The North Korea Food Aid Dilemma by Toni Johnson

[This analysis brief – really a summary of the arguments about food aid to the DPRK, with useful links interspersed – was compiled by Toni Johnson, Senior Staff Writer for the Council on Foreign Relations and published on the CFR website on 2 June 2011. –CanKor.]

A Chinese frontier policeman checks sacks of rice from South Korea, which will be sent to North Korea. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

A U.S. team in North Korea is soon expected to present findings on whether or not the country is facing a new food crisis. Robert King, U.S. special envoy to North Korea, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on June 2 that the Obama administration has not made a decision on resuming food aid–suspended in 2009–but, if it does, aid will be based on need and include monitoring requirements.

North Korea’s food situation has been a topic of considerable debate in recent months. The UN World Food Programme found in March that, due to a brutal winter and crop failures, the country could run out of food and needs more than four hundred thousand metric tons of food aid (PDF) to feed the country’s six million most vulnerable. Former president Jimmy Carter echoed the plea for new aid (BBC) a month later. But South Korea’s intelligence agency argues the North’s situation is no worse than it has been (AP) in the last two years and fears of a crisis are overblown.

Suspicion abounds that Pyongyang has repeatedly practiced food deceit, diverting aid (KoreaTimes) meant for the starving to the country’s military and political elite. In a May 20 letter to the State Department, four senators wrote that the country had cut spending on food imports by 40 percent but not cut spending on ballistic missile programs or imports of luxury items. “North Korea would not lack food if its leadership wanted to purchase it,” the letter said.

If the U.S. team’s findings match those of the UN on the severity of the situation, difficult questions remain about how to provide aid that will not benefit the country’s repressive dictatorship. “While there are ninety-nine reasons not to give food aid to the North, there is only one reason to do so,” says an editorial in South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo. “The right to food is a human right.” Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, likened the situation to a hostage crisis, and argues that “the costs of not acting outweigh the risks of being played for a sucker.”

CFR’s Scott Snyder writes that North Korean authorities have not let international agencies independently identify and respond to the greatest humanitarian need. “This circumstance heightens the moral hazard of providing food aid,” Snyder says, because working through North Korea’s public distribution system affirms the government’s priorities. Andrew Natsios, former head of USAID, suggests a “take it or leave it approach” that includes bypassing the state’s public food-distribution system and making food shipments on a monthly basis to encourage more cooperation.

A March 2010 U.S. Congressional Research Service report that looks at foreign assistance to North Korea says the Obama administration must decide whether tocondition food aid on progress (PDF) in areas such as the Six Party Talks and whether to pressure China to impose similar conditions. China, the country’s biggest trading partner and food donor, has attempted for months to get the Six Party Talks on denuclearization started again, but without new efforts from Pyongyang, the United States and South Korea have been reluctant to come back to the table. A 2011 report from the East West Center says the worsening food situation (PDF) could push the country to reengage or, equally possible, the North may continue trending “toward a more hard-line and truculent policy.”

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