Developing strategies to end hunger

The Tragedy of Preventable Hunger in North Korea

Hunger Report Monday

The North Korean government has been using ever-tougher rhetoric in recent weeks. But the less-than-panicked reactions the statements are getting from young people in neighboring South Korea suggest that North Korea’s propaganda machine just can’t seem to drum up anxiety like it used to. Even as the regime’s young Kim Jong-un spewed hyperbolic declarations of war, announced weapons tests, and threatened to sever trade ties, people 60 miles away across the border listened with only half an ear. They had other things on their minds, such as reality TV shows and the latest dining trends. If anyone has reason to be scared of North Korea, residents of South Korea certainly would be the first. But as the Washington Post’s Max Fisher pointed out this weekend, the South Korean economy, government, and now, culture, have moved on.

This is not to say, of course, that leaders in South Korea (and around the world) are or should be taking the threats lightly. But wider South Korean society now regards the North’s public pronouncements and brinksmanship tactics with more pity than fear. This shift in broader perception accompanies South Korea’s transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s to a leading developed economy today. It makes the contrast with North Korea’s widespread poverty and hunger all the more stark.

Hunger in North Korea is rampant. In 2011, 32 percent of the population didn’t always know where their next meals were coming from. Nearly one in five children was underweight, and one in three was stunted (that’s largely irreversible cognitive damage to 1/3 of children). The statistics are, sadly, amply illustrated by story after heart-wrenching story of famine, attempts to flee the country, and even cannibalism. Meanwhile, only miles away, South Korea has beaten back hunger to the level s of an industrialized country. The country was recently ranked just after the United Kingdom in food security – it’s the 21st most food secure nation in the world.

The existence of two very different Koreas is one of the strongest pieces of evidence in today’s world for Bread’s argument that hunger is not necessary. It is a choice made by national policy makers.

The 2013 Hunger Report  includes a short account of the inspiring South Korean story and the lessons it taught the world about how country-led development and true partnership work:

South Korea’s transformation from one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s to a member of the OECD by the 2000s makes it a powerful symbol of the potential impact of effective aid. For decades, the United States, Japan, and other donors provided Korea with a steady stream of financial support and equally significant assistance in capacity building. Between 1962 and 1971, for example, 7,000 Koreans received training abroad, and from this group have come many of the country’s leaders in government, business, and academia.

The South Korean government and the United States did not always agree on the conditions attached to U.S. assistance. The Korean government wanted to focus on large-scale economic infrastructure, while the United States favored building up small and medium-size enterprises. It rejected the government’s request for financing a road project to connect the main  port at Busan with the country’s major population centers, so the government spent a quarter  of the entire national budget to build the road itself. Seven years after its completion, South Korea’s national income had quadrupled. Thus, it was particularly appropriate for the December 2011 Fourth High-Level Meeting on Aid Effectiveness to be held in Busan, Korea. Busan is now one of the busiest port cities in the world, and its success demonstrates why country-led development should be more than a slogan.

Read more about South Korea’s success and its implications in Chapter 2 of the 2013 Hunger Report, Within Reach: Global Development Goals. Derek Schwabe 


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