Fears of a famine in North Korea, Fake rice concerns in Philippines, Japan must do utmost to help Mekong countries

North Koreans farm in the field along the Yalu River in Sakchu county, North Phyongan Province, North Korea.
North Koreans farm in the field along the Yalu River in Sakchu county, North Phyongan Province, North Korea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Editorial Notes is a selection of editorials from newspapers in the Asia News Network (ANN).

1. Fears of a famine in North Korea 

The Korea Herald/ANN 

A farmer takes care of a rice paddy filled with rainwater, after much-awaited rain in Gangneung, South Korea, June 26, 2015.  PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on July 06, 2015, The Korea Herald expresses concerns about food security in North Korea because of the drought

With food experts predicting a possible famine in North Korea as a result of prolonged drought, Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo told the National Assembly that the government stood ready to cooperate with Pyongyang in tackling the emergency.

The entire Korean Peninsula has been hit by a drought this year as a result of the El Nino weather phenomenon and Pyongyang last month said that it was experiencing the worst drought in 100 years. 

In a statement by the official Korean Central News Agency, North Korea said that some 30 per cent of rice paddies around the country were drying up. 

While some Western observers dispute the claim that it is the “worst drought in 100 years,” the fact that the North is going through a period of severe drought is well corroborated by meteorological observations and a field inspection by an international group led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. 

The UN representatives visiting the breadbasket region of North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae provinces on June 10 said that potato, wheat, and barley harvests could fall by 50 per cent in areas hit by the drought.

The FAO said that rainfall in 2014 and early 2015 was far below normal, causing wells and reservoirs to dry up.
While there isn’t enough information to say whether people are starving or not, the situation is serious, according to an FAO official. 

The third year of drought may indeed may just send the country over the brink in terms of food security.

The Unification Ministry, a few days before KCNA’s statement on the severe drought, estimated that the North’s grain production may drop by as much as 20 percent from 2014 if drought continues through early July.

It appears that North Korea is preparing for a possible famine. On July 30, it asked Iran, an ally which it is suspected of having assisted in developing a missile program, to provide humanitarian assistance. The fact that Pyongyang has reached out to Iran may be indicative of North Korea’s dire straits.

International food aid to North Korea has been drastically cut in the past several years due to the long-continued nuclear standoff and Pyongyang’s reluctance to allow greater monitoring of the food aid distribution by the NGOs working in the country. 

The South Korean government has not provided humanitarian assistance at the state level since the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in the West Sea, although aid by NGOs and private groups has trickled across the border.

In April, the UN asked for $111 million for humanitarian operations in the communist state. 

Funding for UN agencies in North Korea dropped to less than $50 million in 2014 from $300 million in 2004. In making the appeal, it said that 70 percent of the 25 million North Koreans were at risk of starvation. 

In a May report, the FAO said that the number of hungry people had more than doubled in the last two decades, to total 10.5 million in 2014.

While some observers question the extent of the drought, it is certain that the most vulnerable of the population ― infants, children, nursing mothers and the elderly ― will go hungry without food assistance.

North Korea has relied on international food aid ever since the massive famine in the 1990s claimed as many as 3 million lives.

It is uncertain whether the current drought will again lead to such a massive human tragedy, but the international community and South Korea should stand ready to offer assistance. 

One of the reasons that the 1990s famine was so disastrous was that the North sought outside aid too late. 

2. Fake rice concerns in Philippines 

The Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN 

A view of ready to be harvested rice stalks at Banaue Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines June 19, 2015.  PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial on July 06, 2015, the Philippine Daily Inquirer demands punitive measures against those smuggling fake rice into the country

The initial results are disturbing but—it must be emphasised—inconclusive. 

More tests are required before the Food Development Center (FDC) of the National Food Authority (NFA) can say categorically that suspect rice being sold in Davao City is synthetic—that is, fake rice. 

But because the NFA has already fielded more than 20 complaints from different parts of the country about possibly fake rice, and because grains mixed with “plastic” may lead to serious health problems, it is only right that the appropriate authorities investigate the matter with dispatch.

Rice is not only the country’s staple food; it is, preeminently, a political commodity. 

That is to say, it is quite literally a gut issue, and can make or break political fortunes. 

To this unchanging reality, the “synthetic rice” controversy adds another complication: Persistent reports assert that the fake rice has been smuggled in from China. 

The government needs to identify the source of the suspect rice as soon as possible; will Chinese authorities help speed up the process of identification?

This and other intriguing questions may be raised at a hearing this week of the Senate committee on food and agriculture. But the fundamental question is simpler: Is fake rice in fact being sold in the country?

According to the FDC, the sample taken from Davao City was found to be “contaminated with dibutyl phthalate or DBP, a raw material for making flexible plastic products.” 

