North Korean orphans are dressed up as a foreign delegation visits their orphanage last September. The World Food Programme estimates that 6 million North Koreans need food aid and a third of children are chronically malnourished or stunted.
The specter of a North Korean rocket launch may have suspended the promise of food aid, but away from the bluff and the bluster of North Korea’s relations with the outside world one British-based charity has set about trying to resolve a mini food crisis of its own inside the reclusive northeast Asian country.
Manna Mission of Europe Ltd/Love North Korean Children, based in London, has so far built four community bakeries with the humble intention of providing 5,000-plus youngsters with one steamed bun per day. Three are said to be fully operational and meeting their targets.
But the latest, in the city of Sariwon, south of the capital, Pyongyang, has a problem: It can’t start production due to a lack of funds.
Rather than simply providing bread to North Koreans, the charity provides a seedbed to enable local communities to help themselves. Love North Korean Children, a project started in 2001, insists all ingredients are purchased in China and shipped in, ensuring that no money enters the country and that the bread produced reaches its intended recipients.
“We are running bakeries for the supply of staple food,” the organization announces in its campaign literature. “That means to provide self-help, because we do not deliver bread to North Korea. We deliver flour and employ staff in the country. Therefore a strict monitoring is guaranteed.”
The rationale, explains the South Korea-born head of the charity, George Rhee, whose father fled North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, is simple.
“Everybody in North Korea receives food supplies from the government to last three months,” Mr. Rhee says. “But people in rural areas only have food for one month. They have to go to the countryside to hunt [for] tree bark or corn. That’s why kids have to have these meals; otherwise, they wouldn’t have anything else to eat.”
There are plans for a total of 26 bakeries spread across North Korea. The charity says agreements are in place with the ruling Kim regime to acquire real estate to house the bakeries free of charge.
Koryo Tours, a British-owned, Beijing-based travel company, has thrown its weight behind the charity’s latest effort, launching an appeal to raise cash for the nascent Sariwon bakery. Estimated monthly running costs, it says, are $9,000. “We would like to raise funds to support this bakery in Sariwon. We know that every single donation goes in full directly towards the project,” the company wrote on its website.
Despite the scepticism that surrounds such dealings with the North, seasoned North Korea watchers in South Korea believe this type of project bears significant merit.
I don’t think it is possible to be against this kind of project per se, though of course I’d rather see the government perform one less rocket launch in favor of feeding these kids themselves, as would everyone else, I have no doubt,” says Chris Green, international affairs manager at Daily NK, a defector-led online newspaper covering developments on the ground inside North Korea.
“On the probability of success, I think the chances are fairly high. There are a number of bakeries doing this kind of thing in North Korea today, and as far as I know they are mostly left to do their work, with the exception of the standard bureaucratic meddling, which is normal practice in North Korea for everyone and anyone.”