The North Korea Food Aid Dilemma by Chris Nelson

[The following is reprinted here with permission from the Nelson Report – 4 April 2011]

Once again, the harsh winter, and North Korean government mal- and misfeasance has produced a serious risk of famine for what the World Food Program currently estimates as some 6-million men, women and children by the summer.

In their joint appearance before Senate Foreign Relations last month, A/S EAP Kurt Campbell, and State’s Special Envoy for North Korea, Steve Bosworth, both said “we will not let people starve”, when asked about the then-pending report.

But in fact, as we noted at the time, both Campbell and Bosworth carefully explained long-standing USG conditions on any resumption of US food aid, most revolving around inspection and verification of the long-standing US policy that its food go only to children, and “lactating women”, the bureaucratic way of talking about pregnant women and mothers of infants.

Food aid proponents argue that refugee accounts indicating that men, and adult women “never see” US food does not necessarily imply, much less prove, massive “diversion” of that aid, since, to quote one proponent, “our food is only supposed to go to pregnant women and children, so if adult males and older women say they never see any of our food, that’s how it’s supposed to work!”

And the WFP investigation also leads to a concern privately expressed to us by an experienced player in the aid game:

“…we have to factor in the risk that food aid to the DPRK will be diverted or stolen. Those who argue for food aid need to explain why it is better to give it not to starving Africans, where the chances of food aid reaching the needy are close to 100%, but to starving Koreans where those chances are markedly less than 100%. I hope too that before any food aid is given we can have a thorough investigation of allegations that the DPRK is hoarding food for next year’s celebrations, i.e. that this famine is induced by the regime’s decision not to release the food stocks it holds.”

Note that the above includes the old problem or debate over whether the concept of “humanitarian” assistance to the brutal Kim Family dictatorship is an oxymoron, and whether sending food…even to starving children and pregnant mothers…really amounts to subsidizing the continuation of their misery at the hands of Kim & Co.

In addition, both Campbell and Bosworth made clear in their Senate testimony, there’s a political condition to any US aid resumption as well…specifically, that the US will not supply anything until the government of S. Korea officially decides that the North/South relationship has improved sufficiently to allow such “outside” involvement north of the DMZ.

This has been reported many times, including in this Report, as the basic US precondition for bilateral relations in any form, so we’re not going to rehearse the arguments pro/con again tonight.

On what the US role should be, we’ll let two experts carry the ball, or start the ball rolling, and solicit your advice and reaction…beginning with an OpEd in The Korea Times by Prof. Victor Hsu, a valued Loyal Reader, making the humanitarian and political case for food assistance to the DPRK. This is followed by former State Department Korea Desk chief David Straub’s sympathetic but critical discussion of concerns, or caveats which we think likely echo those held by the Obama Administration.

Please let us know what you think.

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