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North Korea's Actions Put Food Aid at Risk

January 02, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Which hungry baby is more deserving of food: a North Korean or an African?

Humanitarians reject the premise of that question. But U.S. and international aid officials and private relief workers say the wrenching truth about the global politics of food aid is this: If the North Korean government renounces its nuclear program, aid will pour in to feed its babies. If it doesn't, most of the world's food donations will go to the starving children of Africa.

Because of problems monitoring aid distribution in North Korea, the United States -- the largest donor in 2002 -- has not said when, or even whether, it will provide more aid. And that may leave the newly elected president of South Korea nearly alone in offering food, fuel and fertilizer to his needy neighbor.

It is never easy to decide which poor countries should receive food aid, and how much. But because the developed nations do not give enough food or money to feed all the hungry, choices are made.

This unpalatable process is about to get uglier, with needy nations essentially forced to compete for a shrinking supply of food and the Bush administration under fire for allegedly politicizing the process.

World production of the cereals that are the chief form of food aid has dropped each year for the last five years, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Consumption has increased just as steadily. Food stockpiles are shrinking. The predictable result -- soaring prices -- is good news for grain farmers but a disaster for the hungry.

"As commodity prices go up, it causes a tremendous strain for the World Food Program because donors give us money in U.S. dollars, and the dollars don't go as far," said Charles Vincent, an official with the WFP, another U.N. agency, in New York.

The price of a ton of wheat, for example, soared to $195 in October from $130 in January, Vincent said, adding, "Humanitarian budgets are being super-stressed this year because of huge crises, and the well is going dry."

The mismatch between supply and demand, caused mainly by unusual simultaneous bad harvests in the U.S., Canada and Australia, is particularly ill-timed. Aid organizations are warning of hunger crises in the Horn of Africa and in southern Africa, and they're projecting that 24 million to 28 million people will need food donations in the coming months. In Africa, 38 million people are facing starvation, according to the WFP.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is still a problem, Vincent said, and hundreds of thousands of Central American coffee growers don't have money for food because of a collapse in prices of their commodity.

Enter North Korea. How dire its food needs are is a matter of dispute, though conditions are much improved since a long famine that peaked in 1996-97 killed an estimated 2 million people. The change is due partly to better weather, but also to an aggressive program of international aid, which is now drying up.

In a radical effort at economic reform last summer, North Korea vastly increased both salaries and official prices for food. Prices had been set absurdly low but were meaningless, since the only edibles for sale were black-market items at black-market prices, often sold in dollars. The North's economy is so distorted that it's difficult to judge how well the lurch toward a freer-market system is working, but early reports are positive.

New farmers' markets, however, could be victimized by runaway inflation, according to the WFP. The agency estimates that although last year's cereal crop in North Korea is up about 5% over 2001, the nation will need 564,000 tons of food aid this year.

One of the last shipments of American grain is now being unloaded, and food will start running out next month, said Rick Corsino, director of the WFP's operation in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Then the agency will have to stop feeding nearly 3 million of the 4.5 million "most vulnerable" aid recipients it feeds.

"We won't be feeding around 760,000 kids in nurseries, from 6 months to 4 years" old, Corsino said in a satellite phone interview. "Then the kindergarten kids -- that's 385,000 we won't be reaching. Primary school kids, 830,000. Pregnant and nursing women, 130,000. Elderly, around 550,000. Finally, 225,000 what we call caregivers, mainly women who work in children's institutions and hospitals."

Although the plight of Africa's hungry is generally well documented, the North Korean government has long made it difficult to even figure out where best to send aid. Donors, particularly the Bush administration, have lost patience.

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