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Debate rages about food aid to North Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea >> The U.N. says hunger is driving some North Koreans to eat more wild grass, and humanitarians are pressuring the U.S. and South Korea to send food. But South Koreans who study the North say the crisis has been overstated.

American televangelist Franklin Graham, who has warned of famine and joined calls for more food aid, arrived in the North Korean capital Tuesday to discuss possible contributions from a Christian charity. After a visit there last month, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter blasted Washington and Seoul on the issue.

“One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and the U.S. and others to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people is really a human rights violation,” Carter said.

The U.N. in March called for more than 430,000 metric tons (474,000 tons) of food aid to fend off disaster, and activists want the U.S. and South Korea to override any political reasons for not giving. But activists, analysts and governments still argue whether North Korea is anywhere close to the famine it saw in the 1990s and what outsiders are obliged to do.

“It is an exaggeration to say there is a looming crisis,” said Kwon Tae-jin, a South Korean expert on North Korean food and agriculture.

South Korea’s intelligence agency estimates that the North’s food production may actually have increased last year to 5.11 million metric tons (5.6 million tons), about 100,000 tons more than 2009. The agency head reportedly released the figures to a closed parliamentary committee.

If the South Korean intelligence figures are correct, the difference between the North’s supply and demand is not large. Kwon, the expert on North Korean agriculture, said the North’s total need might be about 5.3 million metric tons (5.8 million tons) — some of which could come from imports.

“They won’t have a famine,” Kwon said.

In any case, figures for the North’s food production are likely to undercount the total, said the Daily NK, a Seoul-based media outlet that specializes in the North and has sources inside the country.

Many collective farms in the North underreport their food production to the central government so they can sell extra food to raise money for fertilizer and farm equipment, Daily NK said in a report posted online.

Also coloring the debate are fears that outside aid is shipped to the military and Pyongyang’s elite, not hungry citizens.

There also are suspicions Pyongyang is exaggerating shortages and seeking food donations in part so it can devote more resources to its campaign to build a prosperous society during the 2012 centennial of the birth of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.

South Korea says it will resume large-scale aid only after North Korea apologizes for last year’s deadly sinking of a South Korean warship — which Seoul blames on a North Korean torpedo — and the North’s attack on a front-line South Korean island.

The U.S. government suspended food handouts to the North in 2009 after monitors were expelled, and there are worries that any aid to North Korea could look like a reward for bad behavior.

Some observers say that even if South Korea is reluctant to send aid, the U.S. should break ranks and send food now.

If South Korea “prefers to let Koreans in the North starve, that is deeply regrettable, and the United States should at least urge them to change their policy,” Morton Abramowitz, a former U.S. ambassador now with The Century Foundation think tank, wrote last month. “If they refuse, the U.S. should abandon its support of the South on this issue.”

Looming over the debate is the shadow of a 1990s famine that saw about a million of North Korea’s 23 million people starve, as natural disasters and decades-long mismanagement devastated North Korea’s centrally controlled economy.

The U.N. report from March paints a stark picture: More than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the population, need urgent international food aid. The World Food Program said last month it is launching an emergency operation to help feed 3.5 million hungry people in North Korea.

In interviews with 122 households in both cities and the countryside, the U.N. report found that only 4 percent had acceptable food consumption levels.

It found significant levels of malnourishment, and noted that people were increasingly collecting wild grasses and other herbs for food to make up for food shortages.

But the U.N. acknowledges holes in the report, saying households interviewed were “indicative” but not necessarily representative of the whole population. The U.N. also says it relied heavily on the North Korean government for key data, including crop production, current foreign aid and food imports.

Scholars studying North Korea question the credibility of any information from its government, saying the country lacks accountability and often uses such information for propaganda.

Activists say that if food is sent and if the North allows outsiders to properly monitor it, the aid generally gets to the intended recipients.

Jeff Baron, a retired North Korea specialist at the U.S. State Department who helped monitor aid distribution in 2008, said that entire communities in North Korea often pitched in to help deliver food aid, moving bags from train stations and trucks to distribution centers.

“For the leadership to divert the food away from the community, after it had been put in place by people in the community — hungry people, by the looks of them — would have generated a great deal of local anger,” Baron said. “The anger of hungry people could have consequences.”

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