DPRK

North Koreans dread spring lean season

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With the spring lean season on hand, which they lament as a hardship more dreadful than robbers and more inhospitable than thieves, North Koreans these days are more and more concerned about what to eat. The farm hardship period, which has long been forgotten in the South, begins in the North in March.

Food rations have long been suspended in border cities such as Hyesan, Yanggang Province; Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province; and Musan, North Hamgyong Province and provincial cities, according to Chinese-Koreans who have recently been to North Korea. But important corporations like the Kim Chaek Integrated Steel Mill in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, and Musan Mine continue to get food rations enough to last between 10 and 15 days a month. Rations continue at special cities like the capital Pyongyang and Pyongsong, a nearby science town; so are agencies of influence like the State Security Agency, the Ministry of People's Security (the police) and party organizations. Military units enjoy the best food rations, which are never stopped, and the rice-cereal crop ratio is said to have improved from 3:7 to 5:5 in recent months.

Despite the miserable state of the food rations, it is said, few starve to death nowadays as was the case several years ago, and the so-called kotchebi (orphaned children) or "fluttering sparrows" have plummeted in number on the streets. Citizens no longer rely on food rations. If given, they are appreciated; if not, they still manage somehow. The biggest factor contributing to the virtual disappearance of starvation is a substantial increase in "patch farming." Faced with suspended rations, citizens who merely stamp their attendance at their workplaces and then rush to their patches are rapidly increasing, as no one stops them.

Most people who are unable to engage in small business risk their lives on farming patches of fields, cultivated near their homes or in the mountains, according to a North Korean who escaped to China early this year. Patch tilling that used to be a sideline has now become one's principal occupation and few households exist that do not have patches of fields. Residents who cultivate large-size patches produce food sufficient enough to sustain themselves and their families for a year. In addition, they raise livestock such as pigs, goats and dogs to supplement their livelihood. Some produce bean curd from soybean grown in their patches, and sell it in the market and buy food with the proceeds.

Marketplaces offer food at any time; some is brought from China; but most is incessantly diverted from relief items supplied by foreign agencies. If one has money, he or she can buy anything in the markets, but the situation could get worse during the lean season. The worst farm hardship period sets in March and ends in early May when crops sprout.

The World Food Program estimated North Korea's crop harvest last year at 3.54 million tons, 1.47 million short of this year's total estimated demand of 5.01 million tons. The Ministry of Unification and other public agencies in the South meanwhile estimate the North's food shortages this year at a larger figure of 2.31 million tons, with the total demand estimated at 6.26 million tons and total harvest at 3.95 million tons.

The WFP has appealed to the world community to donate 611,000 tons of grains, worth US$215 million, for relief purposes to North Korea this year. But only two countries; South Korea and the United States; have pledged to provide 100,000 tons and 105,000 tons, respectively, as of early March, a third of the target. Even if the 200,000 tons of grains Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin was reported to have committed to offer the North when he visited Pyongyang in September last year are added, the food aid promised will still fall short of the target.

(Kim Kwang-in, kki@chosun.com)