Famine imminent in North Korea

North Korea’s desperate need to feed its citizens has prompted a UN agency to warn of a “humanitarian crisis” looming up in the months ahead. The price of basic food items in Pyongyang, the country’s capital, offers a stark picture of the reality average workers face when buying provisions. A kg of rice currently sells at 2,000 North Korean won ($14), up from 700-900 won a year ago, while maize costs 600 won ($4.20) per kg, up from 350 won for the same amount in April 2007, states the World Food Programme (WFP).

Other staples, such as pork, potatoes and eggs have also risen manifold, making these items a “luxury for most people,” adds the WFP. A kg of pork now sells at 5,500 won ($35), almost touching the average monthly wage in the Stalinist nation — 6,000 won ($42). “Now it takes a third of a month’s salary just to buy a few days worth of rice,” said Jean-Pierre de Margerie, World Food Programme country director in Pyongyang, in a statement. “Families and especially vulnerable persons will suffer from lack of access to food, eat fewer meals and have a poorer diet, increasing their vulnerability to disease and illness.”

A miserable domestic agriculture harvest in 2007 due to heavy floods in August is being fingered for the spike in the price of food and severe food shortages. “Based on the most recent government estimates, total cereal production in 2007 is about three million tonnes, a significant reduction from the four million tonnes of the previous year,” states the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). “External assistance will be needed to bridge this gap,” Paul Risley, Asia spokesperson for the World Food Programme, said. But such an urgent need for food aid to a country that has long depended on similar assistance could not have come at a worst time. The rapid global price hike of commodities, including rice, poses a challenge that relief agencies like the World Food Programme did not have to deal with when buying rice and other cereals in previous years to feed North Korea’s most vulnerable people.

The World Food Programme feeds close to a million people out of the country’s 23 million population in a programme that began in 1998. To meet the new challenges posed by the spike in global food prices, the WFP is appealing for a further $15.9 million to add to the $26.5 million estimated to fund its North Korea programme. “If we are lucky, we will be able to provide 75,000 tonnes of food, which is less than five per cent of the total shortfall for this year,” says Risley.

If rapidly rising commodity prices are not enough, North Koreans have to grapple with a political challenge from neighbouring South Korea, the main supplier of food aid such as rice, beans and other pulses. The new leader in Seoul, President Lee Myung-bak, has come to power promising a tougher line when dealing with Pyongyang.

Currently, over 6.5 million people in North Korea “suffer from food insecurity — a figure that can be expected to rise if action is not taken to address the growing food shortages,” states the World Food Programme. In fact, the unprecedented pressure from three fronts striking North Korea is pushing the country in the direction of one of its worst food crises — a famine in the 1990s, which, according to some estimates, killed between half a million to three million North Koreans. — IPS