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Food for Thought in North Korea

DENVER – Meet any Korean of a certain age, and you will learn about barley season, which begins in February and stretches through the cold months of early spring until the first of the winter barley crop is harvested. Few South Koreans remember those straitened months anymore, but for North Koreans, hunger in the countryside during this time of year is very real.

In past years, South Korea has been the primary external source of food, through either direct food assistance (for the immediate problem) or deliveries of fertilizer. But this year, with rising impatience and anger in South Korea toward the North Korean regime, the food and fertilizer is in doubt. And some analysts in Seoul believe that a dicey political succession in Pyongyang, combined with food shortages in the countryside, could prove too much for the North Korean regime to handle.

The past 12 months have seen some of the most outrageous North Korean behavior in decades. In March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean ship on the high seas, killing 46 sailors – and sinking any prospect of an early resumption of negotiations to implement the North Korea’s 2005 commitment to eliminate all its nuclear programs. North Korean invective and provocation against the South continued, and in November its military shelled a South Korean-held island along the northern limit line, which has served as the North-South border since the 1953 armistice.

More recently, the regime proudly unveiled a modern, high-tech uranium-enrichment facility. According to the American scientist who was invited to see it, the facility, in contrast to the regime’s aging plutonium technology, appeared to be state-of-the-art, thus reinforcing the suspicion that North Korea has no genuine interest whatsoever in fulfilling its nuclear-disarmament responsibilities. When asked why they failed to include this facility in their declaration of nuclear programs, North Korean officials responded cheerfully – and absurdly – that it had been built from scratch only after the collapse of the nuclear negotiations in 2008.