Tightening his belt? A relaxed looking Kim Jong Un inspects a fish-pickling factory with his wife Ri Sol Ju in South Hwanghae Province in August 2019. Photo: North Korean Central News Agency / AFP

Question: Why does North Korea belittle South Korea’s efforts to organize humanitarian food aid even as it sends a delegation to China whose apparent mission is to solicit help with what state media on Friday called the “worst drought in a century”?

Answer: Kim Jong Un welcomes food aid if it doesn’t cost him, or interfere with his grand strategy.

Hungry citizens, after all, are a low priority for him. (Read down for more on this.) But preserving the Kim family regime is his be-all goal – and Kim needs to focus the minds of South Korean and US leaders so that they’ll help him with that. He doesn’t want them distracted by do-good schemes on behalf of lesser mortals.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang doesn’t mind if the rest of the world opens its aid coffers to deal with what its spokespeople say – and international organizations agree – are very real problems of drought and food shortages.

One in five children stunted

Early seasonal drought in the North this year could exacerbate “hunger, malnutrition and health problems” for “thousands of children, pregnant and breastfeeding women” in North Korea, the International Federation of Red Cross said last week. “Even before this drought, one in five children under five years old was stunted because of poor nutrition. We are concerned that these children will not be able to cope with further stress on their bodies.”

Pyongyang’s official news agency, KCNA, reported that a delegation of North Korea’s Red Cross Society left Pyongyang for China on May 14. The news item offered no details amid speculation that the delegation was attempting to attract food aid.

North Korea’s average rain and snowfall this year fell to the lowest level in 37 years, Pyongyang’s state media said. Earlier, the UN expressed “grave concerns” about food shortages. The isolated, impoverished nation – which is under several sets of sanctions over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs – has long struggled to feed itself and has suffered chronic food shortages.

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From January to early May this year, North Korea only received 54.4 millimeters of rain or snow, the smallest amount since the same period in 1982, the state-run KCNA said, describing the situation as “an extreme drought.”

Last month, the United Nations World Food Program and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in a joint report that North Korea’s crop output last year hit the lowest level since 2008, and that an estimated 10 million people – 40% of the entire population – are in urgent need of food.

“The situation could further deteriorate during the lean season from May to September, if no proper and urgent humanitarian actions are taken,” the report said.

WFP executive director David Beasley was in Seoul earlier this week and said he is “very concerned” about the food situation in the North during his meeting with the South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul. A Unification Ministry official said it is “necessary” to send food aid to the North sometime between May and September, as recommended by the WFP report.

Still some skeptics’ doubt Pyongyang’s claims. The regime previously announced the “worst drought in a century” four years ago.

The South’s presidential Blue House has said US President Donald Trump supports Seoul’s plan to provide humanitarian food aid to the North. Seoul is currently planning to provide $8 million of food aid to the North as President Moon Jae-in seeks to salvage diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington following the collapse of the Hanoi summit.

North Korea has made clear it is unimpressed by such gestures. The South “makes a fuss that humanitarian cooperation projects …  could make a huge advance on inter-Korean relations,” said a commentary on Sunday by the North Korean publication Maeri, translated and quoted by the specialized newsletter NK News in Seoul. “This is a deception of public sentiment and a disrespectful and reasonless act against the same race.”

Maeri accused the South of “making empty specious remarks … and taking credit for it,” while ignoring the “fundamental issues” between the two Koreas. “This is ridicule against the nation’s orientation and desire to write a new history of inter-Korean relations.” Pyongyang’s wish list starts with relief from international and US-imposed nuclear sanctions, including the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, which used to house joint-venture North-South economic ventures.

The Unification ministry has decided to give a group of South Korean businessmen permission to visit the Kaesong facility – once a money spinner for Pyongyang – for the first time since it was shut down in 2016.

The political climate in South Korea has been favorable to the North under leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but that could change and the Northern leader – who counts on unification in a “confederation” as the vehicle in which his regime can survive and, he hopes, eventually  control the South – is painfully aware he doesn’t have all the time in the world to make things happen his way. Moon is two years into his five-year, non-renewable term in office.

More and more South Koreans prefer peaceful co-existence with the nuclear-armed North to reunification of the peninsula, a survey found this week. Moon regularly affirms unification as an eventual goal, but the picture in his country is far more nuanced, the survey by Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) showed. Close to 66% of South Koreans saw unification as necessary, it said, down from 70.7% last year as inter-Korean engagement and nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington stall.

And when offered an alternative, 49.5% of Southerners favored peaceful co-existence with the North with only 28.8% preferring unification, the biggest difference the survey has shown. The differences are larger among younger people, with those in their 20s having spent their adult lives living with and sometimes threatened by a nuclear North.

Class warfare – over food

Meanwhile, up north, when it comes to food, your officially determined class status – songbun – rules. A horrifying example reported by the Seoul news organization DailyNK shows how this works out in practice at one of the worst installations of the North’s gulag: No. 12 Correctional Labor Camp in Hoeryong county, North Hamgyong Province.

A DailyNK source in the province told the story this way: “A young woman who was forcibly repatriated from abroad came to the prison in a malnourished state,” she said. “She was moved to the prison cafeteria but not so she could eat something. Rather they just told her to ‘smell the food’ to give her energy. She eventually died because the authorities just didn’t care.”

“The female prisoner also suffered burns from touching a porridge pot that were so severe her skin was torn away from the bone. Despite being malnourished and suffering from a serious burn, she was unable to receive proper medical attention and died just two days later,” DailyNK reported.

That’s not an isolated anecdote. Research by Robert Collins and others has shown a high level of correlation between marginalized social status – which is formally conferred by the regime – and poor nutrition.

If you live in Pyongyang, the capital, where almost everyone is classified as loyal, you’re likely to eat reasonably well, except during the depths of the worst famines such as that of the mid-1990s. If your family was banished to the northern mountains because your great grandfather had been a landlord under the old system, your chances of good nutrition are poor. If you’re a denizen of the gulag, forget it.

– With additional reporting by AFP –

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