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Shim Jae Hoon

Eternal Shortage

SHIM Jae Hoon

Feb. 4, 2005

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The international community is receiving yet another piece of urgent appeal for food aid to North Korea. This time, the World Food Program is seeking half a million tons of cereals worth US$200 million to help feed 6.5 million children and elderly people facing immediate starvation. Privately, international relief agency officials concede that securing this amount won't be easy, given the emergency for aiding tsunami victims in South Asia.

But surely, that's not the only reason against the North's interest. After helping feed its 23 million populace for the past ten years, the world community may be forgiven for wondering how long they should go on doing it. Essentially, the North's problem is political and structural in nature, having little directly to do with natural disasters. As a matter of fact, it was showing signs of easing in recent years, after the Stalinist regime grudgingly began recognizing some private farming plots. More than anything else, it was this policy modification, not the weather, that has helped farmers increase harvests. They have shown much more enthusiasm working on their private plots than working for collective farms.

That goes to demonstrate that the North's food shortage has been essentially man-made, that it should be blamed on the result of misguided Juche agricultural policy of the late Kim Il Sung, not on natural calamities. And yet, his equally autocratic son Kim Jong Il refuses to scrap the legacy of the party's topdown, doctrinnaire control of the farming policy, insisting on collectivization and maintaining terrace farming by chopping down the forest. (Denuding of the hills and mountains have caused additional floodings.)

Short of arable land, North Korea has seldom achieved self-sufficiency in food production ever since the imposition of communist system in 1945. It needs a minimum of 4.5 million tons of cereals - corns, maize, barley, etc. - a year to provide a subsistence level diet to its people, but has never actually matched that requirement. For decades, it managed to survive mainly on food aids from communist patrons like China and the Soviet Union , but they ended in 1990 with termination of the Cold War.

North Korea has never learned the lesson from failures of other communist countries. Indeed, it very much invited this catastrophe by placing a top priority on development of heavy industries at the expense of food production. The regime has methodically diverted resources and manpower to military purposes, effectively bankrupting itself. It should have watched how Russia and China averted this fate by reversing their course at the last minute. The North ignores it, fearing that any relaxation of control will erode the base of personality cult of the Kims. Instead, it sticks to an inefficient and mostly useless heavy industry sector for the purpose of maintaining war-footing, failing to generate enough resources to import food.

A way out of this dilemma is for Pyongyang to follow the example of China and take the party out of farm management by abolishing collectivization policy. The party's refusal to lift control over the agricultural sector has proven disastrous with the death of up to two million people in the famine of 1995-97. Those who managed to survive are running to China foraging for food.

Kim Jong Il can end this acute crisis by agreeing to restart the North-South dialogue and accepting Seoul's offer of a team of agricultural specialists who can fix his problems. Seoul has a plenty of internationally trained experts with long experiences of handling the third world agricultural issues. One or two such specialists have already gone to the North to examine the problem individually. Now the Great Leader Kim needs to swallow some pride and accept formal, institutional help from experts who can apply systematic solutions.

Seoul delivered US$250 million worth of food, fertilizers and cash last year as part of efforts to restart the dialogue process. And yet, Pyongyang rejects bilateral talks - as well as the six-party talks in Beijing -- accusing the US of trying to overthrow its regime. It claims there will be no halt in its nuclear development program unless Washington offered blanket security guarantees, including protection of the life of its tyrannical system.

Such intransigence will only prolong the North's hardships, complicating Seoul 's policy of reconciliation. The reelection of US President George W. Bush is a bad news for Pyongyang 's uncompromising position on the nuclear issue. The main theme of global political discourse over the next four years will be the ending of tyranny in Asia (Burma, North Korea) and spreading of democracy to the Middle East (Iraq and Iran). In this battlefield of ideas, Kim Jong Il is a poster-child of tyrannical dynasty ready to arm itself with nuclear weapon.

He can -- and must -- mitigate this roguish image by accepting Seoul's offer to help rehabilitate his ravaged agricultural sector with a new policy initiative. What he needs to save him is a change of position, not more handouts. In the end, this opening to the South will do more than anything he has tried so far in enhancing his chances of survival and bring his food crisis under control. Ends.

Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based columnist and political commentator. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the publications that carry his columns.
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