Putting hunger before ideology, the communist government of North Korea asked its leading capitalist neighbor, Japan, for emergency rice supplies Friday.
A visiting North Korean delegation told Japanese political leaders that the 22 million people of North Korea will face serious food shortages again this year unless Japan and other countries increase their shipments of food and other aid.
Li Song Rok, chairman of North Korea’s Trade Promotion Committee, disclosed the shortages in a meeting with officials of the three parties in Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s coalition government. “North Korea is facing grain shortages due to bad weather,” he was quoted as saying.
Japanese officials said it would be “difficult” to provide rice to North Korea until Tokyo and Pyongyang can negotiate normalization of their relations - a process that is going nowhere at the moment. Further, Japan currently is a rice importer, making it harder for Tokyo to export domestic grain.
In this context, the Japanese answer of “difficult” actually constitutes a very firm “no.”
North Korean leaders, after standing proudly for decades on their self-proclaimed watchword “juche,” or self-reliance, in recent years have openly admitted that the largely agricultural nation cannot feed itself.
South Korea’s government says North Korean rice production last year totaled about 1.5 million tons, 40 percent below subsistence levels. The North is said to be importing rice from Thailand, China and South Korea.
The United States reportedly has sent surplus corn this spring as part of a broader arrangement designed to get North Korea to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program. The United States also has shipped fuel oil, another commodity badly needed in the North.
For two years, travelers have reported increasing hunger around the nation. The government reportedly has posted signs saying “Let’s Eat Two Meals Per Day, Not Three!”
Travelers have said the shortage of food has led to riots in some localities.