That is disturbing in itself; DBP “is used in the manufacture of various products, including food-containing items like plastic wraps and lunch boxes.” 

But the sample was too small for the NFA to reach a definite conclusion. More tests are needed, with bigger samples (more than a kilo of rice grains per sample), before any scientifically valid conclusion can be reached.

Now that President Aquino has ordered both the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Justice to investigate the issue, we expect the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation to move speedily: to isolate the sources of the allegedly synthetic rice, to determine the areas where it has been sold, not least to obtain adequately sized samples for immediate laboratory testing.

The possibility now exists that with two law enforcement investigations launched, a Senate hearing in the works, and a hearing in the House of Representatives getting underway, too, we may all get the wrong signal and reach premature conclusions. It is easy enough for political or election-related considerations to drive the food-security aspect out of the picture. Herewith, two reminders:

We should not raise false alarms. Former senator Francis Pangilinan, now presidential assistant for food security and agricultural modernization, has issued a statement saying he had been “informed that, for harmful effects to be felt, one has to be ingesting DBP every day for at least three months.” 

This is reassuring, but—in this day and age—we need the source of that information, presumably a scientist, to inform the public himself, or herself. The government can make that person available today and for the next several days to belabor the point.

At the same time, we should not create a false sense of complacency. We realise that a skeptical public may find the very notion of eating raw material for plastic products, even if just once, to be sickening. 

It is incumbent on the PNP and the NBI to determine as soon as possible when the suspect rice first landed in the country, and how much of it has actually been sold.

And if the suspect rice is established to be systematically contaminated (plastic extenders have been known to be added to food products to lower costs of production in a loosely regulated or low-standard economy), then the police and the NBI must take the necessary next step: File the appropriate charges against those who brought the fake rice into the country and send them to a real jail.

3. Japan must do utmost to help Mekong countries build quality infrastructure 

The Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN 

Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong (left) is led by Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe after ending a joint press remarks following the Seventh Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting at Tokyo, Japan July 4, 2015. PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on July 06, 2015, The Yomiuri Shimbun calls on Tokyo to invest in regional infrastructure and prevent China from changing the status-quo

Given the promise and potential of Southeast Asian nations, providing development assistance and boosting mutually beneficial cooperative ties are actions that correspond to Japan’s national interests. The government must adopt a strategic perspective in addressing these tasks.

Japan and five Southeast Asian nations along the Mekong River recently held a summit conference in Tokyo. There Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged fresh assistance to the Mekong countries in the form of 750 billion yen in official development aid over the next three years. He also stressed that Japan earnestly seeks to bring about “high-quality growth” in the region.

Abe’s announcement is part of an investment initiative for the Asian region that the Japanese government unveiled in May. The recent assistance pledge emphasised transportation infrastructure projects, including the construction of an arterial road that will serve as an economic corridor linking the east and west of the Mekong region, and the building and upgrading of ports and airports.

Flanked by the two major powers of China and India, the Mekong region is situated in an area of high strategic importance for land and maritime traffic in the vicinity of the South China Sea.

Japan maintains generally friendly relations with the five countries - Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar - all of which have been logging high rates of growth.

The implementation of the Abe administration’s growth strategy can be accelerated by using ODA as a catalyst for their economic development and expanding private-sector investment by Japanese firms to make the most of their vitality.

In this regard, it is important to build relations on an equal footing - whereby all parties can enjoy mutual benefits - by paying due respect to individual needs.

In the case of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the percentage of China’s capital contribution is overwhelmingly large compared to that of other members. This has led to doubts about the impartiality of its management and financing decisions.

It is essential for Japan to work hard to maintain effectiveness and a high degree of transparency in its assistance activities to help build quality infrastructure in the region. Such efforts will distinguish Japan’s assistance from that of China.

A joint statement adopted at the close of the summit meeting stressed the significance of working together with the Asian Development Bank. It also advocated boosting Japan’s “soft efforts” in such fields as research and development or the nurturing of human resources.

It is vital to carry out a form of “Japanese-style development assistance” that is carefully designed to help each country in the Mekong region achieve sustainable growth through autonomous means.

Views on maritime security issues were also exchanged at the summit conference.

The joint statement made explicit reference to “concerns over the recent development in the South China Sea, which ... may undermine regional peace, security and stability.” This alludes to reclamation projects on reefs that are apparently part of a bid for militarisation.

The statement also affirmed the importance of freedom of navigation based on international law and the need to resolve conflicts through peaceful means.

Maritime security must be recognised as an “international good” that is indispensable for economic activity to be conducted freely and smoothly, according to the statement. It is highly significant that not only Vietnam, which is at odds with China over territorial issues, but also such countries as Cambodia, which has closer ties with China, agreed on the joint statement’s contents.

In cooperation with the international community, Japan and the five countries must work together at various opportunities to make China refrain from attempting to change the status quo by force.