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Food shortage not hurting North Korean government

store 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 hands together.

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.

hungry

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 intact.

kimil

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 control.

"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 Korean Affairs.

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.

entertainment

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 entertainment.

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 now.

Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.

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