Asia's Other Crisis
Haggard, Stephan, Nol, Marcus, Newsweek International
Famine looms--not just in Burma but also North Korea. And the U.N. has only made matters worse.
A devastating disaster hits a longstanding Asian dictatorship. The crisis is compounded by failed economic policies and conflicts with neighbors. The world stands ready to help, but the regime dithers and aid goes undelivered. Even information on the catastrophe is scarce thanks to a media blackout, government propaganda and denial.
This story applies, of course, to Burma. But North Korea is also headed toward widespread food shortages and famine. Hunger-related deaths are nearly inevitable, on a scale that could rival Burma's.
Most of the food consumed in North Korea today is produced locally, but since 2005, harvests have been shrinking due to retrograde policies, adverse weather and a fertilizer shortage. The fertilizer is normally supplied gratis by Seoul but was cut in 2006 in response to Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests. Aid, likewise, has dwindled as donors have soured on North Korean behavior. Global price rises have squeezed North Korea's ability to import. With grain supplies declining, the margins between minimum needs and supply are down to 100,000 metric tons--enough to last less than two weeks.
We believe the U.N. has unwittingly contributed to this budding crisis by crying wolf in the past. The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program build their estimates on the assumption that North Koreans need at least 460 grams of grain a day to survive, a figure that we find is inflated by about 20 percent. Adjusted for historical consumption patterns in the country and the actual role of grain in the North Korean diet, which is supplemented by potatoes, beans and other vegetables, one sees that the WFP has consistently overestimated the urgency of the food shortages there. Right now, the WFP says North Korea is short by about 1.67 million metric tons, which would mean famine conditions. Our estimate of the shortage--100,000 tons--means the real crisis is about to begin. The U.N. system's repeated invocations of a much larger gap have lulled people into a sense that North Korea is always short, and have obscured the actual conditions. …