Floods deepen misery of last Stalinists

The looming famine in North Korea could drive its leaders to the negotiating table, writes Teresa Poole in Peking

During the Korean War, hungry North Koreans used to forage for Chok, a deep root which could be dried and cut up for food. Nearly half a century later, United Nations aid officials, who have been operating out of Pyongyang, say some North Koreans are once again relying on roots and wild grasses to stave off hunger. Taeli, an edible grass, is gathered by work teams, and Wat, another wild plant, is used for salad, medicine, and soup, said Trevor Page, who last week finished six months heading the UN World Food Programme's (WFP) office in Pyongyang. "They mix the wild foods with whatever rice and maize they do get," he explained.

Earlier this month, the WFP put out a "special alert" that the food situation in North Korea was becoming critical following recent cuts in official grain rations. Mr Page described the scene in parts of the countryside: "We saw groups of 100 or so people foraging in the middle of nowhere. It was an organised work unit, going out on a Sunday ... On top of that, in every town, groups of 20 to 100 people, mainly women, stand around with little things for sale, like cigarettes, matches, ballpoint pens, notebooks, scarves and beancakes." Illegal trading like this is one of the few ways to raise money to buy food sold unofficially by farmers.

Much uncertainty, and some scepticism, remains in the international community about the extent of the food shortages in the world's most secretive country. Aid agencies are not, for instance, provided with details of North Korea's national food stocks, or the army's supplies. But they have been given access to rural areas normally out of bounds to Western visitors.

Mr Page said: "The food shortages are really severe and widespread." Other relief officials echoed his view. "The situation is deteriorating and that is very obvious because the lean period is from now up to the next harvest, which is October," said Kathi Zellweger, of Caritas Hong Kong.

North Korea's shrinking economy was further hit by floods last summer which have left 100,000 people still homeless and 40,000 hectares of farmland unusable. So how is the population of the world's last Stalinist regime reacting to the threat of starvation? "There is a very definite anxiety among people. They are not getting enough of the basics," Mr Page said.

Official food rations have virtually halved since December, and some people are receiving as little as 250g a day. A couple of times, WFP food aid trucks were mistakenly directed to the wrong destinations, and local villagers were aghast when the vehicles turned around to leave without unloading. "They were haranguing and harassing the [North Korean] officials," said Mr Page. But he stressed that he had not heard of any breakdown in public order. "We have not seen any food riots or heard of any. Dissatisfaction with the government? No, you just do not hear that ... They believe in their system and want to preserve it.".

The next few months could be critical; North Korea has no money to import food commercially, and foreign aid has tapered off. "We are trying to prevent a catastrophe occurring," Mr Page said.

According to him, hillside trees have been cut down and bartered with Chinese companies for food. WFP estimates that 150,000 tonnes of food a year is coming in across the Chinese border in exchange for timber, scrap metal, mineral water, shellfish, human hair and rabbit skins. Factories, most of which have stopped working because of fuel shortages, are being stripped for scrap metal which can be bartered, he said.

Reliable information about the true food situation in North Korea is crucial, not only to decisions about humanitarian aid, but also to United States attempts to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

President Bill Clinton last month proposed four-party talks between the US, China and the two Koreas to seek a permanent peace on the peninsula. Yesterday, the US congressman Bill Richardson arrived in Pyongyang to see if he could persuade North Korean leaders to support the initiative. While the US awaits a response, its food aid to North Korea is in effect on hold. The debate among analysts is whether looming famine will force North Korea to negotiate, or whether it could perhaps prompt the Stalinist country to attack South Korea in a last desperate showdown. At a meeting earlier this month, the US, South Korea, and Japan held out the carrot of significant economic aid, if Pyongyang agreed to the talks.

The unpredictability of the situation was demonstrated last Thursday when North Korean ships briefly encroached into South Korean waters, and a North Korean Air Force pilot made a daring defection to Seoul. It was the first defection of a pilot since 1983, and a big intelligence coup.

Meanwhile, the South Korean public was amazed as the state of the pilot's underwear and what that suggested about North Korea's economic woes. He did not have proper socks and was wearing jogging trousers under his flight suit to keep warm at high altitudes.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Robert De Niro has walked off the set of Edge of Darkness
news The Godfather Part II actor has an estimated wealth of over $200m
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Robbie Savage will not face a driving ban
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries were putting themselves at risk of tinnitus and, in extreme cases, irreversible hearing loss
health Nearly half of all young people in middle and high income countries are at risk of tinnitus
It was only when he left his post Tony Blair's director of communications that Alastair Campbell has published books
people The most notorious spin doctor in UK politics has reinvented himself
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in ‘I Am Michael’
filmJustin Kelly's latest film tells the story of a man who 'healed' his homosexuality and turned to God
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower