In The News

A Human Rights Envoy to Assess North Korea’s Food Situation

May 25, 2011

At a State Department briefing earlier this week, the spokesman stated that U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea Ambassador Robert King may be tasked to lead a food assessment mission to North Korea. This announcement comes following a round of consultations led by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth last week in South Korea to manage differences on the issue, since United States sees food assistance as an issue separate from politics while the South Korean government sees food assistance as a form of leverage by which to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. The consultations resulted in begrudging South Korean government support (or at least the absence of objections to) the U.S. decision to send an assessment team to North Korea.

The decision to send a U.S. food assessment mission itself does not mean that the United States will actually decide to give food aid to North Korea, but it does open the door to that possibility. A major obstacle remains the outstanding issues between the United States and North Korea that must be addressed if food assistance is to be approved, including the unmonitored disposition of food aid that was disbursed in North Korea after the departure of monitors at the time of North Korea’s decision to prematurely end provision of food assistance in March of 2009.

The most interesting aspect of the announcement is the possibility that U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, Ambassador Robert King, will lead the mission. This new wrinkle is intriguing for a variety of reasons:

  • North Korea has traditionally not recognized human rights issues as a legitimate issue for discussion between the United States and North Korea, but despite this circumstance appears to have accepted Ambassador King as the leader of the delegation. One factor that may have made this decision easier in Pyongyang is that Ambassador King is already a known quantity to the North Koreans, having visited the country with his former boss, Congressman Tom Lantos, as chief of staff to Lantos in 2005. The existence of a prior relationship between King and the North Koreans and the framing of the mission as primarily focused on humanitarian aid probably facilitated North Korean acceptance.
  • Ambassador King’s leadership of the delegation provides a political inoculation to criticism of the Obama administration for moving forward in its assessment of conditions in North Korea, regardless of the outcome of the mission, and for any potential provision of food assistance to North Korea, given his prior relationships and good standing with Capitol Hill. Ambassador King should serve as an effective interlocutor and advocate on this issue precisely because he enjoys relationships on the Hill that will make him an effective advocate of the administration’s decision, especially given that the position of Ambassador for North Korean Human Rights was a creation of Congress through the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, so in this sense, Ambassador King owes his role and position to the decision of the U.S. Congress. However, some might argue that by appointing a political appointee to lead the assessment, the Obama administration has unnecessarily given a political tinge to what might otherwise have been seen as a purely technical delegation.
  • Ambassador King’s leadership of the mission sends the signal that the United States frames the food issue in a humanitarian and human rights context, presumably strengthening the demarcation between the humanitarian mission and any potential political developments in the U.S.-DPRK relationship. However, since North Korea sees U.S. decisions on humanitarian aid through a political lens, the food aid assessment might be treated in Pyongyang as a political signal that the Obama administration might finally be open to a broader political dialogue with North Korea. Ambassador King will want to take care to limit the scope of his dialogue to humanitarian issues if the United States truly wants to separate humanitarian from political issues. South Korea will want to see the purpose of the humanitarian mission separated clearly from spillover into politics, while North Korea may see humanitarian assistance dialogue as an early indicator that the U.S. government may be willing to broaden the scope of high-level bilateral interaction to include political dialogue.
  • Ambassador King’s role and title as Special Envoy on Human Rights Issues suggests that he will be expected to raise a myriad of non-humanitarian human rights concerns with North Korea on topics that North Korea has historically denied as having either a factual basis or having legitimacy as part of the U.S.-DPRK diplomatic relationship. Among the issues that have recently gained traction among human rights NGOs, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea has just released a report on North Korea’s involvement in international abductions and the Korean War Abduction Research Institute has stepped up lobbying in Seoul and Washington to have the unresolved armistice issue of North Korea’s abductions of South Korean citizens from the Korean War reintroduced as a current issue that must be resolved.

As mentioned in my previous post, a substantive issue that has emerged on the basis of previous assessments by U.S. NGOs and the UN World Food Programme is the role of the markets versus North Korea’s public distribution system, through which North Korean government authorizes preferred institutions eligible to receive international aid. To address this issue, the WFP and others have discussed the possibility of “monitoring the markets” as part of the regime that North Korea would have to accept as part of a new round of food assistance.

However, North Korean agreements to monitor the markets will not go far enough as elements of any new program for distributing food aid to North Korea. In the absence of inability to independently determine greatest need, the best option for saving lives in North Korea is to stabilize grain prices through the market mechanism through subsidies that lower market prices. The introduction of external assistance through the market mechanism would influence existing suppliers of grain, who currently have a monopoly on supply and the capacity to influence market availability and perceptions of supply and demand to maximize their own profits. The problem is that such a program would require a greater level of intrusiveness into North Korean markets than North Korea is likely to be willing to accept at this time. Monitoring the markets will provide more detailed information regarding domestic prices inside North Korea, but will not fundamentally decrease the dependence of the entire aid monitoring project on the North Korean government’s listing of priorities.

This piece was originally published on the Council on Foreign Relations blog Asia Unbound.

Scott Snyder directs The Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org.

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