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Darker days loom after nuclear test

Experts fear a refugee crisis as North Korea's policies lead to aid cuts that worsen the woes of long-suffering citizens.

October 25, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Humanitarian experts see even more difficulty ahead for long-suffering North Koreans following their government's Oct. 9 nuclear test, amid fears that worsening conditions could spur an exodus of refugees across the border with China.

Aid shipments are exempt from the restrictions outlined under United Nations Resolution 1718, passed after the test. But experts say the international community is not in a generous mood, particularly after the government in Pyongyang balked at measures designed to ensure that aid go to ordinary people and not the military or senior Communist Party members.

"The responsibility rests squarely on North Korea's shoulders," said Anthony Banbury, the World Food Program's Asia regional director, who is based in Bangkok, Thailand. "Donors are being asked to take a leap of faith, and blowing off a nuclear weapon reduces that trust. I just don't know how North Korea is going to fill the food gap."

Chinese officials said Tuesday that North Korea was not planning a second nuclear test and was willing to return to negotiations under certain conditions, a step that could start it on the road to improved international relations and more aid.

"But if it faces pressure, North Korea reserves the right to take further actions," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao, citing senior Chinese envoy Tang Jiaxuan, who recently returned from Pyongyang. Among the North Korean conditions are an end to Washington's use of financial sanctions.

Experts with experience in global humanitarian crises, meanwhile, see a looming crisis in a country that is already impoverished and beset by structural problems.

World Food Program officials said the agency would be able to feed only 1.2 million people this year, given that it was shut down for several months early in the year and has since been forced by Pyongyang to operate under tightened restrictions. After Pyongyang test-fired missiles in July, South Korea announced plans to eliminate the 500,000 tons in annual food aid it provides directly to North Korea.

Food aid from another donor, China, is down about two-thirds from its 2005 level, aid experts say.

In addition, North Korea is still struggling from summer floods, which the government said claimed hundreds of lives. South Korean aid group Good Friends estimates the floods may have killed as many as 50,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.

The North's food production is deteriorating as a result of years of economic mismanagement and a nationwide drive to plant crops on the steepest parts of hillsides and adopt other unsustainable practices, experts say.

It is also believed that North Korean farmers are planting less and hoarding more after a policy change in late 2005 under which Pyongyang banned the selling of rice and other grains in the marketplace, returning instead to government distribution.

"Farmers are planting less grain and more products not subject to these restrictions," said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics. "The bulk of people are falling further behind."

With less food, humanitarian workers expect more health problems and more refugees flooding into China by January or February as the Tumen River freezes. Beijing has a history of returning refugees to North Korea over the objections of foreign governments, the U.N. and aid groups.

"I don't think they can contain people from crossing the border," said Joel Charney, vice president of Refugees International, a Washington-based refugee rights group. "There's been something of a breakdown in discipline in North Korea, and if things get bad, soldiers will be hungry too."

These additional shocks are hitting a population in which an estimated 40% of children and 33% of pregnant women are already malnourished or anemic. North Korean farmers in recent years have been able to produce only about 80% of the 5.5 million tons of food needed to feed the population, with the rest made up by foreign aid.

Jean-Pierre de Margerie, the WFP's North Korea manager living in Pyongyang, said he saw extensive damage in flood-affected areas. Fuel shortages also are evident as long, snaking lines of Pyongyang residents wait hours for buses that don't arrive. "Koreans are very good at queuing," Banbury said.

The WFP said there was no sign the regime was thinking of relaxing its tough restrictions on aid organizations operating in the country. Analysts see the restrictions as a move to limit foreign influence and information about its activities.

"The food situation is pretty critical," said Stephan Haggard, a professor at UC San Diego. "It's very discouraging."

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