Ostrich Alley: where a hungry North Korea sticks its head in the sand

An ostrich farm in Sunan shows the farce and tragedy of North Korea: farce because the birds are ill-suited to their new home and have to wear jackets in winter, tragedy because the country cannot properly feeds its rural masses.

Two ostriches sit together inside a pen at a large ostrich farm outside of Pyongyang. A bold and expensive investment, the farm has ended up making little difference in North Korea’s perennial food shortage.
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SUNAN, NORTH KOREA // It is an unlikely sight: hundreds of ostriches, a bird native to sunny Africa, squatting and squabbling in the morning chill on a sprawling farm in North Korea. Even stranger: in winter, some wear quilted vests.

Built on the heels of a 1990s famine, the ostrich farm was a bold, expensive investment that the state hoped would help feed its people and provide goods to export. Years later, ostrich meat is the speciality at some of Pyongyang's finest restaurants but appears out of the reach of millions of hungry North Koreans.

The showcase farm is an idiosyncratic approach to one of the biggest issues confronting North Korea: food.

North Korea's food shortage has reached a crisis point this year, aid workers say, largely because of shocks to the agricultural sector, including torrential rain and the coldest winter in 60 years. Six million North Koreans are living "on a knife edge" and will go hungry without immediate food aid, the World Food Programme said, calling in April for Dh822 million in emergency aid.

North Korean officials have made quiet pleas for help in the face of rising global food prices, shortfalls in fertiliser and the winter freeze that killed their wheat harvest. In return, they agreed to strict monitoring conditions - a rare concession.

South Korean aid lorries loaded with flour crossed the border yesterday for the first time since last year.

The shipment followed a ceremony attended by about 30 people from the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, a Seoul-based civic group, at the Imjingak tourist site near the border.

"We hope our humanitarian aid will lead to fresh inter-Korean ties," the council head Kim Deog-ryong told reporters as 12 lorries carrying a total of 300 tonnes of flour headed for Sariwon, North Korea.

The council said it would send about 2,500 tonnes of flour including yesterday's shipment by the end of next month if it won approval from the Seoul government, which must by law approve all cross-border contacts.

However, other donations have not been flooding a nation considered a political pariah for its nuclear defiance and human-rights abuses. The European Union is pitching in €10 million (Dh53m), enough to feed one-tenth of the hungry until the October harvest. The United States has not said whether it will provide aid.

Sceptics suspect officials are stockpiling food for gift baskets to be distributed during next year's celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the late president Kim Il-sung's birth. Others wonder whether the distribution of food can be monitored closely enough to ensure it gets to the hungry, not the military and power brokers in Pyongyang.

As the political debate continues, aid workers say shelves are bare and stomachs empty outside Pyongyang. And the question of how to feed the North Korean people remains unanswered.

In Pyongyang, food appears plentiful, with pavement vendors doing brisk business selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts, ice cream bars and griddle-fried pancakes. Those with cash can splurge on hamburgers and pizza.

But aid workers say the food shortage is very real in poor provinces far from the comparatively prosperous capital city.

"It's now very common to see people with little wicker baskets or plastic bags collecting whatever is edible" - even roots, grasses and herbs, said Katharina Zellweger, the Pyongyang-based North Korea country director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

A whole generation of children is not getting the well-rounded diets needed to develop mentally and physically, she said. Unicef estimates a third of North Korean children suffer malnutrition and are showing signs of stunted growth.

"In the residential childcare centres, I did see more severely malnourished children than I've seen in a long time," said Ms Zellweger, who has been based in the country for years.

Kim Il-sung founded the nation on a policy of juche, or self-reliance, and made it his creed that the people would eat "rice and meat soup". But the loss of Soviet aid, followed by natural disasters and a famine that killed up to a million people, forced North Korea to stretch out its hand for help in the mid-1990s.

This nation has never had it easy when it comes to agriculture.

Rugged mountains blanket much of North Korea, leaving less than a fifth of the land suitable for farming. Winters are long and harsh, weather conditions volatile.

For decades, North Koreans have planted just one crop, such as the Napa cabbage used to make the ubiquitous spicy side dish, kimchi. They have also pumped pesticides into land that was already acidic, destroying the soil and cutting into the yield, foreign agronomists say.

