Q+A - Why is hungry North Korea refusing U.S. food aid?

SEOUL Wed Mar 18, 2009 2:57pm IST

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SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea, which suffers from chronic food shortages and where some people are believed to be on the brink of starvation, has rejected food aid from the United States, the U.S. State Department said.

Following are some questions and answers on why Pyongyang might be doing this.

WHY REFUSE FOOD?

The secretive and impoverished state is deeply uncomfortable with foreign aid workers heading deep into its countryside, seeing them as potential spies or troublemakers. It has long sought to have the aid brought to central points and do the distribution itself. The United States and the U.N. World Food Programme want full control over distribution to make sure the food reaches the most vulnerable and is not, as some suspect, diverted to the military.

The current timing is especially sensitive, coming during joint military exercises by U.S. and South Korean troops which the North says are preparations for invasion. And early next month, Pyongyang plans to launch a long-range rocket it says is for communications purposes but which the United States says is to test a weapon that can reach its territory.

Refusal of aid by the government, under a policy of self-reliance, could play well at home for leader Kim Jong-il. Kim may feel the need to demonstrate his leadership after reportedly suffering a stroke last August and is thought to be laying the groundwork for succession by one of his sons.

HOW SERIOUS IS THE FOOD SHORTAGE?

Even the best harvests fall 20 percent short of the basic food needs of the population of 23 million. During the 1990s, up to a million people are thought to have died from famine and even then the North spurned some food aid.

South Korea's Unification Ministry estimates that the food shortage there this year will be about 1.2 million tonnes.

The United Nations said in a report in December that the shortage for the year ending October 2009 will be about 836,000 tonnes, putting 8.7 million people or nearly 40 percent of the population in urgent need of food assistance.

WHO ELSE COULD PROVIDE AID?

South Korea was for years a major source of food, providing up to half a million tonnes of rice a year and about 300,000 tonnes of fertiliser for spring planting. But that has dried up under the year-old conservative government in Seoul, which has demanded the North mend its ways in return for aid.

And Pyongyang has so far recoiled from the offer by the South's President Lee Myung-bak to discuss aid if the North makes a formal request. That, say analysts, would be a step too far for a government which paints itself as the legitimate leader of all Korea and could not be seen to beg for help from a government in the South it publicly describes as traitorous.

WHAT CAN THE NORTH DO ABOUT THE PROBLEM?

North Korea periodically pledges to rebuild its faltering economy and improve the quality of life for its people. It has set a 2012 target to make itself a "great, prosperous and powerful nation" that is self-sufficient in feeding, clothing and housing its people.

In an editorial at the start of the New Year on the persistent food shortages, state media suggested "improving the seed, doing double cropping and boosting potato and soya bean output and promot(ing) material and technological assistance to the rural community".

Experts in the South said the isolated state, which has seen its economy decline into dire poverty, simply does not have the means to boost production significantly and cannot but rely on aid to avert mass starvation.

It will have to open up to international agencies and South Korean farm experts to help set up a sustainable agricultural production base, they say.

Neighbouring China, the one major country the North considers an ally, does provide aid but does not publicise any details.

(Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun)

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