24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Creating famine in North KoreaBy Faiza Rady
Following last Tuesday's war-vessel clash between South Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the disputed territorial waters of the Yellow Sea, which left at least 30 North Korean sailors dead, the DPRK slightly delayed a vice-ministerial meeting between the two sides that was due to take place in Beijing on Monday. The Beijing meeting, which will be the first official contact between North and South Korea since April 1998, was scheduled to discuss South Korean aid to the famine-stricken North and reunions between families separated after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Commenting on the clashes, the DPRK's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that South Korean war ships illegally entered northern territorial waters, committing acts of "armed provocation". "These were a wanton violation of the Korean armistice agreement, an open challenge to the North... intended to unleash a war," reported the KCNA.
A spokesperson at South Korea's Defence Ministry denied the charges. "It is not true our ships intruded into the North," Captain Shin Han-woo said, clarifying, however, that there might be "a possibility of misunderstanding because of the complicated border line in the sea."
In the wake of the North/South confrontation, the US 7th Fleet flexed their muscles at the communist North in a not-too subtle show of naval one-upmanship. Two American guided missile cruisers, the USS Vincennes and the USS Mobile Bay, left Japan last week, heading for South Korean waters. In addition to these formidable boats, the Clinton administration also sent two nuclear-powered submarines to South Korea's main naval base of Chinhae last Wednesday. The concerted naval presence was dispatched "to contribute to peace in the region and will stay in the area until tensions are reduced," explained Lieutenant Jeff Davis, a US 7th Fleet spokesperson.
While the US navy remained on high alert, the North and South Korean delegations prepared to resume their stalled negotiations.
Although the DPRK readily agrees to the principle of reuniting an estimated 5.5 million people separated by the 1953 armistice line demarcating the division between the Koreas, the North rejects Seoul's politicisation of much-needed aid. Pyongyang takes the position that the delivery of food and fertiliser stocks should be handled as a humanitarian issue, unconstrained by any political conditions.
The North Korean people are indeed in dire need of immediate aid. Ravaged by drought in 1996 and floods that same year and the year before, which destroyed some two million tons of grain and damaged 400,000 hectares of cropland, the country's agricultural industry is in a shambles. Pyongyang's lack of funds and consequent inability to import essential fertilisers has further compromised food production. "The stunted growth of maize has been obvious in field trips," reported Erich Weingartner, International Officer with the World Food Programme (WFP). "What is less obvious is the overheated water in rice paddies, already weakened by insufficient fertiliser."
In an effort to confront the situation, the DPRK has mobilised the people. "There has been an impressive mobilisation of the citizenry for the transplanting of a great variety of agricultural products. Unfortunately, the input of a tremendous amount of human labour cannot in itself guarantee an adequate harvest. There continues to be a serious lack of fertiliser and pesticides," reported Action by Churches Together, a US-based North Korean aid group.
While Northern media coverage has largely blamed the famine on Pyongyang's "Stalinism" and unwillingness to adapt its economic policies to the global market model, the DPRK has in fact introduced a number of important, if modest reforms to remedy the cases of most extreme duress. "[Since 1996] the Communist Party's General Secretary, Kim Jong-il, had decided to steer the country's agricultural policy in the direction already taken by China and Vietnam," commented Le Monde Diplomatique.
In effect, Kim Jong-il's most important reform was to replace the socialist egalitarian wage scale with a system of remuneration based on surplus production quotas and a system of incentives. While agricultural production collectives previously consisted of 25 workers, the new collectives were reduced to eight workers, who it was felt would be more "competitive" in smaller groups, and thus more productive. According to their capacity to go beyond the required quotas, each team could keep up to 30 per cent of their surplus production.
In addition to providing production incentives, the government also liberalised the system by authorising the collectives to sell their surplus produce. Moreover, individual farmers were allowed to establish small businesses and sell their entire crops. "Along North Korean roads, small produce shops abound... as a result of the government's decision to focus on food self-sufficiency," reported Le Monde Diplomatique.
Besides being exposed to cyclical droughts and floods, North Korea has historically been vulnerable to food shortages because of its arid mountainous hinterland. Less than one third of the country's terrain consists of fertile land.
However, over and above the damage caused by natural disasters, the five-decade-long US embargo has also severely damaged the North Korean economy. "Economic sanctions enacted at the time of the Korean War against the DPRK still prohibit all US citizens from doing business with North Koreans, including trade, investment and financial dealings, unless licensed by the concerned authorities," explained the KCNA.
Imposed on the DPRK at its creation in 1945, the ripple effects of the American embargo were severely felt by the North Korean people after China abruptly stopped exporting grain to the country precisely at the time of the 1995 floods. Following a marked increase in domestic demand, Beijing only resumed grain exports in 1996 as part of an emergency five-year aid package. Nevertheless, supplies arriving from China remained insufficient.
Since 1997, the North Korean people have faced serious conditions of famine -- receiving on average a daily ration of less than 250 grammes of grain.
Despite the famine, the US has stubbornly continued to enforce the embargo, with a few token exceptions. Although Washington and Pyongyang signed a bilateral agreement in 1994, stipulating the end of the embargo in exchange for a freeze on the DPRK's nuclear programme, the US was quick to renege on its commitment. While Pyongyang strictly followed the terms of the agreement, it took the Clinton administration three years to suspend their embargo on one single product (magnesium), and to allow one single US company -- American Telephone and Telegraph -- to operate in the country.
As in the case of other "rogue countries", like Cuba, Libya and Iraq, the US boycott also implies international economic isolation, since Washington threatens third parties with sanctions should they break the terms of the embargo. Such threats particularly apply to South Korea, a close US ally and a major American base in Northeast Asia.