After years of famine, North Korea is predicting a bumper harvest for the first time in years, and says that is why it is ordering many foreign aid workers to leave next month. However, there are still signs that people, especially in the countryside, are not getting enough to eat.
A flight attendant on an aging Soviet-built Ilyushin 62 airplane owned by North Korea's national airline makes an announcement. She says drinks are about to be served. This would be a routine announcement anywhere else, but on this flight, passengers get an added message.
"Aside from protecting us at the front and the rear, our great leader Kim Jong Il, the benevolent father of the people, showed us mercy by filtering the water. And, in order to help and care about the health of our people, he progressively practiced appropriate measures. Now, in North Korea, the land of pure hope, the people can gracefully drink clean water through the endless love of the great leader comrade Kim Jong Il."
The announcement is a small example of how North Korea, with its Stalinist system,
has taught its people to believe that all things come from the government.
Yet for a decade, North Korea has relied on foreign aid to feed its people.
The government of leader Kim Jong Il surprised the world in the 1990's when it acknowledged a famine was occurring and appealed for international aid. Observers call it a big step for a country that prides itself on self-sufficiency.
The famine was caused in part by mismanagement and natural disasters, and in part by the country's economic collapse following the end of subsidies from the former Soviet Union and its communist allies.
Now, the Kim government is ordering a number of foreign aid workers, including some with the World Food Program, out by year's end. It says there is a bumper crop thanks in part to a mass mobilization of city dwellers who have been sent out on trucks or on foot to work the fields.
A bus carrying a small group of American journalists rumbles down a highway in southern North Korea, an area often described as the country's breadbasket. Hundreds of people are working the fields, some of which are planted all the way to the edges of hillsides. Most labor by hand.
An old tractor, with its makeshift plywood cabin, is one of the few visible pieces of
machinery. Government minders allow the bus to stop at one place where workers in ragged clothing are hunched over, picking through a harvested field, searching for leftover grains. The minders warn reporters not to present this as a typical scene that could make the world think that North Koreans are hungry. They are particularly concerned about photos taken of people they say are unwashed or are idle.
On another occasion during North Korea's tour for the American media, a woman was seen crouching in one of Pyongyang's many public parks, pulling grass and placing it onto a handkerchief. A foreign aid worker who has spent time in North Korea calls it a common scene: She says people forage the city parks for edible grasses and plants to supplement their diets. The worker says it happens even in this showcase city where the shelves appear well stocked and where only those especially loyal to the Communist Party are allowed to live.
Gerald Bourke, a U.N. World Food Program official visiting Pyongyang, says North Korean claims that the country is approaching self-sufficiency, are not true. He says 37 percent of North Korean children are chronically malnourished, while one-third of nursing mothers are undernourished or anemic. He predicts disaster if aid agencies like his are expelled.
"Certainly, with those high levels of malnutrition, if WFP were not there to provide the sort of supplementary foods, the special foods that, for example, young children need, that pregnant and nursing women need, it could be very serious because many of those people are living on the edge, a very precarious existence," said Mr. Bourke. "Food insecurity is very widespread. There is and will be a very substantial need next year and beyond."
Pyongyang says it wants aid workers who deliver emergency food rations to leave, but it asks that donor agencies continue what it calls development programs. The government, however, has not specified just what sort of programs would be allowed.
Some foreign experts suggest the main reason North Korea is expelling food aid workers is because it has recently received sharp increases in food donations from South Korea and the North's ally, China. Unlike many other donor nations, which try to monitor where aid goes under North Korean restrictions, the two countries have been delivering food largely with no conditions attached. Political analysts say this suits Pyongyang's isolationist government, which is eager to avoid outside scrutiny.
Mr. Bourke says North Korean authorities think the presence of 40 WFP foreign
staffers means too much access to real conditions in the country.
"It's a substantial presence [of foreigners] moving about the country, talking to communities, to families, visiting schools and kindergartens, asking all kinds of questions," he added. "Monitoring is a concern of the North Korean government and they have made it very clear to us that that is one of the issues for them."
The North Korean government with this year's better harvest is restarting its public distribution system now that it has grain to hand out. By again solely controlling distribution, Pyongyang will be able to maintain its carefully crafted image as a benevolent government that provides for its people.