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Politics trump hunger in North Korea

Damir Sagolj / Reuters, file

A North Korean child suffering from malnutrition rests in a bed in a hospital in Haeju, September 30, 2011

Months before the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, an array of UN food experts and nonprofit groups urged immediate food aid for the isolated north Asian nation. Three groups that investigated conditions in the country described the urgent need for food, reporting “acute malnutrition” among North Korean children, “widespread consumption of grass” and elderly people on “knife edge.”

Despite these dire assessments, and warnings that conditions are worsening, the Obama administration has balked on a decision over food aid for the isolated Asian nation. This week, just as promising talks were under way in Beijing between U.S. and North Korean envoys, the news broke that Kim had died. That change put the question of aid on the back burner again.

“We need to see where (the North Koreans) are and where they go as they move through their transition period,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland addressing questions about food aid on Tuesday. “We will obviously need to reengage at the right moment, but… we haven’t made any internal decisions here.”

The World Food Programme says millions of children in North Korea are facing starvation and that up to six million people are in need of urgent aid. They've released a shocking and rare footage of emaciated children in hospitals and orphanages, barely clinging to life. John Sparks of Europe's Channel 4 reports.

Some provisions of a food aid deal that was purportedly being discussed in Beijing surfaced in South Korean press reports. The United States would provide 240,000 tons of high-protein biscuits and vitamins — 20,000 tons a month for a year, the reports said – targeting North Korea’s most vulnerable people — pregnant and lactating women, children, and hospital patients. Nuland would not confirm these reports.

The terms that were under discussion, she said, were related to monitoring to ensure the food reached its intended recipients, and “the kinds of food aid that we would consider if the conditions were right and if the right decisions were made.”

Eating bark, grass
Meanwhile, there is substantial evidence of a growing food crisis for millions who live in the countryside, beyond the relative comfort of Pyongyang, researchers and humanitarian groups say.

“What we saw… was extensive chronic malnutrition and cases of acute malnutrition, which is where the person is basically dying,” said David Austin, director of the North Korea program for Mercy Corps., one of five nonprofits dispatched to investigate the situation in February.

“More than 50 percent of people who are reliant on (state-provided grain) were out seeking out alternative food—things like bark, wild grass, and leaves—and mixing it in with food. We found there was no protein or fat in people’s diets.”

The mission was undertaken at the request of the federal government’s humanitarian aid agency, USAID after North Korea called for international food aid in January. Their report and a strong recommendation to proceed with the food aid went to USAID in April.  

When Austin returned to North Korea in September, he says he learned that government grain rations had been cut by more than half to about 150 grams per day.

“That’s basically (the equivalent of) one potato,” he said.

In addition to the report by the U.S. group of nonprofits, two other groups—one made up of UN agencies and a group representing five European nonprofits—came to the same conclusions.

Marcus Noland, senior fellow and Asia expert at Peterson Institute for International Economics, said data support the eye witness reports.

“The price (of grain) is rising rapidly. That’s bad news,” said Noland. “Normally after the fall harvest, there’s plenty of food, so the price goes down, and then it starts spiking in the late spring -- the so-called ‘lean season.’ This year the prices have basically continued rising right through the harvest… because there isn’t enough food in the country.”

The price is also rising on corn, and coal, which used by many North Koreans to heat their homes, he said.

Since last spring, humanitarian groups have been pressing the U.S. government to step in, as it has before, as a major contributor to North Korean aid needs. The last U.S. food handouts ended in March 2009, when North Korea expelled U.S. aid groups that were monitoring the distribution. Shortly afterwards, the North conducted long-range rocket and nuclear tests that prompted tough international sanctions.

Even though Pyongyong politics are opaque and in flux, not everyone agrees with U.S. “wait and see” posture on food.

“As far as we understand, the North Koreans have not withdrawn their request for food aid,” said Austin. “But the U.S. government has continued to delay its decision. We think there is a humanitarian need that must be answered. Children are dying.”

And some observers argue that the transition may present an opportunity to test the waters with Pyongyang’s newly named leader, 27-year-old Kim Jong Un.

“The fiscal price tag for 240,000 tons is not that big, so it seems to me as a conciliatory gesture at the beginning of this new leadership, you have more to gain than lose,” said Noland of the Peterson Institute. “This guy could turn out to be even crazier or more brutal than his father or grandfather…. But it strikes me that given the circumstances the downside risk of moving forward is very low, compared to the ill will from backtracking.”

What officials are not making explicit is how the food aid is linked to concessions from Pyongyang, such as promise to halt its uranium enrichment program or to resume six-party nuclear disarmament talks, which ground to a halt three years ago.

Food for nukes?
From the point of view of humanitarian groups, aid should completely independent of politics.

“We don’t want to see the humanitarian principals linked to things such as giving up nuclear weapons,” said Austin of Mercy Corps. “It undermines the moral authority of both.”

The State Department maintains that U.S. humanitarian assistance should not be politicized, but merely compliment U.S. foreign policy.

So, coincidentally – or not -- when U.S. humanitarian envoys were discussing food aid with the North Koreans in Beijing over the weekend, the U.S. nuclear nonproliferation envoy was also holding talks in the Chinese capital. According to the AP report, sources close to negotiations said the food aid talks with North Korean officials in Beijing “yielded a breakthrough on uranium enrichment.”

Food aid that is dependent on nuclear concessions is not fated to go far in Pyongyang during a leadership transition. North Korea watchers say that the anointed leader, who lacks the stature of his father or grandfather, is likely under immense pressure to prove his bravado to the military establishment, not compromise on defense issues.

The Obama administration has its own politics considerations. Without securing progress on nuclear disarmament, providing aid to North Korea may become bludgeon for Republicans to use against him in an election year.  

“If you were the Obama administration and looking at this situation with the North Koreans," Noland said, "are you going to expend any political capital on these guys? You’ve got other issues... Do you want to take on dealing with North Korea in Congress? The answer is no.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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