Food aid discussion less informed than necessary by Victor Hsu


[It was CanKor Brain Trust member Prof. Victor W. Hsu‘s article in the Korea Times newspaper that set off a lively debate about the pros and cons of food aid to the DPRK. The full text of that article can be found here. Victor Hsu is Visiting Professor at the Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul and offers CanKor further details that should not be missed about the food aid discussion. –CanKor.]

Prof. Victor W.C. Hsu

The current food aid discussion is not as informed as it should be. The following dimensions should be part of the considerations in any debate about food aid to North Korea.

1. It is not sufficient to say without explanation that the last round of food aid by the US government (July 2008 to March 2009) was terminated because North Korea expelled food aid monitors. The program ended in tandem with two developments:

(a) the WFP was unable to obtain an agreement on the monitoring terms after almost one year of negotiations. Since it was responsbile for 80% of the amount of food aid, it didn’t make sense to drag the negotiations on. The proposal to shift the amount of aid to the NGOs which were implementing smoothly its 20% didn’t receive unanimity among the other stakeholders: USG, DPRK and WFP.

(b) NK was about to conduct another missiles test in April 2009. In anticipation of possible retaliation by US government, it asked for the NGO food aid to be terminated by the end of March. This was precisely what happened to the NGO program. We packed up and left the country at the end of March.

2. The DPRK food shortage is chronic for all the known reasons: mismanagement, terrain (limited arable land), damaged soil (mono crop, no fallow, reliance on chemical fertiliser) etc…

3. From the beginning of the food shortage crisis in mid-90’s, it was established by the international community (which had no reason to manipulate the figures) that the country needed 5 to 6 million MT of grain to feed its people at subsistence level. At that time, the political climate was open to helping the North Koreans.

4. There is some increase in food output with the introduction of potatoes since 2004, but the yield continues to be hampered by poor infrastructure and logistical problems of getting mass-produced virus-free tubers from the labs to the soil.

5. With satellites it is easy to predict reasonably accurately the amount of the harvest. The harvest cannot be hidden!

6. With intelligence officials swarming the borders, it is very hard for China or any other country to be shipping massive amounts of food aid to NK without being detected.

7. The amount of aid through the UN and the EU is on public record. It has been dropping sharply since 2003.

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