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[Glyn Ford] EU’s food aid for North Koreans

The European Union announced on the July 4 that it was to provide 10 million euros ($14.3 million) of emergency food aid to North Korea to be distributed through the World Food Program over the next three months ― until the end of September, just prior to the arrival of this year’s harvest. This aid represents a much delayed response to an initial request for humanitarian assistance sent by Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun on Jan. 24.

The letter, which was sent both to EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva, thanked the EU for earlier assistance and requested 100,000 tons of emergency food aid and fertilizer for this year’s farming. Over the last decade, the EU provided roughly 500 million euros ($715 million) in aid, including humanitarian assistance, and nutritional, sanitation and development projects, plus an earlier EU contribution to the Korean Energy Development Organization.

The letter noted that while the WFP and Food and Agriculture Organization had conducted a crop and food security mission in Autumn 2010, which had estimated North Korea’s production at 5.12 million tons of grain from the 2010 harvest and a shortfall of 867,000 tons of food, this initial estimate had proved overoptimistic, as heavy rain and floods affected both the final grain harvest and kimchi production ― the winter vegetable staple of North Korea ― in August and September.

Those likely to suffer most will be in the small cities of the northeast of the country, squeezed between mountains and the sea with little local agriculture, barely any functioning industry compared to a generation ago, and little capital equipment to scavenge and sell.

The initial problem was compounded, according to Foreign Minister Pak, by two other factors, one external and one internal: first the global inflation in food and fertilizer prices and second an unprecedented “freeze” this winter that left winter wheat and barley frozen in the ground with the forecast of a sharp fall in production from the early crops this year.

The Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul, which had been testing Pyongyang’s resolve over Seoul’s self-selected Northern Limit Line as a maritime boundary since it took office, was still smarting from the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March last year and the artillery barrage launched against the fortress island of Yeonpyeong in November. Demanding apologies for both and for an earlier incident in 2008, when a tourist died in North Korea’s scenic Mount Geumgang resort, they were in the mood to use any means possible to pressure the North.

Their response to the initial request for emergency food aid was to claim that this was primarily an attempt to build up food stocks so that the North’s rulers could organize a real blowout next year to celebrate the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth. The WFP/FAO/UNICEF organized a Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission that surveyed 40 counties across nine of the 11 provinces and produced, late in March, a confirmation of Pyongyang’s claims and an even gloomier assessment of the situation.

Pyongyang had not told the truth. The situation was far worse than they had claimed. The report (March 24) indicated that more than 6 million people were in urgent need of international food assistance, recommending the delivery of 430,000 tons of food as stocks would be exhausted by May. It also said that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was sweeping through the nation’s cattle and slashing the number of draught animals available to help with ploughing.

Nevertheless, in a political climate where the North was a pariah state, the result was deemed inconclusive by Washington, Seoul and Brussels and nothing was done. In April, a group from Nelson Mandela’s “Elders” visited Pyongyang led by former President Jimmy Carter along with the former leaders of Finland, Ireland and Norway. When they left after visiting areas around Pyongyang, Carter said, “One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and the United States and others to withhold food aid to the North Korean people is really a human rights violation.”

In June Brussels sent its own mission to North Korea. Their report echoed that of the WFP/FAO/UNICEF in March stating, “Clearly, North Korea’s chronic nutrition problem is turning into an acute crisis in some parts of the country. The purpose of this aid is to save the lives of at least 650,000 people who could otherwise die from lack of food.” In the face of the stark facts, Brussels relented and became the first major donor of this famine, following Sweden in breaking the malign neglect of the North’s request for emergency aid almost six months after the initial request.

The EU has laid down firm conditions for distribution and monitoring, focussing assistance regionally and demographically in the northeast of the country and to children under 5 hospitalized with malnutrition or in residential care, pregnant and breastfeeding women, hospital patients and the elderly.

By Glyn Ford 

Glyn Ford is a former member of the European Parliament and its delegation with the Korean Peninsula and author of “North Korea on the Brink; Struggle for Survival” published in English, Japanese and Korean. ― Ed.
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