Comment on Chosun Ilbo article by Marcus Noland

[7 April, Marcus Noland commented on the Chosun Ilbo article  brought for consideration by Chris Nelson.]

For what it’s worth, the numbers reported in the Chosun Ilbo story are in the same ballpark that Steph and I got in our two surveys. These numbers create consternation among elements of the WFP, the “humanitarian community,” and the more pro-engagement parts of say the State Department. I say let’s be honest with ourselves. Here are a few paragraphs from our book:

In both the China-based and South Korea-based surveys, an astonishing share of respondents, roughly half of those surveyed, revealed that they were unaware of the long-standing, large-scale program (table 3.1). Moreover, among respondents who indicated knowledge of the effort, 33 percent of the South Korea survey respondents and only 4 percent of the China survey respondents believed that they had been recipients. Looking only at urban residents (those on the agricultural cooperatives would have been less likely to receive aid), only 3 percent in the China survey and 14 percent of the later, South Korea survey reported being recipients.

These answers do not establish whether the respondents did in fact receive assistance or not. The aid effort has been in place for more than a decade and at its peak, aid was flowing in amounts designed to feed roughly one-third of the entire population of the country. Aid on that scale, even if diverted from its intended recipients, does not just vanish into the ether.

There are a number of possible explanations for this lack of awareness of the foreign aid effort:

• Aid in bulk form was distributed through the PDS or through other institutional channels, such as hospitals, schools, and orphanages, and that the refugees received it but did not know that what they had received was aid. This is the most benign interpretation.

• Aid was diverted into the market and the respondents purchased it there, in which case they might not have known the source of supply, or if they did, they did not consider it “aid” since they were paying for it.

• Respondents really did not receive any aid, perhaps because it had been diverted to groups such as the military.

In assessing the implications of these results, the overrepresentation of northeastern provinces may again be a factor since some have argued that these regions were discriminated against in initial relief efforts (Natsios 2002; see, however, S. Lee 2003). These findings may, therefore, accurately depict the experiences of the refugee community but may not be representative of the country as a whole.

The refugees overwhelmingly believed that the aid went primarily to the military (table 3.2). The question and possible responses were posed slightly differently in the two surveys, but the results are consistent. When asked who received food aid, and allowing multiple responses, 89 percent of the refugees in China who were aware of the program believed that it went to the military and 27 percent said that it went to government officials; less than 3 percent said it went to common citizens or others. When asked in the South Korea survey who the primary recipient of aid was-not allowing multiple responses-67 percent said the military, 27 percent said high-level government or party officials, 2 percent said local government or party officials, and 2 percent said the general public.

Again, these responses do not prove that the aid was diverted to the military and officials. But at a minimum, the responses attest both to the perceived power and centrality of the military in North Korean life and to the regime’s control over information and resources. In the context of a massive, decade-long multinational humanitarian aid program, North Korean refugees exhibit a significant lack of awareness of the overall aid effort. Their overwhelming impression is that the primary beneficiaries of the aid effort were the military. These findings ought to give significant pause when designing a relief program for North Korea or arguing for the “soft power” benefits of supplying aid. Aid almost certainly has had positive effects for North Korea: by hitting some targeted beneficiaries, by raising aggregate supply, and by lowering prices. But many North Koreans in our surveys didn’t know about the aid effort and those who did appear to believe that aid was largely diverted to the military. The refugees’ responses call into question the effectiveness of past aid programs in reaching intended targets and particularly the ability of those programs to generate goodwill, especially when the regime depicts the foreign aid donations as a kind of political tribute.

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