North Korea Trapped in a Corner?
A combination of high global agricultural prices, flood damage and dry weather has put North Korea in a precarious position, reports the Hankyoreh:
North Korea’s agricultural production fell by 11 percent last year, after it was hit by floods in August. The country has also been in the grip of a new drought that, with little rainfall registered, is destroying crops. On March 4, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported that abnormal weather conditions this winter have made it difficult for farmers to grow wheat and barley. “This winter, there were abnormal weather conditions that haven’t been seen in the past,” the North’s official news agency said. In particular, no rainfall was registered in Pyongyang, Pyeongseong and Sariwon in January.
The World Food Program estimates that North Korea’s food shortages will reach 1.4 million tons this year. That volume can feed six million people a year. Soaring prices of agricultural products overseas are also weighing on the North’s food shortages. Kwon Tae-jin, a senior researcher with the South’s Korea Rural Economic Institute, said, “North Korea must spend more on grain imports as international grain prices have surged and shipping rates have risen by two or three times.”
As international grain prices jumped, the Chinese government began introducing quota and tariff systems on its exports of major grains to stabilize grain prices at home. These measures have placed a financial burden on South Korean aid groups, which have traditionally sent corn and soybeans to North Korea after having purchased them in China. “Since last year, it has been difficult to buy soybeans in China even with cash,” said an official at the South Korean aid group Okedongmu. “While our budget for soybean purchases is limited, the pace of the increase in grain prices is too steep,” the official said.
Kwon said, “Aid groups say the extent of this year’s food shortages in North Korea could be similar to that of the mid-1990s, when widespread famine caused many to die. The Lee Myung-bak administration needs to take a flexible attitude toward humanitarian aid for North Korea, including food and fertilizer,” the researcher said.
At the same time, the Chosun Ilbo reports an upsurge in hostile rhetoric from the North. Could this be a cry for attention from Kim and company? According to Chosun’s analysis, we may soon witness a return to the pre-sunshine days, as North Korean leaders find themselves with no recourse other than hostile action:
Pundits predict that inter-Korean relations will come to some kind of watershed between late March and mid-April. Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University, said, “Variables will be North Korea’s (annual) request for rice and chemical fertilizer, the six-party nuclear talks, the general election in South Korea slated for April, and the Seoul-Washington summit.” The North will then make a final decision on its South Korea policy depending on the results, he added.
The worst-case scenario, from the North’s point of view, would be that the new administration wins an overwhelming victory in the general election and Seoul-Washington ties are further consolidated at a time when the U.S.-North Korea conflict continues over the North’s failure to declare its nuclear programs and stockpiles.
A South Korean intelligence officer said, “The North is resorting to a method of heightening crisis on a step-by-step basis. If it’s driven into a corner, it seems likely that the North will take provocative action in the West Sea.” But other experts say things can still change, given that North Korea has not yet attacked Lee by name.
A government official said the new administration “has already clarified that it will continue humanitarian aid, including rice and fertilizer, to the North as before. But we won’t be dragged along (by the North) as the previous governments were.”