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The North Korea Food Aid Debate

May 11, 2011

By Scott Snyder

There has been a protracted debate over whether the United States should give food assistance in response to North Korea’s appeals for assistance from earlier this year, with an exchange between Stephan Haggard and Lee Jong Cheol as the most recent example. Both U.S. Institute of Peace and the Heritage Foundation have also sponsored programs on the subject within the last week.

The overall debate is an extension of one that began over fifteen years ago with the initial entry of international organizations in response to North Korea’s famine of the mid-1990s, and it essentially revolves around two characteristics of humanitarian response to North Korea that are distinctive from other complex humanitarian emergencies: 1) most humanitarian interventions occur in the context of a breakdown of political authority, but international aid workers must work with North Korean political authorities to meet humanitarian needs, and 2) North Korea’s need is a function of system failure, but it is also a potential source of revenue that might assist in sustaining that system. Two recent food assessment missions by international and private humanitarian agencies (a rapid food security assessment by U.S. NGOs in February and another by the UN World Food Program in March) have documented the existence of growing humanitarian need in North Korea. How should the United States and the international community respond?

In my view, there are three points that that have not drawn sufficient attention:

  1. While it is possible to document humanitarian need inside North Korea, North Korean authorities have not allowed international agencies to independently identify and respond to greatest need inside North Korea. This circumstance heightens the moral hazard of providing food aid to North Korea because international agencies must work with North Korean authorities to deliver assistance, and provision of assistance through North Korea’s public distribution system is an indirect affirmation of North Korean leadership and system priorities. If the United States provides assistance, it must either do so on the basis of an independent determination of greatest need or provide non-fungible goods that minimize reliance on North Korea’s public distribution system.
  2. Even if Americans operate by the Reagan-era maxim that “a hungry child knows no politics,” North Korean counterparts do not (nor have South Korean counterparts, a circumstance which opens the possibility for misunderstanding within the U.S.-ROK alliance). Given the U.S.-DPRK history of indirect linkage between humanitarian aid and political negotiations, the North Koreans may interpret a U.S. decision to provide humanitarian assistance as the first step toward the same kind of type of bargaining dynamic with North Korea that the Obama administration has thus far foresworn. If the United States provides food aid, it must be done in a manner that clearly separates humanitarian assistance from prospects for renewed political bargaining over the nuclear issue.
  3. The two recent reports on North Korea’s food assistance provide an indirect affirmation by the North Korean government that the market must be a part of the solution to North Korea’s food problems. North Korea’s domestic production of food has remained stable, but its ability to procure assistance from outside sources has been constrained by rises in food prices. Both the rapid food security assessments report that North Korea’s food administration ministry had purchased 325,000 metric tons of food internationally in 2010, but would only manage to purchase 200,000 metric tons as a result of rising food prices. The UN WFP reports that the “import capacity of the DPRK in 2010/11 has been reduced as a result of reductions in export earnings, as well as higher international food and fuel prices.”

Another factor that has exacerbated need within North Korea is growing income inequality between the rich and poor. The Council’s independent task force on policy toward the Korean peninsula last year advocated the need for a market-based approach to humanitarian assistance. North Korea has opened the door to such an approach through its implicit admission that its current problems lie more with procurement than domestic production. The North Korean ban on sale of grain and efforts by North Korean distributors to ‘make the market’ despite the government’s ban serve to exacerbate need among the poorest North Koreans, and must be dealt with in the context of efforts to address North Korea’s humanitarian need.

During a February visit to Seoul, Ambassador Robert King spelled out three criteria for delivery of U.S. food aid to the North: 1) demonstrated need on the basis of in-country surveys, 2) a comparative evaluation of North Korea’s needs in the context of global need, and 3) a secure guarantee of monitoring of aid. These criteria are reasonable, but the one that is missing is that any provision of assistance within North Korea be market-based. This criterion will likely require a drastically different approach from the template upon which past food assistance has been provided, and it remains to be seen whether North Korean authorities would agree to such an approach. However, if North Korea’s implicit admission to recent assessment missions of the role of markets as part of the food equation can be used as an opening to address some of the systemic problems within the North Korean system, it is worthwhile to pursue a more active discussion of U.S. food aid to North Korea.

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 [email protected]


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