MANY THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES would have been driven to the wall by back-to-back years of floods and drought. But North Korea, which suffered nature's disasters a decade ago, makes its problems worse with its leader's paranoid, Stalinist determination to isolate the nation from outsiders.
For 10 years, the United Nations' World Food Program has done what it could to limit the number of deaths by famine, providing millions of tons of food worth more than $1 billion. When Pyongyang sometimes refused to let U.N. officials visit a province, the organization cut off the food. Its policy of "no access, no food aid" is necessary to ensure that dictators such as North Korea's Kim Jong Il don't take the milk and grain and give it to their soldiers and trusted civil servants, rather than those who need it most.
But now North Korea has forbidden private charities and the U.N. agency to deliver food. Pyongyang claims an improved harvest last year, and help from China and South Korea, will provide enough to feed its 23 million people. But outside experts are doubtful.
A more likely reason for stopping food aid is to keep foreigners away and increase the already tight control by Kim's regime. That's clear from North Korea's offer to let the U.N. agency stay in the country if it helps with such things as building irrigation systems and reduces its staff of 35 foreigners to fewer than 10, all limited to Pyongyang. That would limit the agency's ability to serve much of the country.
Food aid, of course, is only part of the solution for North Korea's poverty problem. Pyongyang would stand a better chance of getting other assistance if it scrapped its nuclear weapons program. Talks with the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan seemed to make some limited progress on the issue; it's past time to resume the bargaining.
China and South Korea fear a North Korean collapse that would send millions of refugees across their borders; that makes them less likely to be tough on Pyongyang or to demand that food aid actually reach its recipients.
Stopping the U.N. agency from distributing food is likely to send villagers back into the forests to find acorns and maize. The food that the agency supplied to schools was an incentive for parents to have their children educated; now that inducement is gone. The agency also has established factories in North Korea to make biscuits fortified with extra vitamins and nutrients, which are given to the most vulnerable -- children and pregnant women. But the country needs outside help to keep those factories operating.
Nature was kinder to North Korea last year than it was to Pakistan or New Orleans. If the country's luck runs out, it will need the U.N. and private agencies again to feed its people, at least 1 million of whom died in the famines of the 1990s. Refusing U.N. help is a betrayal of the people most in need.