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While all the attention is focused on North Korea's nuclear issues, Bae Young-Hwan from the Korean Women's News reports on a grassroots, women-led campaign to provide practical assistance and to build bridges between North and South.

Rice to the starving people of North Korea!

According to the South Korean government's estimate, the amount of food needed to feed the North Korean population for the grain financial year of 2003 (November 2002 - October 2003) is 6.32 million tons, up 60 thousand tons from last year. North Korea's total production of grain this year, however, is only 4.13 million tons. Even with the 510 thousand tons provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the 250 thousand tons provided by the South Korean government, the hunger stricken country is still short of about 1.43 million tons.

According to experts, the three million residents of North Korea, having gone without food aid since autumn last year,are in immediate need of 80 thousand tons of grain. But it is obvious that inter-national society, currently embroiled in the North Korean nuclear drama, will not be rushing in to provide the much-needed food aid. Even South Korean aid can-not be taken for granted in these times.

The UN special envoy Mori Strong has visited Pyongyang to discuss ways to overcome North Korea's “humanitarian crisis” with the country's officials.

Government announcements suggest that South Korea's rice reserves from 2001 amount to 9.89 million seom (a little over 50 million bushels). The estimate as of the end of last year is about 10 million seom. This means that South Korea has plenty of rice left, even after sending 3million seom to the North in the second half of last year. This is the result of decades of production increase policies. It costs some 50 billion Won a year to store all this rice. On top of that, negotiations over rice imports have restarted at the WTO, fully exposing South Korea's market to rice imports. The Minimum Market Access volume for rice is going to increase sharply from this year.

Mutual aid

Farmers have long proposed that the surplus rice be sent to North Korea instead of being left to rot in the South, a proposal that they believe would bring all-round benefits. The starving North Koreans will have food to survive on, while the South Korean farmers will be justly rewarded for their labour instead of suffering chronic losses from plunging prices due to the large reserve of rice.

The government, however, has been stingy in sending rice to the North. The process of deciding to send 3 million seom of rice in the past was a chaotic ordeal, with opposition party members accusing the government of sending rice to “feed the North Korean army”.

The Women's News proposes a campaign to send surplus rice to North Korea, as an effort to rectify the irrational situation where millions in the North are starving for want of rice while the South Korean public is having a headache over more rice than it knows what to do with.

Farmers' associations such as the Korea Farmers' League (president Chung HyunChan) and the Korean Advanced Farmers' Federation (president Seo Jeong Hee)have been leading a campaign to send surplus rice to the North since last year. Encouraged by this, the government sent three million seom of rice to the North in the second half of last year in the form of a loan, but this falls far short of dealing with the surplus left in South Korea.

In the current situation where North Korea and the US are locked in confrontation over nuclear issues, what little food aid that the US is providing is in danger of being cut off. It is expected that the food aid provided by international organisations such as the WFP will also shrink, due to pressure from the political clout-wielding US.

Support in spite of disputes

Recent visitors to North Korea say that the people feel that receiving rice from the South is the most realistic kind of help they need, as well as the least injurious to their pride. Taking this into account, civic groups involved in aiding the North and women's groups leading the peace movement have geared up to launch a campaign to offer humanitarian aid to the North once more.

The Association of Civic Groups for Inter-Korean Co-operation held its New Year meeting on 15 January to discuss ways to provide aid to North Korea this year.

Participants agreed that “in these times when North Korea's nuclear developments have isolated it from international society and inter-Korean relations are at a standstill, the biggest victims are none other than the people of North Korea.” They resolved to “continue with aid to the North regardless of nuclear disputes”. And since North Korea is expected to face worse food shortages than last year, the participants also agreed to step up publicity to highlight the gravity of the situation while raising funds. Realising peace Women's groups have also prepared for this year's peace and reunification movement in the same vein. At its two-day general meeting held in early January, the Korea Women's Association United (KWAU, co-representative Lee Oh Kyung-Sook) adopted “activities to prevent crisis and realise peace on the Korean peninsula” as one of KWAU's core tasks for this year. With the goal of strengthening women's capacity in preventing crisis and realising peace on the Korean peninsula and of propagating a feminist peace movement, KWAU is planning to carry out such activities as calling for food aid to be sent to North Korea and beefing up peace and reunification education among WAU's member groups.

KWAU is also planning activities to maintain the current standard of humanitarian aid to North Korea, and an international anti-war campaign by women to stop war threats propelled by US unilateralism.

Women take the lead

Regarding such steps, representative Lee Kim Hyun-Sook of the Women Making Peace group says, “It is a timely campaign and a very welcome development in the current situation on the Korean peninsula. I hope that the campaign initiated by The Women's News will revive the public's concern for North Korea and help to expand the scope of the feminist movement, which is currently concentrated only on women's issues.”

Says representative Lee Kim, “It is the common opinion of international experts that North Korea is once again facing a serious food crisis. The weak, such as children, pregnant women and the elderly,are facing even greater suffering. It is most urgent that we call the public's attention to these facts.”

Adds Lee Kim, “Sending surplus rice to the North is a campaign that not only benefits both Koreas, but also holds great appeal for the public. We will be able to achieve great results if women take the lead in this campaign.”

Article translated by by Cho Eung-Jo
The Women's News is an alternative newspaper, published weekly in Korea in a 32-page modified tabloid form, with a readership of 98,000 people and 11 provincial branches. It also has correspondents in the United States, Canada, Italy, France, Japan, and the Philippines. See http://www.womennews.co.kr/ewnews/eabout.htm for more information.

Bae Young-Hwan is a correspondent for the Women's News

Topics: Women | Peacemaking