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Missiles, Mickey Mouse, and North Korea

PYONGYANG: The most predicable thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. One day last week saw the son of its “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il arrested while entering Japan on a false passport (supposedly to take his son to Tokyo’s Disneyland), the next day brought a promise to maintain its moratorium on missile testing until 2003 as well as continue sales of missile technologies to countries like Iran. But there is a second, unchanging element in North Korean affairs: its basket-case economy.

One million people may have died in the North Korean famine of 1995 to 1997. Now the World Food Program fears that another famine is looming – the country’s agricultural output will likely fall to 1.8 million tons of grain, far short of the 4.8 million tons needed to supply the meagre ration of 7ounces a day (half the daily allowance for those in UN refugee camps) ordinary North Koreans receive. Making matters worse, national food stocks ran out in January and South Korean food aid will run out this month.

While the World Food Programme feeds North Korea's six million children, 17 million adults must fend for themselves. (A "military first" programme ensures diverts most supplies to North Korea’s huge standing army and bureaucracy.) To survive, many North Koreans forage for edible roots and leaves and make soups from cabbage stalks and vegetable waste. Those who survive will be more malnourished than ever, and the percent of children whose growth is stunted will increase from today’s two thirds.

North Korea’s next mini-harvest is not due until late June. But that harvest will not even be as good as last year’s abysmal one. At the same time, South Korea will reduce the amount of fertiliser it provides for rice planting from 300,000 tons to 200,000 tons. But even that reduced level of aid was disputed by people in Seoul, who argued that conditions on improved North/South relations needed to be attached.