North Korea at Dire Food Impasse
In the long term, food aid may undermine Kim Jong-il
Email Article  Print Article Bhuwan Thapaliya (Bhuwan)    
North Korea has the world worried about its nuclear weapons potential. But that's not what most worries South Koreans, who are concerned about its menacing food crisis and its possible economic collapse. After decades of a command economy, North Korea is almost stripped bare and has become one of the poorest nations as well as the largest food aid recipient in the world, while South Korea, by contrast, under capitalism, has gained economic momentum and has developed as a model for emerging nations.

The likelihood of having to bail out North Korea comes at an awkward time for South Korea. Most South Koreans would just as soon not take on the job of salvaging a decrepit North Korean economy. The situation has disintegrated so badly in the North, however, that they may have no choice with the passage of time. With nothing to eat or run their factories with, most North Koreans would definitely want to pour across the border into the wealthy South. However, masses of North Koreans flocking to the South would be terribly destabilizing, say most observers.

But how to stop them if the North Korean regime collapses? It is unlikely that the South Korean army would or could use the force necessary to turn back ragged and hungry fellow Koreans.

Considering this grave eventuality, emergency food supplies are needed urgently. Recent pledges from Europe and the U.S. are encouraging, but they will stave off famine only temporarily. Meanwhile, the U.N. World Food Program has resumed its food supply to North Korea, saying that, unless tons and tons of grain arrive within a few months, widespread starvation will follow, as well as the diseases that prey on the hungry.

In the short run, it is clear what needs to be done. Food aid will save lives. What is not so obvious is how North Korea got into this mess in the first place, and how, or whether, it can pull itself out of it. Food shipments will keep Kim Jong-il's miserable subjects alive for now, but what about next year, and the year after that?

The roots of the current crisis go back to the founding of North Korea in 1945, when Korea was divided along the 38th parallel after World War II. Given its current reputation, the Kim dynasty was one of the milder communist dictatorships, whereas Stalin and Mao both applied collectivist theory to the countryside in short, brutal bursts, leaving desolation in their wake. Kim Il Sung took a more gradual approach.

Stalin abolished private property, formed huge collective farms and then imposed bogus botanical theories of favored scientists on farmers, which ended in a grand failure. Eight million people starved to death. Meanwhile, Mao traversed the same course and forced Chinese farmers to melt down their metal tools to boost national steel production. About 30 million Chinese died in the awful famine that followed to Great Leap Forward of 1958-62.

Moreover, Kim Il Sung, by contrast, did not slaughter class enemies en masse. Rich landlords were allowed to flee to South Korea in 1946-50, those who stayed beginning new lives as peasants. The right to sell land was abolished, but the right to inherit it was not. Like Stalin and Mao, Kim collectivized rice, paddy, and maize fields, but in proper, manageable units. The peasants were also allowed to trade vegetables and whatever else they were able to grow for themselves in their backyard vegetable plots.

Nonetheless, North Korea under Kim Il Sung was a repressive state, but its people never experienced a peacetime famine. According to CIA estimates, until the early 1980s, North Korean rice fields were actually more productive than those in the capitalist South, which was owing mainly to big subsidies, massive irrigation projects, and a generous use of chemical fertilizers.
If that was the reality, then what went wrong? Most experts share a common assessment. Support from Russia and China dried up in the early 1990s, and suddenly North Korea was caught in a vicious circle of harsh economic realities.

North Korea no longer had the money to keep its fertilizer factories in good repair or to fuel its distribution system. The command economy, which was already creaking, started to implode; and the absolute ruler's scheme to double rice production by plowing up marginal land stripped hillsides of vegetation, leaving the country vulnerable to flash floods. These floods duly arrived in 1995 and 1996, with devastating effects, according to the historical sources.

The government's immediate response to the mayhem, when set against the norms of unreconstructed communist oligarchies, was pretty good. While Mao never admitted that China was facing mass starvation, North Korean leaders, by contrast, confessed their inability to feed their subjects in 1995.

Meanwhile, the hunger in North Korea is still desperate and the long-term prognosis dire. Even if the rest of the world helps the country through its current crisis, there remains a good chance that food shortages will recur, unless the government allows serious reforms to take place. As bad as the omens are, there is not a hint that the North Korean government plans to decollectivize the country's farms.

The problem is not that the North Korean administration does not understand where it has gone wrong. The chief obstacle to reform is that Kim Jong-Il cannot admit this publicly without losing the last pretext for not teaming up with the capitalist South. Having seen South Korean judges hand down long-term jail sentences to two of their own former presidents for corruption and political murder, he probably dreads the thought of what they would do to him.
Observers say that the North Korean regime should stop being suspicious of Japan and South Korea, as they are nearby and are best placed to help. Millions of tons of rice are sitting in Japanese warehouses, but with the Japanese press full of stories about North Korean obstructionism against those who would try to feed its hungry masses, the Japanese government is unsure of what to do.

There are other legitimate concerns, the most important being that food shipments meant for starving villagers will end up instead in military storehouses, as has happened before. And South Korea, in particular, has no wish to strengthen North Korea's more than 1.2 million-man army, two-thirds of whom are dug in close to the border, with heavy guns trained on Seoul, the South Korean capital, just 50 km (31 miles) away.

Big changes in North Korea's attitude will have to happen before it can expect aid or investment of the sort that might revive its clobbered economy. But that should not rule out humanitarian help. In the long term, food aid may undermine Kim and his cronies. North Koreans will eventually realize that it is the "imperialist" Americans and their South Korean allies who are feeding them. When they get their strength back, they may decide to do to their rulers what the East Germans did to theirs.

Meanwhile, there are lives to be saved. Faced with importunate North Korean supplicants, the temptation for the outside world is to turn its back. But the temptation should be resisted. It is not the fault of North Korea's people that they have such a foul government.

2006/05/18 오후 8:04
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