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The World Food Programme -one of the UN humanitarian agencies- announced over a year ago, exactly on January 19, 2004, through its representative in Beijing, Gerald Bourke, that it was forced to interrupt North Korea’s food aid programme at that time [1].

Two million seven hundred thousand North Korean women and children -the neediest people that were benefited by the programme- had no food aid during the 2003-2004 Winter (December, January and February) as a result of the lack of international donations. The United States and Japan -main donors within the WFP- didn’t contribute the necessary financing.

Médecins Sans Frontières stands against the World Food Programme

A few days after that, the media echoed the criticism of several organizations that denounced the aid. According to them, the aid did not benefit the people but the dictator’s regime in that country. On December 30, 2003, the French newspaper, Libération, published an article entitled: “North Korea: a dictatorship that receives international transfusions” that echoed the criticism of the NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières, against the World Food Programme. «We know the food situation is serious and that it even tends to worsen», Sophie Delaunay, of MSF, explained, and she added: «But we also know that 25% of its population is considered hostile to the Government, and has never received an aid ration. We have asked the refugees within the vulnerable groups, whether they are Chinese or North Korean, and they have never received anything from the international community».

Christiane Berthiaume, spokesman of the WFP, headquartered in the UN premises in Geneva, Switzerland, was then asking without disguising his displeasure: «What do we have to do? Do we have to watch on television programmes children starve to death and remain seated because the distribution system is not perfect?»

There are more than 2 million children under 7 who face the threat of undernourishment and 420 000 breast-feeding and pregnant women. Should we then remain with our arms crossed? Christiane Berthiaume is wrong about one thing: famine in Korea is not shown on TV. On the other hand, the French newspaper, Libération underlined the Médecins Sans Frontières statement [2], pointing out that despite the aid, «three million people died of starvation over the last few years».

Famine killed from three to five million people in North Korea from 1993 to 1998

This number of deaths due to starvation is from... 1998. The different estimates ranged then from 2.3 million -estimate given by a commission of US Senators- to 3 million -estimate given by different NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations)- or 4.5 million, -estimate given by Philippe Biberson, president of the WFP- at a presentation on famine in North Korea, made in the headquarters of said association, in July 1998, before representatives of all French humanitarian organizations interested in this issue. The highest figure was then given by the Korean Buddhist Sharing Movement (KBSM): 5 million deaths, a figure that was estimated by KBSM researchers, taking into account a lot of interviews made to refugees (over 1.200). Five years have elapsed since then, but nobody has provided a revised or checked estimation. Even the number of 3 million deaths that was consensually given at that time, is hardly or rarely remembered, as we are doing now.

For many years, before publishing these data, they did not give any number because they refused to accept the prevalence of famine. Year after year, the statements of international agencies or docile NGOs only referred to the “threat of famine”. People know today that this “prudence” in assessing the seriousness of the crisis responded to a political need of the US State Department, which could precisely use the food weapon as a means to exert pressure on the regime.

If the prevalence of famine was admitted, an unconditional aid was then required, thus eliminating this powerful means of pressure. In order not to hurt the sensitivity of US diplomats, the international community had accepted to remain silent about the worst famine outbreak of our time and one of the worst ever.

This is known very well and in depth today. In 1997, Andrew Natsios was the first person to speak about the two million deaths; in his paper entitled The Great North Korean Famine, published at the end of 2001, he described the situation very accurately. Natsios is not a simple expert on this issue but a person who works right in the middle of the US administration since Reagan’s term. Natsios was interested in the issue of famine while his party was involved in the political opposition; those were the years of Clinton and of Democrats who were in power. He was then managing the World Vision NGO. Natsios is a member of the Republican party, and has returned to a job in Georges W. Bush’s Administration, and he is currently managing USAID.

This governmental agency is implementing today a policy worse than the one denounced by Natsios when he was a member of the opposition ... The Bush administration does not refer to North Korea as a mere communist regime but as a rogue State, as a member of the «Axle of Evil» [3], that must be overthrown before it uses its “weapons of mass destruction” [4].

However, Natsios’ book is not only the most comprehensive description of this famine that has been depicted to date, but also and excellent work, due to the clarity and quality of the documents it contains. We already know why the prevalence of famine was denied. For the North Koreans, admitting the scope of this catastrophe meant to accept the failure of a system, which needed support from Russia and China to survive until these two countries withdrew their assistance in the early 90’s.

For the Americans, it was easier to price the food aid during the negotiations with Pyongyang, and for that purpose it was better to have deaths. On the contrary, if deaths were acknowledged it would have been necessary to accept the aid as something mandatory. Helping a strategic enemy ... What a nightmare!

