Clifford Coonan: A leader who imports his own chefs in a time of famine

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Reports of ground tree bark, noodles made from twigs and grass, and outbreaks of dysentery and other diseases, have abounded from North Korea during its famines and food shortages of recent years, but making more out of less has been a long-term theme in the secretive Stalinist enclave.

One of the most startling tales from the past few years of North Korean history concerned the North's leader Kim Jong-il bringing in Italian pizza chefs while his people foraged for scraps of food and relied on donations from South Korea and China.

At times, the situation has been worse than "mere" hunger. The North Korean famine of 1995-98 took the lives of approximately a million people and inflicted terrible suffering on those who survived. And many analysts, especially in the southern part of the peninsula, believe that Kim perpetuated the misery as a deliberate political act.

Since then, the North has relied on overseas aid to help feed its people.

Even though its regular famines mean that it is in a position of weakness when negotiating food assistance, Pyongyang has generally imposed conditions on the supply of food aid that seem astonishing, even as donations have dwindled amid international concern over its missile and nuclear programmes. In March 2009, US food aid was suspended after the North rejected a proposal to increase the number of Korean-speaking monitors, whose role was to ensure aid reached the general public and was not diverted to the military or the regime.

Over the years, foreign governments, especially the United States, have been irritated by reports from witnesses of food for sale in private markets in World Food Programme (WFP) bags. Also, many would-be donors have baulked at donating to the WFP because they fear that their donations of rice would end up being given to the country's massive military. The WFP has always denied that this happens, but it has been a tough mantle to shake off.

These food crises have a tendency to escalate. North Korea confirmed this week that it has been hit by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which has killed thousands of animals.

The highly infectious livestock disease broke out in the capital, Pyongyang, late last year and has spread to eight provinces since, infecting about 10,000 cows and pigs, and leaving thousands of them dead or dying.

Depending on Kim's success in begging for supplies it could soon be his people dying of hunger in their masses, again.

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