[Documents menu] Documents menu

Forlorn nation

By Ahn Mi-Young, Asia Times, 21 January 2003

SEOUL—As Pyongyang’s desperate game of brinkmanship continues, activists say food aid to North Korea should not be halted and, indeed, needs to be increased.

United Nations special envoy Maurice Strong said that in a country of 22 million, eight million people—half of them children—are in a life or death situation.

The first victims of North Korea’s nuclear action are its starving children who have nothing to do with politics, said Chung Jung-Ae, a member of the Korean Welfare Foundation (KWF). What these children badly need is just one cup of milk, potato soup and bread just to survive.

Local activists estimate that foreign aid to North Korea has fallen from US$360 million in 1999 to half that in 2000, and is expected to have declined further in 2002. Already, US food aid to North Korea fell from 300,000 tons in 2001 to 155,000 tons in 2002. Japan has virtually suspended food delivery to North Korea since the start of 2002.

UN officials say North Korea’s real humanitarian needs cannot be ignored while South Korea, China and now Russia try to break the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang in the wake of the North’s admission last October of its secret uranium-enrichment program.

North Korea’s nuclear measures and the fallout from it are likely to dampen interest in giving humanitarian assistance, activists fear.

You cannot make the children, the ill people, the old people victims of a political crisis with which they have had nothing to do, Strong said on Saturday after a three-day visit to North Korea.

If we sit back, North Korea would almost have one generation of children disappear from its population in the worst case, John Powell of the World Food Program (WFP) was quoted as saying by the Korean-language newspaper Joongang. UN officials were already worried by declining food aid in recent years. In 2002, the WFP fed 3.4 million people, down from 6.4 million in 2001, most of them children.

Local media reports quote WFP officials as saying that the UN agency secured only 35,000 tons of food for North Korea as of early January 2003—one third of what it needs to implement for the country in the first quarter of 2003.

Since the WFP has cut back its programs, one million North Korean children at primary schools have not received food rations since September. Another 460,000 in kindergartens have not had food rations since October, and 920,000 children in nursery homes likewise since November.

Meanwhile, humanitarian and religious groups are urging South Koreans to donate what they can to the North. South Korean non-governmental organizations raised $65 million for North Korea in 2002, up from $35 million in 2000.

If you donate 5,000 won [US$4], you could feed one North Korean child for a month, explained a KWF campaigner. The KWF is also collecting clothes, medicine and powdered milk too.

To many South Korean activists, schemes like this stress the need to keep North Korea’s humanitarian needs separate from political issues such as concerns over the North’s nuclear program—and calls by some for economic sanctions on the already struggling country.

Another KWF program donates ingredients to make milk-rich bread for North Korean children. This bread campaign—under way since 2001—reaches some 15,000 children in about 17 kindergartens and 18 nurseries in Pyongyang.

One bread for each kid at the lunch table is good enough to be a party there, said KWF director Kim Hyung-Seok.

Children from the two Koreas have different human development indicators. Chronic lack of nutrition means that a seven-year-old North Korean child has an average height of 105 centimeters, compared to the South Korean average of 125cm.

Some here say that South Korea should look after its own poor first. But Chung argued: It’s a matter of poverty when a South Korean child is starving. But it is a matter of survival when a North Korean child is starving. Unless fed today, that child would be seriously malnourished or even die.