Thursday, November 19, 2009

Food and famine in North Korea

President Obama is visiting South Korea at the moment. Today he announced that he will send an envoy to North Korea to discuss that country's nuclear program. These days, when North Korea hits the news it is usually because of its nuclear policy (including the development of nuclear weapons). However, it is worth remembering that North Korea is also one of the worst governments on earth (quite possibly the worst) in terms of taking care of its citizens.

A disastrous famine ravaged the country in the late 1990s. By most estimates, at least half a million people died of starvation, and maybe two million more died prematurely. The famine was ended only thanks to foreign food aid (in particular from the UN's World Food Programme). Two weeks ago the New Yorker published an article by Barbara Demick which offered a searing account from a survivor of the famine, who has since escaped to South Korea. Highly recommended reading! (Only the abstract is still available at the New Yorker's website; the full article is available to subscribers, or electronically from most university libraries).

Renewed food shortages have arisen in the past two years (for 2008, see coverage in the Washington Post and Time magazine). These are caused in part by cuts in food aid in retaliation for North Korea's nuclear tests, most recently in May. However, since the North Korean government has proven it does not much care if its subjects live or die, the rationale for such sanctions is unclear.

It is to be hoped that a renewal of talks with North Korea will be accompanied by an increase in food aid; the North Korean government may be willing to see millions of its subjects die rather than change its policies, but why should the rest of the world be just as heartless towards those who are unfortunate enough to have been born there? (To get a sense of the implications of the reduced supply of emergency food aid, see the the last two paragraphs on the WFP's country page.)

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