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North Korea on Verge of Major Disaster
WFP warns of extreme winter food shortages
Bhuwan Thapaliya (Bhuwan)     Print Article 
Published 2006-12-01 11:52 (KST)   
In the vibrant, affluent streets of the South Korean capital, Seoul, it is not easy to imagine that children could be starving to death just 30 miles to the north. North Korea's descent into destitution has baffled South Koreans, as well as the rest of the world. For a long time, many people remained skeptical about claims that North Korea really was on the brink of starvation. But, in the face of growing evidence, a consensus is emerging that North Korea is indeed on the verge of a major disaster.

The North Korean famine has been a long time in the making. The leadership's boast of self-sufficiency in food is now a distant memory. Economic decline and the cost of maintaining a vast military machine mean North Korea can no longer afford to import the rice it needs. But this northern winter's looming shortages have been worsened by July floods estimated by the World Food Program to have ruined 90,000 tonnes of cereals, damaged large areas of farmland, and made homeless some 50,000 people.

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World Food Program says it needs US$100 million to battle food shortages and fulfill its goals for North Korea. But unfortunately, so far, it has received only 10 percent of that. These agencies says, though everybody seems to be getting something to eat, rations have been reduced to starvation levels over a long period of time and the agencies have given warning that millions are now at risk of malnutrition and death.

Meanwhile, Red Cross workers say many North Koreans are subsisting on a single bowl of rice or corn a day, supplemented by grass and dried leaves, or have been reduced to eating the bark from trees. North Korea is facing a cold winter in which it is unlikely to be able to feed its people.

The danger of widespread suffering raises the critical question of how the world can unite in a forceful response to North Korea's nuclear test and still rescue the North's hungry people. At this critical juncture, North Korea needs aid, but its nuclear test has reduced donors' desire to rush in to help.

"There is relatively little humanitarian assistance going in now," says Anthony Banbury, the UN World Food Program's regional director for Asia, according to the media reports.

Meanwhile, observers say, for this only North Korean regime is to blame because of Pyongyang's restrictions on foreign relief work that led to the foreign food-aid cutbacks, and the indirect effects of international sanctions in response to its Oct. 9 nuclear test.

The U.S. cut donations to the World Food Program this year after North Korea ordered the WFP to slash the size of its mission in Pyongyang from nearly 50 people to 10 people and shut its five regional offices, from which inspectors tried to monitor distribution.

And South Korea suspended food aid on which the North depended to make up a shortfall of more than 1 million tons of rice, after the July missile tests. Nonetheless, South Korean relented when North Korea pleaded for help after severe flooding in August. But it sent only half of the 100,000 tons it had said it would send in emergency aid, compared with 500,000 tons last year, according to the media reports.

Now the grave question arises: What prompted North Korea to cut down on monitoring, even after knowing that the West would cut donations to the World Food Program if they do so? One reason may have been overconfidence and bad judgment -- they thought the harvests would improve. The harvest was better last year, but this year flooding and erosion have damaged their harvest.

In the end, North Korea looks to be facing its worst winter since the mass famines of the mid-1990s, and the world must gear up and help North Korea on humanitarian grounds. But North Korea can help itself. It is pretty simple; North Korea must divert resources from developing nuclear weapons to feeding its people.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bhuwan Thapaliya

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