ms. Seok is North Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch. This is the third of a series of articles on the state of North Korea.

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