The Internet Campaign to Help North Korean Flood Victims


As North Korea's 23 million people, many of them innocent women and malnourished children, face an imminent famine, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Food Program (WFP) have issued emergency appeals for international aid. Putting politics aside and reacting to the humanitarian instinct that one must respond to an SOS and not allow people to die, the United States last month pledged $10 million and even South Korea, $6 million for emergency food aid.

Japan heretofore resisted giving food aid to avoid displeasing its South Korean ally which hoped a famine would speed North Korea's collapse. But through U.S. nudging, South Korea is now pitching in. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright officially asked Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto on her recent visit to Japan, to join in providing food to the North, but the Japanese government remains adamant in resisting her appeal. This time Japan cites the kidnappings of Japanese nationals several decades ago as the reason.

At the end of World War II Japan faced a similar famine and would not have survived if the United States, a recent enemy, had not sent in hundreds of thousands of tons of emergency food. The situation had become so dire that Japanese were stealing food from each other. The indescribable feeling of hunger that many Japanese experienced is forgotten after the country made its remarkable economic recovery and enjoys its present prosperity.

The Japanese government, which prides itself in being the world's largest ODA donor, cites the kidnappings as a valid reason for ignoring the suffering of North Korea's starving civilians even though they neither know of nor had anything to do with such alleged crimes. Japan's reasoning is comparable to not providing food to concentration camp victims in Nazi-Germany, had the opportunity existed, because of Hitler's atrocities. One's antipathy toward a regime should not be a factor in punishing suffering people who happen to inhabit a country in whose policies they have no say.

Japan might demand instead a monitoring device to assure the food goes to civilians. By providing me rice at the international price, or as a donation, such fair distribution is assured. All my donated rice is personally supervised by me and distributed directly by me to the hungry.

The United States has traditionally followed a humanitarian approach, such as feeding Ethiopia's starving population when the nation was ruled by a hard-line Communist regime and shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of grain to the Soviet Union when it had a crop shortage at the height of the Cold War. Today the people of both countries, living under different systems, have not forgotten America's humanitarian spirit. Such magnanimity would elevate Japan's image as well. Switzerland's image "as the most admired country in the world," on the other hand has become tainted following disclosure of its selfish pseudo neutrality in World War II, when it enriched itself at the expense of the fortunes left in its banks by the Holocaust victims and for secretly laundering Nazi money. Swiss descendents of this questionable policy are now paying the heavy price of shame for their parents' actions. Does Japan want to invite a similar problem for itself: an image that it is a country insensitive to the suffering of others? A nation that sits on mountains of rotting rice which could save lives but is unwilling to release it to feed the hungry?

Japan has a growing rice surplus it will never be able to consume. Its laws also prohibit the commercial foreign sale of such surplus rice. The only choice it has, if it wished, is to donate such rice to NGOs or to needy nations, such as North Korea at this moment, or to eventually destroy it. The increasing cost of storing this rice which may eventually be destroyed, is becoming astronomical.

At present Japan has 3 million tons of domestic surplus rice stored in some 300 storage location around the country. Besides its domestically-produced stored rice, Japan signed WTO agreements a few years ago with principally four countries which forces it to import foreign rice, much of which is not palatable to Japanese taste and is therefore rotting in the warehouses. These imports began two years ago after Japan experienced a temporary rice shortage, but despite the shortage the Japanese did not take well to this rice. The imports however must continue because of the agreement.

In 1995 Japan thus imported 400,000 tons of foreign rice, last year this grew to 480,000 tons and in the year 2000 it will rise to 800,000 tons. New storage facilities will have to be created because much of this rice is not purchased by Japanese consumers nor permitted to be sold abroad.

It's like someone hoarding and stocking their house full of food which they can never consume yet not selling nor giving it to their neighbors who are starving.

Imported rice comes four major countries:

45 percent from the U.S.
25 percent from Thailand
20 percent from Australia
7 percent from China
3 percent from others

Japanese domestically-grown rice is very expensive because farmers are heavily subsidized. Japanese farmers sell their rice to the government at one ton for 270,000 yen. The government in turn sells it to dealers at 300,000 yen per ton and the consumer pays the rice store 5,000 yen per 10 kilo or 500,000 per ton.

Vietnamese (35 percent broken) rice, for example is much cheaper. One can export such rice today from Vietnam at only $272 per ton or 21,300 yen, less than one tenth the cost of imported rice in Japan. Thai rice is just slightly more.

