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Friday, 6 December, 2002, 14:14 GMT
North Korea braces for harsh winter
Babies lie in a row at an orphanage in Wonsan City, Kangwon Province in North Korea
Orphanages are particularly at risk from the fuel cuts

Winters in North Korea are always tough, but this year's promises to be particularly gruelling.

The temperature in the capital, Pyongyang, can dip to -10 C, but the rising political temperature will make it feel even colder.

Since 1994 North Korea has been receiving shipments of fuel from an international consortium which have gone some way to shoring up the country's moribund economy.

Boys at the government-run Kindergarten No.1, Yang Dong village, Unpha county in North Hwanghae province (WFP)
The WFP is cutting food aid to half a million kindergarten children
But following Pyongyang's reported admission in October that it has been developing a nuclear weapons programme, the US has led a decision by the consortium to halt fuel donations.

A shipment which was due on 15 December will not now arrive.

The consortium, the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organisation (Kedo), has said that the decision was political and made without regard to its humanitarian impact on people inside North Korea.

But what effect will it have on a people already weakened by terrific poverty and frequent famine, in a country whose primary energy source, coal, is in short supply?

How important is the fuel?

Analysts disagree as to what proportion of North Korea's energy is provided by the 500,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO) Kedo has supplied annually.

Roland Tricot, spokesman for Kedo, told BBC News Online that estimates vary from 8-30%.

But the non-governmental Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, based in Berkeley, California, says HFO constitutes only 2.5% of the country's total energy supplies.

Moreover, Nautilus says that North Korea has stored away about 300,000 tonnes of the fuel, which should help buffer the halt in shipments.

But the institute notes that the HFO does have a disproportionate importance for North Korea's electricity sector, particularly in the winter months, when hydro-electric generation is lower.

The HFO constitutes about a third of the fuel used in thermal power plants and the electricity it generates is needed to run trains to the coal mines, as well as to mine the coal itself.

Needy at risk

Peter Hayes, executive director at Nautilus, said that cutting off the HFO will punish the "most vulnerable sectors" including those in hospitals and large orphanages.

David Von Hippel, senior associate at Nautilus, says it is plausible that hundreds of thousands of people will have to survive with less electricity this winter.

This will also compound the suffering of a people already wracked by hunger.

It also comes at a time when food aid from overseas appears to be falling.

The United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP) says it is being forced to halt cereal distributions to 3 million hungry women, children and elderly people in the next three months because of a marked downturn in donations.

A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang
Kim Jong-il, a film expert, could be planning a dramatic response
Gerald Bourke, Public Affairs Officer for WFP in Beijing, says that competing demands from southern Africa and Afghanistan and concerns about the WFP's lack of monitoring access are partly responsible for the aid slump.

"Because we target the most vulnerable of the vulnerable and can't provide them with aid, it has the makings of a very severe food crisis," Mr Bourke said.

Those 3 million whom the WFP can no longer feed will now be reliant on the government-run Public Distribution System, which currently provides an average of 300 grams of food a day to its recipients - less than half the internationally recommended intake.

Fighting for survival

But Mr Bourke stresses that the hardiness of the North Koreans cannot be underestimated.

"Over time they have developed coping mechanisms," he said.

"They can go up to the hills and scour for edible branches and grasses or go down to the beaches and scour for edible seaweed."

That ability to adapt will also help the North Korean public survive electricity cuts caused by the cessation of HFO, says Mr Von Hippel.

"If they have to mine coal largely by hand, hauling it up shafts in buckets on ropes, you can bet that they will. If they have to walk to work and back 10 km each way in a howling gale, because the electric trains and trams aren't running and there's no fuel or parts for buses, you can bet they'll do that as well."

While the fuel stoppage makes the humanitarian situation in North Korea all the more desperate, says Mr Hayes, it does not radically increase the US' political leverage over "a leadership (that) has (already) survived a significant fraction of the population dying from cold and malnutrition".

Ill-desired effect

If anything, it risks legitimising the anti-US propaganda regularly fed to the North Korean public by Kim Jong-il's administration, and pushing Pyongyang closer to its allies China and Russia, Mr Hayes says.

Judging how the famously erratic Mr Kim will react to the latest US pressure is extremely difficult.

But Mr Hayes - pointing to Mr Kim's love of cinema - said that whatever happens it is likely to be surprising.

"It will be dramatic in ways that no-one, even in Washington, has thought possible," he said.

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

22 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
15 Nov 02 | Asia-Pacific
21 Oct 02 | Asia-Pacific
21 Oct 02 | Americas
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