The legwork being put in by North Korea’s overseas diplomatic missions and even some of its high-ranking Pyongyang functionaries in pursuit of food aid is a source of ongoing interest for North Korea watchers. However, the answer to the question of what is behind the effort seems no nearer to being revealed.
Some suspect that the North Korean regime hopes to build up its reserves, either to placate the military or in preparation for 2012, when it hopes to be able to feed the people in a way befitting a strong and prosperous state. However, others believe that the situation in the country is actually very serious, and that aid should be provided as a matter of urgency.
Among the latter group are a number of international organizations, including the World Food Programme (WFP), which took a team incorporating the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to research the issue in North Korea between February 21st and March 11th. The resultant report, citing excess rain, a cold winter and foot-and-mouth disease as causes, predicted a food shortfall in North Korea this year of more than a million tons, and called for the urgent injection of 400,000 tons of grain to feed six million of the most vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Choi Tae Bok, the chair of the Supreme People's Assembly, is said to have requested food aid during a visit to the United Kingdom last week, stating, "The next two months are a crisis time." Reporting the visit, Britain’s Financial Times cited a diplomatic source in reporting that 20% of North Korean citizens are suffering from malnutrition and that North Korea had requested 100,000 tons of food aid from the European Union, while The Guardian, another British daily, reported that Britain’s Foreign Office had received a request for food aid from the North Korean embassy in London.
North Korea allegedly also made a similar proposal to the Polish authorities through its embassy in Warsaw, offering coal in exchange. The offer was apparently rejected.
"In Europe, North Korea is demanding that rice support be given instead of aid programs. Because North Korea is stubbornly demanding rice only, there seems to be a difference of opinion with those nations," one source in Seoul commented.
North Korea has also requested aid from China, but this time corn, not rice. The North Korean Consulate General in Shenyang is allegedly on assignment to obtain 5,000 tons of corn from the authorities in the three Northeast Chinese provinces and ethnic Korean businessmen living in the area.
Regarding the reason why North Korea is pushing for food aid, Dr. Jung Gwang Min, an expert on the North Korean economy added, "North Korea can take the credit by giving rice to its citizens. However, it appears that they cannot afford to purchase the rice due to increasing international cereal prices."
In any case, while some suggest that North Korea's food situation is being exaggerated, others believe that North Korea is really in a more difficult position than in other years.
Like many, Dr. Jung, is unsure. Talking with The Daily NK, he explained, "We cannot ignore the possibility that North Korea's call for food is to build reserves for the strong and prosperous state in 2012; however, the sight of North Korea requesting food aid from the international community to the present extent can be seen as reflecting the urgent situation within the country."
However, the opposing idea is that North Korea's purpose is to build its reserves, which could then be utilized on strong and prosperous state projects in 2012; if true, it would mean that any supplies would be directly aiding the stabilization of the Kim Jong Eun succession.
Kim himself is said to have told a meeting in Pyongyang last November, "We need to recover the people’s economy to the level of the 1960~1970s within 3 years and bring the standard of living up to 'eating white rice with beef soup and living in a tile-roofed house wearing silk clothes,” Kim Il Sung’s famous objectives for the wellbeing of the people.
It may not be necessary to reach that level of success in reality, but, in order to acquire legitimacy as the successor, Kim Jong Eun will most certainly have to avoid precipitating starvation on the scale of the mid- to late-90s. North Korea has already paraded Kim Jong Eun's achievements on the military stage, but now there is also the necessity to provide achievements in the economic realm.