14. U.S. Media Ignores Humanitarian Aspects of Famine in Korea

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Sources: PEACE REVIEW, June 1999 Title: “Famine in North Korea” Author: Ramsay Liem; PEACE REVIEW, June 1999, Title: “Dangerous Communists, Inscrutable Orientals, Starving Masses,” Author: Yuh Ji-Yeon

Faculty Evaluator: Les Adler, Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Damian Uriarte & Julie O’Conner

The U.S. media used the Korean famine for political propaganda and has failed to cover the huge disaster from a humanitarian perspective. The U.S. media provided only minor coverage of the devastation even though people are suffering severe malnutrition.

A humanitarian food crisis of staggering proportions has been developing in North Korea, yet nowhere has there been an outcry like the one fueled by media worldwide for Ethiopia. Instead, the media chooses to focus on the implication of the threat posed by North Korea as they continue their nuclear testing.

The German Red Cross estimates two million deaths in 1997 due to starvation, the South Korean Buddhists Sharing Movement reported an estimated three million deaths, and the New York Council of Foreign Affairs reported an estimate of one million North Korean deaths due to famine. In May of 1996, the Canadian Food Grains report predicted that the North Korean grain supply had been damaged four times more severely than Ethiopian agriculture during the height of that country’s famine in the mid-1980s. As the critical threshold is reached, and some believe it already has been, mortality from famine and famine related diseases will be unprecedented.

North Korea’s entire population shares the deprivation because North Korea’s Public Distribution System tries to insure a relatively equal distribution of food. Twenty-three million lives are threatened at once, yet no headlines report these figures. Instead, U.S. media talk about the danger of food relief being given to the North Korean Military instead of the people and the general failure of the Communist political system.

Author Yuk Ji-Yeon writes that North Korea (with whom the U.S. is still technically at war) is still seen as the enemy. While millions of people are starving, the media blames the Communist leaders and ignores the human suffering that is taking place. The media also promote the notion that a proud North Korea refuses aid, rather than focusing on the fact that the U.S. isn’t offering much.

UNICEF is actively working in North Korea, surveying 171 of 210 counties, and monitoring food aid distribution from the World Food Program (WFP), an arm of the United Nations. The WFP program’s food aid to North Korea is, however, meeting only 50 percent of the need. Meanwhile, the U.S., the food basket of the world, contributes little.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR RAMSEY LIEM: Tragically, hunger in North Korea continues to be an important, if untold, story. Over the half-decade of acute food shortage, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Koreans have perished and countless others have been ravished by illness and malnutrition. Accurate statistics on the human costs of this crisis are not available.

Predictably, donor fatigue has been an increasing problem and the U.N. World Food Program has warned repeatedly that failure to respond by the international community threatens long-term suffering in North Korea even if domestic food supplies increase. For example, children who are severely malnourished can experience permanent retardation of their physical and psychological development threatening the loss of an entire generation of young adults.

Fortunately, improved weather conditions during the past year have contributed to improved prospects for food production, and current estimates are that 4.8 of the 6.5 million metric tons of grain needed to feed the population will be produced this year. Although the long-term recovery of North Korean agricultural output is beginning to look more favorable, international aid continues to be vital. Now more than ever, humanitarian aid offers the promise of longer term food security coupled with support for agricultural rehabilitation and the introduction of new varieties of crops and farming methods.

To achieve these objectives, however, the persistent marginalizing and demonizing of North Korea by the United States and her Western allies must end. The most immediate, concrete expression of such a change in policy toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would be to end all economic sanctions against North Korea and develop full diplomatic relations based on mutual respect and recognition of one another’s sovereignty. While the Clinton Administration has at times shown an inclination to follow this path, Republican hard-liners in the House and Senate have repeatedly attacked the White House for “appeasing” North Korea and sought to undermine the negotiation process. Americans who wish to end the Cold War with North Korea and adopt a truly humanitarian stance toward the food crisis in that country must oppose this mean spirited and self-serving saber rattling.

Coverage of the food crisis in North Korea by the mainstream press was nonexistent during the first two years of shortages (1995-96), and ranged from curiosity to Korea-bashing in 1997 and 1998. Yet coverage has returned once again to virtually total neglect during the past year. The reality of hunger in that country has been replaced by speculation about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile capabilities in the very limited coverage of North Korea in the U.S. press.

INFORMATION SOURCES FOR THE FOOD CRISIS IN NORTH KOREA: United Nations, NYC-World Food Program (principal coordinator of international food relief in North Korea); United Nations Development Program (UNDP): the UNDP has developed a join proposal with the full partnership of the DPRK for mid-term agricultural rehabilitation.

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Philadelphia, PA-Asia Desk: the AFSC has the longest relationship with Korea, north and south, of all NGOs in the United States; they were the first group in the U.S. to initiate food relief programs for North Korea when news of potential famine became public in early 1996.

Institute for Strategic Planning: This Washington, D.C.-based organization of Korean Americans has been supporting food relief programs in North Korea for three years and holding policy briefings in the D.C. area with government officials directly engaged in negotiations with the DPRK.