Food shortage not hurting North Korean government
September 16, 1996
Web posted at: 10:15 p.m. EDT (0215 GMT)
RAJIN-SONBONG, North Korea (CNN) -- By North Korean
standards, the thin people with pinched faces who crowd into
a shop in Rajin-Sonbong are in pretty good shape. They are
in the northeastern region's free trade zone, where food
imported from China is readily available.
By contrast, North Koreans in much of the country are
surviving on about a total of 200 grams of rice or corn per
day. You could hold that amount of food by cupping your
Hunger is a fact of life in North Korea, which is weathering
its worst food crisis in decades. The isolationist country
depends upon its annual rice harvest to feed its people but
severe flooding wiped out both the 1995 crops and much of the
1996 harvest. The problem is so severe that even normally
reticent officials will openly admit the problem.
"It is true, we are suffering food shortages owing to the
natural disasters which fell upon us for three successive
years. Now we are determined to solve the food shortage
problem by importing food grain. We are pinning our hopes on
international assistance like the United Nations food program
and others," said Kim Jong U, a member of North Korea's
Committee on External Economic Relations.
The scale of the crisis confronting international relief
agencies is enormous. Aid workers say some people are eating
shoots, roots and grass to survive.
But in contrast to some of the most alarmist reports, the
great majority of North Koreans are somehow surviving. The
notion of mass starvation here appears vastly exaggerated.
"It is a case where the food consumption goes down gradually.
As a result, the people who are dying aren't people dying
from straight-out lack of food but from being susceptible to
disease because of the decreased calories in their diet,"
said Gordon Flake of the Korea Economic Institute of America.
Observers in the country call the crisis a silent famine,
caused as much by the chronic weakness of North Korea's
state-run economy -- especially the agricultural sector -- as
by any natural disasters.
Kim Jong Il holding tight rein on country
The food crisis has generated widespread speculation that
North Korea may be on the brink of collapse. However weak
the economy though, the country's political system appears
Despite the many questions surrounding North Korea's
reclusive leader Kim Jong Il, who took over after his father,
Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, there is a growing consensus among
North Korea watchers that the younger Kim is firmly in
"There remains a question as to when he will assume certain
titles the outside world is expecting him to assume, namely
that of the presidency of the nation and general
secretaryship of the Korean Workers Party. But in the
meantime, he's very much in charge of matters," said Anthony
Namkung, head of the Seton Hall (University) Project on
Kim presides over a society that, for all its deprivation,
remains both highly disciplined and tightly controlled,
partly because the central government is able to control the
information its people get, and where they go, said Flake.
As a result, the government has "an ability to withstand much
more than any other regime would be able to. Harsh though it
is, the people in the high mountain villages ... if they die,
they die. But that would not impact the stability of the
regime as a whole," he said.
Indeed, the food crisis did not deter the government from
permitting several thousand residents of Rajin-Sonbong to
gather in the town's main square for a free afternoon's
For most of these citizens, it was a welcome break from the
bleakness of their daily lives. Tough and stoic, the North
Koreans long ago learned to tolerate harsh and Spartan
conditions. There is little indication that, faced with new
and even greater deprivation, they will react any differently
Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.
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