Across the countryside, huge swaths of forest have been cut down, leaving no protective cover. Every bit of land is tilled and farmed, even the scrabbly, rocky hillsides and the narrow strips of grass along the motorway.

With fuel scarce, most farmers rely on oxen. But foot-and-mouth disease has decimated cattle stocks over the past year, according to the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency.

North Korea, population 24 million with an annual per capita income of Dh6,600, has the manpower but lacks the economic and natural resources to succeed at farming, said Kim Young-hoon from the Korea Rural Economic Institute in Seoul. He said North Korea continues to pursue new ways to stimulate the agricultural sector but cannot fund its ambitious projects.

An estimated third of citizens live on about 3,000 farming cooperatives. The countryside is dotted with clusters of cottages that are complete little villages, with nursery schools, clinics and fluttering banners urging farmers to help to build the economy.

At the Taedonggang fruit farm, an ambitiously large cooperative on the outskirts of Pyongyang, cottages with bright blue roofs house about 500 families, each home equipped with a television set on the orders of the national leader Kim Jong-il, according to Kim Mi-hye, 20, an employee at the farm.

Fledgling apple trees stretch as far as the eye can see. After farmers planted nearly 380,000 apple trees in 2009, the 600-hectare cooperative has since begun raising pigs and cultivating bees for honey, Ms Kim, the farmworker, said. The farm is aiming for a harvest of 30,000 tonnes of fruit next year, she said.

Nevertheless, the farming cooperatives do not yield enough food to fulfil the late president's promise of rice and meat soup on every table.

For a decade, South Korea helped to fill the gap with aid and trade. But yesterday's shipment was the first since the president, Lee Myung-bak, stopped nearly all cooperation with the North last year after a torpedo attack on a warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors.

As a result, North Korean exports to South Korea dropped from an average Dh150m a month during the first half of 2010 to an average Dh3.8m a month so far in 2011, according to the Korea Development Institute in Seoul.

The steep loss of income comes at a time of rising global food prices.

With rations dwindling, many North Koreans buy their own food through entrepreneurial means or barter, said Stephan Haggard, a professor at the University of San Diego in the US who studies the North Korean economy.

Other people grow what they can in communal gardens. The worst off are those living in the smaller cities in North Korea's impoverished, remote north-east, who do not have the means or connections to supplement their diminishing rations.

Even as the hunger worsens, the state appears determined to rally national pride at home. A performance at Kim Il-sung Plaza attended by Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un last October depicted dancing ostriches and fish leaping out of a rollicking sea - home-grown resources the North Koreans hope will augment the country's food supply.

And then there are those ostriches.

Immaculate and organised, the ostrich farm in the Pyongyang suburb of Sunan sits on rolling hills with verdant landscaping, thanks to the 560,000 trees planted on what was once bare ground. Kim Jong-il ordered the gawky birds to be imported from Africa at Dh38,000 a pop in the late 1990s, said Kim Jin-ok, a guide giving a private tour.

Ostriches are native to warm climates and North Korea is brutally cold in winter. They animals are still wild at heart, temperamental, feisty and sensitive to noise, the guide said.

"When we brought them from Africa, it was winter and so cold, so we made jackets for them to wear," Ms Kim recalled with an embarrassed laugh.

Today, 10,000 ostriches are grouped in pens that line a long road dubbed Ostrich Alley. State-of-the-art equipment, including a gleaming Dh4m dismembering machine and sausage maker, was imported from France and Italy.

Kim Jong-il so loves to stroll around the farm, surveying Ostrich Alley from a hilltop perch, that he has made more than 70 visits over the years, the guide said.

"The appeal of ostriches is that nothing is wasted," Ms Kim said. She showed off goods for sale and on display in a small shop on the farm grounds: sausages lined up like cigars, high heels and men's loafers, wallets and purses, feather dusters and painted eggs on carved wooden stands.

A South Korean professor who studies the North's agriculture dismissed the farm as a "show" and said ostriches are no solution to hunger in North Korea.

"Ostriches are rich in protein. Ostrich farms have nothing to do with improving the people's lives," Kim Kyung-ryang of Kangwon National University said. "Vegetables are what matter. Food other than staples are a luxury."

* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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