May 20, 2019 13:25
Is North Korea really suffering from a food shortage as it claims? According to the International Trade Center, North Korea imported more cigarettes and fruit than essential food from China in the first quarter of this year. The North imported US$16.44 million worth of flour from China from January to March, down almost 40 percent on-year, but cigarette imports totaled $17.7 million and fruit imports $26 million. Imports of rice and other grains stood at just $1.8 million over that period. How could a starving country buy more cigarettes and fruit than staple foods? Meanwhile the price of rice in open-air markets in North Korea has apparently fallen significantly since the end of last year, suggesting there is no dearth at all.
Some foreign experts are also skeptical. One former World Bank executive said, "Considering North Korean trade data and market price trends, there are no signs so far of a food shortage. The current shortage concerns only the spring harvest due to a drought." It is also strange for the North to blame U.S.-led sanctions for its apparent food shortage since they do not cover food imports. One former U.S. special representative for North Korea told the Wall Street Journal that the North may be exaggerating its food shortage situation to amplify the sufferings of its people and blackmail the international community into easing sanctions.
The only data the South Korean government is citing for its eagerness to throw free food at the North is a dubious World Food Programme estimate of a 1.36 million-ton grain shortage. But there is a strong chance that the WFP simply used figures provided by North Korea. The WFP estimates North Korea's grain output this year at 4.9 million tons. During the famine of the 1990s, when millions starved to death, North Korea produced 3.5 million tons a year. The New York Times last week wrote, "No report of mass starvation has emerged yet from North Korea." There is an equally strong likelihood that the North is simply trying to cadge free food so it can spend the money it saves that way on weapons.
But the government here is completely unwilling to listen to such suspicions. Cheong Wa Dae officials are only interested in creating another North Korea-related event to make political capital. The presidential secretary for national security said the decision to provide food aid to the North "has already been made" and Cheong Wa Dae will convene a National Security Council meeting to decide whether to provide the food through international aid agencies or directly. It wants to spend another $8 million on North Korea in addition to the food aid. What kind of signal will that send to North Korea now it has just resumed missile tests? Surely the timing is absurd. This is not the time to rush to provide food aid to North Korea, but to carefully consider the impact such a move would have when the international community is tightening its sanctions. There is no rush at all.
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