Update on Humanitarian Aid to North Korea by Victor Hsu

[CanKor Brain Trust member Victor Hsu is Visiting Professor, School of Public Policy and Management , Korea Development Institute (KDI), Seoul. Prof. Hsu supplied this update to the Ecumenical Forum for Korea. –CanKor.]

In early November, I attended an International Conference on Humanitarian and Development Aid to North Korea. This Seoul conference was jointly sponsored by the Korean Sharing Movement and Gyonggi Province and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. This is the 7th in a series of international events organized for the purpose of encouraging concerned people to continue to provide aid to North Korea on humanitarian grounds.

CanKor Editor Erich Weingartner with Brain Trust members Randy Ireson, Karin Janz and Victor Hsu in Seoul at the 2011 International Conference on Humanitarian and Development Assistance to the DPRK.

Attending the meeting is always nostalgic for me because I organized the very first one attended by over 150 international humanitarian practitioners in Beijing in 1998 and I participated in almost every one to be a keynote speaker or a panelist. This year I gave a presentation on the United States Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) food aid experience in North Korea when they monitored US government food aid from July 2008 to March 2009. I was then the National Director for North Korea of World Vision International.

This year’s event was very special because the former Executive Director of the World Food Program (WFP) was a special guest. In 1996-1997, I worked with her to set up the Food Aid Liaison Group of the WFP in Pyongyang and the first head of FALU, Erich Weingartner, was also a participant at the conference. Erich Weingartner is known to many people in the ecumenical movement as a former staff of the World Council of Churches International Affairs Commission. So it was a wonderful reunion for the three of us.

At the conference we learned that the humanitarian crisis continues to worsen in North Korea. We heard reports from the Country Director of the WFP in North Korea, an NGO representative from North Korea and an American NGO representative who headed a food assessment mission in North Korea this year. Together they presented a very serious picture of the worsening plight of the most vulnerable, such as children under five years old and the elderly. Among the information that I learned:

1. After years of chronic food shortage, malnutrition is affecting a whole generation of North Koreans. Especially the children urgently need outside aid to fight terrible levels of malnutrition.

2. Out of a population of over twenty million, six million urgently need nutrition inputs. North Korea has a shortage of one million tons of food each year.

3. Rice yields are about 2.8 tons per hectare affected by soil degradation, lack of fertilizers and limited mechanization.

4. Nearly half of North Korean children are chronically malnourished. The world must be reminded that the most vulnerable groups in North Korea are victims of a situation over which they have no control.

5. Supply shortages means that daily rations from the public distribution system (PDS) were halved in July to 200 grams per person.

6. The international community is not giving enough. In April, the United Nations appealed for $218 million in emergency aid. Only one-third of that amount has been pledged.

7. The US government asked US NGOs to send their own team in May — to assess the humanitarian situation. But despite findings similar to those above, the USG has yet to announce a decision on aid. The five American NGOs recommended prompt action with immediate shipments.

8. David Austin, North Korea program director for Mercy Corps, said the NGOs saw pockets of malnutrition “throughout the country” and that people there “are starving to death.”

9. The United States, along with other nations, made token contribution to flood assistance in mid-September. Washington provided a grant $900,000 in flood relief for the North through five US NGOs.

10. South Korea maintains that there is no nationwide food crisis of the kind that killed many thousands in the late 1990s.

11. According to the head of the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, who made her first visit in October, North Korea will continue to face food shortages unless its government addresses “major structural issues” and attracts investment. She also insisted that the responsibility for solving repeated food crises lay with the country’s government and its need to tackle the underlying causes of poor agricultural production.

12. Ms. Amos painted a devastating portrait of a nation with chronic malnutrition problems that have stunted the growth of much of the population. In northern parts of the country as many as 45 per cent of children under age 5 are malnourished, while nationwide the figure is one third.

The resumption of talks between the USA and North Korea on October 24-25 in Geneva has given optimism to a resumption of humanitarian aid by the international community. In the 6-party talks, it was agreed in September 2005 that if North Korea would abandon its nuclear programs there would be economic assistance and diplomatic incentives from other parties to the six-party talks, which include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, and the United States.

In a meeting with the U.N. Secretary General in New York, on Monday November 4, South Korea’s unification minister, Yu Woo-ik, said the ROK is considering sending humanitarian aid to North Korea through third channels such as WFP.

The Unification Ministry says South Korea stopped sending direct aid to Pyongyang in November 2010 after it accused North Korea of shelling Yeonpyeong Island, killing four South Koreans.In the past, South Korea has sent aid through the WFP, the World Health Organization and other international agencies.

The UN announced on November 25 that North Korea even with the most optimistic estimates will need to import 739,000 tons of grain in 2012. The joint United Nations team stayed in North Korea for 10 days, visiting 29 counties across the country.

“Although improved with the new harvest, the situation remains precarious, especially on a nutritional level,” Arif Husain of the World Food Program’s food security analysis unit in Rome said in a statement. “Humanitarian support in the form of fortified blended foods for the most vulnerable continues to be critical.” Nearly 3 million North Koreans would continue to require food aid next year.

“Some pediatric wards indicated that cases admitted for malnutrition since April had doubled compared to the same period in 2010..….A lack of protein, fats and vital vitamins and minerals continues to compromise proper physical and intellectual development into adulthood.”

On the same day, South Korea announced that one of its officials was invited to enter North Korea recently to help monitor the distribution of flour donated by a civic group. This is now being perceived as a positive development in relief agencies’ demand for more transparency.

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