The US uses the food weapon

When, due to the macabre counting of deaths, the prevalence of famine had to be admitted, there was no other choice but to send some food aid. The US administration was explicit by choosing the minimum food aid variant, thus keeping in store the possibility to provide a full aid to use it as a weapon in the negotiations with Pyongyang.

The international aid sent to North Korea has always been conceived to target only certain population sectors, “children under seven and pregnant women”, and it excludes the rest of the sectors. Since the very inception of the programme, children above seven, men and breast-feeding women have not been taken into account to receive this international aid.

Therefore, the aid that must come to an end next winter has always been partial, according to the way in which it was defined. A few programmes called “food for work” have been implemented over the last few years and only some tens of thousands of workers above seven were able to access such programmes that were eliminated some months ago.

To topple the North Korean regime, Richard Perle and David Frum suggested in their last book [5] -on behalf of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney- to demand an immediate disarmament of the country and to use the expected refusal of that proposal by Pyongyang as an excuse to establish a blockade (to use the food weapon), and even to deploy troops to invade the North Korean territory through the demarcation line.

Should people die of starvation for the regime to be overthrown?

Today, several humanitarian organizations in fact justify the use of the food weapon by the United States with a focus on statements relating to the inefficient distribution of the food aid by the Pyongyang regime. For instance, Médecins Sans Frontières has fairly enough denounced that the Koreans classified as “hostile to the regime” are the least benefited by the aid.

However, this unfair distribution of the aid is nothing new. Andrew Natsios has described that the aid distribution system required the classification of people according to categories, each of which received different types of ration. The lowest category receives nothing. Certainly, those who express their “hostility” take the chance of being affected more expeditiously.

On the other hand, the role model citizens are rewarded with “luxurious” rations -more than twice the amount of a minimum ration. Reportedly, the capital city residents, for instance, are considered privileged citizens because all of them receive at least the minimum ration. Therefore, a new form of living has been discovered in the city; it is a clear example of a totalitarianism in which the “bad” citizens are expelled and the “good” ones are invited to live in the city. Living in the city means to be entitled to eat...

It is understandable that Médecins Sans Frontières denounces this. What cannot be understood is the fact that this humanitarian organization does not admit that it all results from the insufficiency of the aid. Can anyone think that, in the face of a serious shortage, an authoritarian State is going to do anything different than benefiting those that support the regime? The outstanding militaries in the border receive more than double rations, like the most privileged political cadres.

International silence vis-á-vis the famine

The risk of returning to the highest levels of famine, like in 1997, is serious. This is proved by several factors such as the current withdrawal of the World Food Programme.

Likewise, the Korean economy is reportedly facing serious difficulties as a whole again, especially since the United States imposed a new embargo on oil. The tractors cannot work without oil, thus resulting in adverse effects on the crops. Even the pasta processing plants, which were built with international aid to cope with the crisis, have not received the necessary raw material over the last few months.

At the same time, the flow of refugees seems to gain strength. There are seemingly more than 200.000 refugees in Russia and many more in China. However, it is very hard to figure out the exact number of refugees because they are forced to hide among the local population to escape from the Chinese policy that chase them to turn them in to the Korean police, which send them to specific types of camps -very different from the political camps, where prisoners die massively and whose inmate population is constantly renewed despite that. In the best case scenario, they are convicted to stay in the camps for several months. The governor of the neighboring Russian region -eager to take advantage of this exodus- even urges the Korean citizens to emigrate.

Today, January 17, 2005, more than a year has passed since the Associated Press published its press release on the withdrawal of the World Food Programme from North Korea, and nobody has echoed that news. However, during all this time many press releases about North Korea as a nuclear power and a threat to the global peace have been published. In a real war of press releases, Pyongyang said that it was willing to cease its nuclear production.

Washington then reacted by saying that Pyongyang admitted therefore that it had a plutonium production. This press release disseminated by Washington was broadcast by AFP (Agence France Presse) as “urgent”. Only a few press agencies with small audiences have broadcast that, on the other side of the world, famine is a threat and is killing people at this very moment.

[1] «Le PAM contraint de supprimer l’aide alimentaire à 2,7 millions de Nord-Coréens», Associated Press, Beijing, January 19, 2004

[2] see Les États-Unis provoquent la Corée du Nord by Roh Yoo-Jeong, Réseau Voltaire, January 17, 2003

[3] See: «Les États-Unis provoquent la Corée du Nord» text in French, by Roh Yoo-Jeong, Red Voltaire, January 17, 2003

[4] Although North Korea has several programmes to manufacture weapons in a long term, South Korea doubts the existence of such weapons of mass destruction and China denies it, in spite of the fact that they are neighboring countries

[5] «Le programme des faucons pour 2004» text in French, Red Voltaire, January 4, 2004