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[Op-Ed] White Boiled Rice

Posted April. 15, 2009 03:02,   


In North Korea, the term “clothing-food-housing” is used as “food-clothing-housing.” Still, the North has failed to resolve its chronic food shortage, its most serious problem during its “March of Pain” in the mid-1990s. It is hard to imagine the real situation back then since sources say as many as three million people starved to death. The starvation stems in part from international sanctions on the North resulting from its attempt to develop nuclear weapons and from natural disasters. The fundamental cause, however, lies in the failure of the North’s political, economic and social systems. North Koreans are not lazier or less smart than South Koreans. The food shortage in the North appeared to be easing thanks to food aid from the United Nations, the United States and South Korea, but began worsening again in 2007.

North Korean defectors who settled in the South classify social classes in the North according to the food served on a table. The upper class enjoys boiled rice, meat, fruit, squid and ice cream for dinner, while the middle class get boiled rice but no other side dishes. The lower class mostly eats other grains. Even in the North Korean military, the centerpiece of the communist regime, the term “strongly undernourished fellow” is the latest buzzword, demonstrating how serious the food situation is in the North.

Lower class families who eat corn, potatoes and noodles are relatively better off than those in extreme poverty. Nearly half of the North’s population is close to being extremely poor who must find foodstuffs for lunch right after eating breakfast and for dinner soon after having lunch. The most representative food for these people is “artificial meat” that is served as feed for pigs. Artificial meat is a noodle made of paste stemming from bean shells produced in a tofu factory. The “March of Pain” started in 1994, when the first North Korean nuclear crisis erupted due to the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. The North’s 2006 nuclear test was a major cause of aggravated food shortages in 2007 and last year.

Pyongyang spent 300 million U.S. dollars to launch the Taepodong-2 April 5. This amount could have bought one million tons of food for the North’s starving population. The late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung would say, “The government should enable the people to eat boiled rice and meat soup, wear silk clothes, and live in traditional tile-roofed houses.” For the North to realize this, it should have focused on feeding its population rather than developing nuclear weapons or missiles. The Washington Post said North Korean teenagers who fled the North weep due to a sense of guilt when eating boiled rice. Doing so brings to mind the families they left behind in the North. The person who should feel the most guilt is none other than North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. He alone enjoys sumptuous food yet calls for a strong military country.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)