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North Korea Revives Central Control Over Food Distribution

North Korea is taking certain staple food items out of its private markets, intending to distribute them through its central rationing system. International aid organizations warn that system is in disarray after a decade of severe food shortages, and say the change could lead to further malnutrition among the people.

North Korean authorities say they are reviving the Public Distribution System, or PDS, for decades the central government mechanism for feeding North Koreans. Richard Ragan, Director of the United Nations World Food Program office in Pyongyang, calls that "a monumental task."

"You're trying to revitalize a system that has largely fallen into disarray over the last decade," he explained. "To do that requires investment, it requires fully functioning logistics throughout the country… I mean, it's going to be difficult to start up."

Mr. Ragan says the PDS infrastructure has severely withered since 1995, when the World Food Program, or WFP, began distributing emergency food aid, and getting it up and running again will take time. North Korea recently ordered the WFP to end that aid by January, citing a good harvest and its receipt of food from "other sources." Pyongyang also ordered most other international aid groups to leave the country.

Experts are debating the possible motivations of Pyongyang's actions, but they agree that reducing current international emergency food programs increases the regime's political control by reducing international monitoring. They also say strengthening the PDS could tame food prices, which have skyrocketed since North Korea introduced limited private enterprise in 2002.

Ruediger Frank, a visiting North Korea expert at Seoul's Korea University, points out that Pyongyang has only closed down a small segment of the private markets, while such items as manufactured consumer goods continue to be sold there. He says just a few years of buying and selling have already created private vested interests, and Pyongyang may feel this threatens its iron-fisted central control.

"And it's a good question whether these vested interests have already grown big enough to effectively prevent the government from closing them down altogether," he said. "Or, whether the government realized that if it doesn't close them down now, it may have missed its chance."

The WFP's Mr. Ragan says Pyongyang's decision may have been prompted by no-strings-attached transfers of food from China and South Korea. The WFP and other international donors have demanded the right to monitor their food shipments, to make sure they go to North Korea's neediest citizens and not the country's party and military elites. By expelling foreign aid workers and limiting the WFP's role, outside monitoring will be severely reduced.

Mr. Ragan says the WFP still has a major role to play in the North, even though its main task will be called development aid instead of emergency food aid.

The unanswered question, he says, is whether North Korea's rationing system can actually feed its already malnourished people in the coming years.