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Pol/Econ: Threats of another North Korean Famine
Wednesday, 09 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
A young victim
of the last famine
We often forget that the main losers from the North Korean dictatorship are not outside powers, enraged by the country's nuclear activities, but the people who live inside the hermit state. During the late 1990s it is possible that millions of North Koreans died as the country ran out of vital food supplies. Massive flooding and droughts on some areas led to the government stamping down on the movement of the people and stopping deliveries of food in outlying areas. A full synopsis of what happened is available here.

The World Food Program and other NGOs saved many Korean lives. But because the regime restricted their access- the full story of what happened in the nineties is not yet fully known. The worrying thing is that we may be in for a repeat.

Events over the last few months have worried analysts at the World Food Program. In 2005 the North Koreans threw out many NGOs and made the WFP's work very difficult. Production of food fell by all unofficial measures and North Korean officials have now confirmed this impression, informing the WFP that they are a million metric tons of food short of where they should be for this year. Reports are coming in that cities like Hoeryong are running short of food already and people are starving.

The outside world definitely has noticed a softening of the North Korean tone on other matters and there may be a connection. The recent nuclear deal in February according to the BBC was preceded by North Korean demands for food aid. The problem as Andrew Natsios argues here is that there is really no realistic alternative to giving in in terms of food aid. The North Korean government should it collapse could expose the whole of the Korean peninsular and its neighbours to all sorts of difficult problems- a flood of migration not the least.

On the other side though, this could become a perpetual problem. As Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland argue on open democracy because the government of the country is so utterly resistent to outsiders even knowing about the condition of its population or to a market forming within the country, its not difficult to see how another famine might take place. Ultimately without political reform, including increased transparancy and accountability- the economic reform that would usher North Korea forward into a future without famine is impossible to see. And its difficult to see at the moment where such political reform would come from.

The future of the North Korean people continues therefore to look bleak- there seems to be no way out of this circle for them- lets hope that the events of 2007 don't turn out like those of the late nineties did- but one can only feel that there is a tragedy waiting to happen in Pyongyang.