N Koreans flee looming famine

The recent arrest of 91 North Korean defectors in Thailand’s northernmost province of Chiang Rai has brought into relief the conditions driving such flight. It is hunger and a growing food shortages, say humanitarian agencies. And international organisations monitoring the Stalinist nation have a dire warning: the current trickle of asylum seekers to South East Asia could become a flood because of growing signs that the country may be on the verge of a famine.

North Korea is “just as vulnerable to famine today as it was in the mid-1990s” Peter Beck, Northeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said. “The government policies are still failing and the North (Korea) is more isolated than ever before.” Feeding this crisis is Pyongyang’s decision since late 2005 to reintroduce the public distribution system of food “that collapsed in the 1990s,” leading to the famine, he adds. “All grain was collected and distributed by the state until the mid-1990s when this system broke down.”

His comments echo a warning made a week before in an ICG report on the “thousands of desperate North Koreans who are fleeing their country.” In that study, the Brussels-based think-tank said that “hunger and the lack of economic opportunity, rather than political oppression, are the most important factors in shaping a North Korean’s decision to leave.” “The perfect storm may be brewing for a return to famine in the North,’’ it added. The World Food Programme (WFP) is also sounding the alarm as winter approaches, making it difficult for North Koreans already struggling to fill their stomachs to find alternative sources of nourishment in the country’s forests.

The need for international food aid became more apparent after studies confirmed that even in the best of times — a good harvest — North Korea is unable to meet its basic food requirements.

“While grain production did improve in 2005, the harvest still fell short of estimated annual food needs by one to two million tonnes,” reveals the ICG report, Perilous Journeys: The Plight of North Koreans in China and Beyond. With little sign of improvement in the offing, flight from the country to escape hunger has become a major “push factor,” it adds, with North Korean deserters looking for new paths other than the usual journey into China. Of them, “the southern route to South East Asia has emerged as the most frequently used.”

Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar have figured in this escape route, in addition to Thailand. In August, 175 North Koreans were arrested by the authorities in Bangkok, bringing to 400 the number of North Korean defectors this year. In 2005, by contrast, authorities had arrested only 80 asylum seekers.

While troubled by the influx, Thai authorities have limited options to stop the flow, often down the Mekong River, which flows through southern China down to Vietnam’s southern coast.

“We are not happy that Thailand is being used as a transit point for the North Koreans. We view this as a kind of human trafficking,” Songphol Sukchan, director of the press division at

the foreign ministry, said. “The government is trying to coordinate with the countries concerned to get to the root causes of the problem. North Korea is also in the picture.” — IPS