The Japanese government also imports rice at those low prices but to protect Japanese rice, jacks up the retail price to around 200,000 yen a ton which is a ten-fold markup. Although there is now a 30,000 ton surplus of Thai rice which no one wants nor will ever buy, and which is rotting in warehouses, Japan will not release it either as a donation to North Korea or for purchase at its purchased value to an NGO like ourselves who would distribute it directly to starving civilians, including malnourished children.

Japanese law does permit the export of rice for humanitarian donations, such as ourselves, but will neither donate it nor sell it at the price it purchased it for, therefore such "humanitarian" exports remain academic.

Last year Japan purchased 120,000 tons of Thai rice. It was only able to resell 90,000 tons domestically to senbei (rice cracker) makers. Hardly any consumer bought the rice as it is not tasteful. The starving masses in North Korea, whose rations were reduced from 900 grams after the 1995 floods to 450 and are down now to below subsistence 100, would gladly receive such rice which is rotting in Japan's warehouses.

I had reserved space for 100 tons of such rice (for free passage from Niigata to Nampo) on the Mangyongbong, leaving April 2 on the assumption from a Japanese dealer that such rice could be procured from him for 20,000 yen a ton, close to the purchase price in Thailand. However this price turned out to be tenfold what I was initially promised and I had to abandon the idea of bringing surplus rice from Japan to North Korea.

However, I still tried to get the Japanese government to help out but hit a stone wall. I met with a high Foreign Ministry official in the Asia division who explained the government would not, for the time being, follow the U.S. and South Korean decision to provide emergency food aid to North Korea because of "the delicate political situation" (i.e., the kidnappings). I responded that Japan also might reflect on the lengthy cruel occupation of Korea and forced slavery of the comfort women. Let bygones be bygones. It is time to face a current crisis as people die with insufficient food that Japan is able to provide. Its an occasion to show magnanimity. Besides, actions by the North Korean government should not be a reason for letting innocent people starve who played no role and were unknowing of such acts.

Meetings with officials of the Food Agency at the Ministry of Agriculture provided some sympathy toward my project and elicited valuable information, i.e.: that Japanese law permitted the export of its surplus rice if purchased in small quantities for humanitarian aid and if I obtained a letter from the North Korean government certifying this was not a commercial transaction. (The official said Japan would not, however, release such surplus rice to the World Food program campaign for North Korea because it would invite claims, he predicted, from the U.S. Trade Representative for dumping Japan's surplus rice which could then hurt the trade opportunities of U.S. farmers!)

A small amount, he said could be exported by someone like me (at an astronomical price, however) if I obtained such a letter from Pyongyang. I did, by fax, within one day after requesting it but before I learned the price was ten-fold of what I had been led to believe by the rice dealer.

A sharp inquiry by a Kyodo reporter (Ishii) to the Food Agency regarding my plan to export rice from Japan to North Korea suddenly seemed to harden the Ministry's attitude. Government officials said they did not know when Japan's policy would change nor could they identify for me where the decision-making power lay.

I then tried to see whether Nokkyo, the powerful agricultural cooperative, which once sent rice to North Korea, was willing either to sell me surplus rice it had on hand or might get from farmers (who keep some rice for themselves). Alternatively I asked if Nokkyo was willing to cooperate in letting farmers donate rice at collection points in the farm areas, if I issued an appeal through the media, and I would then ship it to Niigata at my expense. The Nokkyo official was very polite but indicated the "current political climate" was "not favorable" toward such a project. I asked why Nokkyo couldn't cooperate with me on totally humanitarian grounds, to avoid a famine in a nearby country. The official replied there were many countries in the world short of food and it would be "unfair to help one and not the others."

I understand the decision to modify this rigid rice policy lies outside the bureaucracy. It rests with the majority Liberal Democratic party and its most powerful figure, Taku Yamazaki, chairman of the party's policy affairs research council. I requested to meet Mr. Yamazaki through an intermediary but had not received a response before leaving on a ten-day trip to the U.S. on March 9. I hope between now and March 19, when I return to Japan, somehow a miracle will occur and I will be able to load 100 tons of surplus rice from Japan which could feed 7,500 people for one month; rice that I would deliver personally to hungry civilians in the flood affected areas. Meanwhile I have ordered 200 tons from Vietnam at $272 a ton that will leave Vietnam for North Korea at the end of March.

--- Bernard Krisher (March 9, 1997)

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