[Seri column]Lives need to be saved in the North

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[Seri column]Lives need to be saved in the North

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South Korean workers load rice for North Korea into a Vietnamese ship at Gunsan port, south of Seoul, on June 30, 2007. [AP]

According to recent rumors, a kilogram of rice is selling for 1,700 KPW (North Korean won, about $10) in markets in the North, a sharp departure from the normal 1,000 won price tag. Some are saying the price even exceeds 2,000 won in some areas bordering China. Besides the spiking prices, complaints about the food supply have been widespread. There has been speculation that rice reserved for the military would be released. However, it appears that will not happen this year, suggesting that the communist nation’s stock of food is insufficient or unavailable due to uncertainties over inter-Korean relations and the nuclear issue. In short, it seems like the calm before the storm, reminding us of massive deaths from hunger in the mid-1990s.
A triple whammy is strangling the food supply of the reclusive North. First, food prices are surging worldwide, raising the costs of imports. In addition, China is imposing tariffs on food shipments. Individuals who arrange most of the Chinese shipments are hard-pressed to cope and the supply is withering. Second, Pyongyang’s all-out crackdown on corruption is affecting supplies at rural private markets which emerged during the mid-1990s famine. The markets were allowed to deal with a limited quantity and thus they have been beset with corruption and irregularities. Third, international assistance, including from the South, remains uncertain. This means food rations will be suspended.
Recently, some progress has been made between North Korea and the United States regarding the North’s nuclear declaration, with the prospect that U.S. food aid may resume. But this may not happen because of disputes over monitoring requirements.
Generally the North has relied on international aid each year in the spring and its own agricultural output the rest of the time. Major flooding reduced output by 10 percent in both 2006 and 2007. This suggests a strained supply this year. If North Korea were a normal state, it would seek foreign assistance, but unfortunately, it is far from normal. It holds out until the end and reluctantly asks for help when circumstances become dire.
Still, South Korea should not come forward to help before Pyongyang requests it. The South should no longer be swayed by the North’s reckless resistance. Meanwhile, North Koreans will continue to suffer. The despot of North Korea seems to negotiate with the outside world while taking his people hostage.
South Korea’s new administration must find the answer. Responding to what its northern neighbor does is not enough. Even now, North Koreans are struggling against starvation. And Pyongyang is fully responsible for it. However, doing nothing is also not immune from criticism, and the critical time for delivering food and fertilizer aid is coming.
To resolve the dilemma, the North should first officially ask the South for help. Though the North is not in anarchy, it is in a helpless condition. Even so, Pyongyang doesn’t have to feel humiliated. Pride does not count when people are living in misery.
As for South Korea, it should change the way it thinks about aid to North Korea. So far, the South has provided fertilizer as a grant and food as a loan. Let’s now negotiate to provide fertilizer as a loan. Unlike food aid, it is not urgent because it will affect agricultural output in the latter half of the year. In other words, when there is a request, provide fertilizer and demand the equivalent from the North.
But as for food, provide it unconditionally. This is a humanitarian issue and therefore attaching conditions makes aid meaningless. Still, we can demand stronger monitoring requirements. Last year, the North refused an offer from international organizations, bristling at excessive monitoring requirements. In that case, it is difficult to give aid. And in either case, the South can offer aid only when Pyongyang makes a request.
At the same time, an international alliance needs to be created. That means, in case of a North Korean food emergency, the South needs to take the lead in building solidarity with the United States, Japan, China and other neighboring countries to collectively provide humanitarian aid.
And aid should follow international rules. Preparations should be strengthened to extend assistance through international bodies such as the World Food Programme.
No matter how adamantly the North denies or uses this issue politically, thorough preparedness is necessary because there’s a chance of massive starvation. But there can be no compromise when the regime tries to take advantage of the issue politically. In accordance with those principles, humanitarian aid can be given. Last but not least, the most urgent need is to save people’s lives.

*The writer is a research fellow in the Global Studies Department at Samsung Economic Research Institute (www.seriworld.org).

by Dong Yong-sueng
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