Why N.Koreans Are Starving

North Korea has been knocking on the doors of practically every country except for the poorest African nations since last year asking for food aid, yet according to a senior South Korean official, last year's harvest in the North was among the best in two decades. North Korea watchers say the main reason for the food shortage in the North is hoarding by the government and military.

◆ No Drop in Food Production

According to South Korean government statistics compiled between 1991 and 2009, North Korea had bumper crops in 2005 (4.54 million tons) and 2006 (4.48 million tons). The 2010 crop yield has not been officially announced yet, but the UN Food and Agriculture Organization presumes output last year totaled 4.48 million tons, making it the best harvest in 20 years. North Korea's annual food demand is estimated at around 5 million tons.

"We start to see people starving to death when food output falls below 3.5 million tons," said Nam Sung-wook of the Institute for National Security Strategy. The late Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean ever to defect to South Korea, said food output totaled just 2.5 million tons in 1997, when over 1 million North Koreans starved to death.

◆ Hoarding Rice for the Military

In September last year, Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Moo-sung said North Korea has stored 1 million tons of rice for a war. That is enough to feed the country's 24 million people for three months. Early last year, North Korean authorities temporarily alleviated food shortages during the cold months by tapping into the military's food stores, but sources in the North say the regime shut them again after the attacks on the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island increased tensions with the South.

"Since 1987, North Korea has been setting aside 12 percent of its rice output as emergency supplies in case of war and 10 percent for military consumption," an intelligence official said.

A group of boys, presumably beggars, eat what they have collected from heaps of waste at a railway station in South Pyongan Province, North Korea in this grab from an undated video clip obtained from a defector by Grand National Party lawmaker Chung Ok-nim. A group of boys, presumably beggars, eat what they have collected from heaps of waste at a railway station in South Pyongan Province, North Korea in this grab from an undated video clip obtained from a defector by Grand National Party lawmaker Chung Ok-nim.

◆ Preparing for 2012

In 1998, after the severe famine from 1995 to 1997 when more than a million people starved to death, North Korea began to boast about its goal of becoming a "powerful and prosperous nation" by 2012. "North Korea is using the fantasy as a tool to keep its people calm," said Prof. Cho Young-ki of Korea University. "The North needs to stock up on food for use in the celebrations next year.”

A defector said North Koreans "don't expect a lot in terms of economic conditions. They'll be loyal to anyone who gives them white rice and meat soup."

◆ No Assistance from China

China does not want a crisis in North Korea that could complicate the political status quo in Northeast Asia, but it has not responded to North Korea's requests for food aid yet. In October 2009, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao offered the North 6,000 tons of rice and 20,000 tons of grain. The exact size of China's food assistance to North Korea remains unknown, but the South Korean government says there are no signs that Beijing has provided food aid to Pyongyang recently. "If the regime was on the brink of collapse due to a food shortage, China would be the first to step in," a diplomatic source said.

North Korea faces a shortage of about a million tons of rice a year. Until the Lee Myung-bak administration came to power, the South gave some 400,000-500,000 tons and the international community up to 1 million tons.

◆ Implacable Regime

According to data from Statistics Korea in January, North Korean mines contain an estimated 2,000 tons of gold worth W61.3 trillion (US$1=W1,133) and 5,000 tons of silver worth W1.9 trillion. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has apparently stashed away more than US$4 billion in secret bank accounts overseas. Yet there are no accounts that the North sold any of the gold or silver to buy food or that Kim tapped into his funds.

"Most of the income from gold mines in North Korea goes into the coffers of either the Worker's Party or Kim Jong-il's own pockets. I heard Kim Jong-il ordered officials to hold on to the gold until the end," said a defector.

englishnews@chosun.com / Feb. 25, 2011 13:23 KST