To Give or Not to Give: What's Driving the Current Deliberations on DPRK Food Aid?

Thomas Omestad

North Korea shows no signs of making policy changes that would either lessen its need for international food aid or ensure that all the aid is delivered to those in greatest need, a panel of specialists said at a May 5 event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

May 11, 2011

North Korea shows no signs of making policy changes that would either lessen its need for international food aid or ensure that all the aid is delivered to those in greatest need, a panel of specialists said at a May 5 event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Their pessimistic review of food aid issues follows an on-ground assessment of North Korea’s food situation by three United Nations agencies in February and March. The U.N. entities released an estimate on March 24 that more than six million North Koreans—about a quarter of the population—urgently need food aid. Famine struck the isolated, communist nation in the mid-1990s. Upwards of one million people are thought to have perished, though estimates of the dead vary considerably. Food shortages also hit hard three years ago.

The questions of whether, how and under what conditions to deliver food to hungry North Koreans have been deeply complicated by Pyongyang’s conduct—its repeated provocations, including the shelling of a South Korean island, the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, its continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and its restrictions on the delivery of food donations. Some food aid is believed to have been diverted to regime elites and military personnel. North Korea is now requesting more aid. The U.S. government is still considering whether to resume shipments. South Korea is not providing food aid for the time being, although it recently allowed some South Korean nongovernmental organizations to send modest food supplies. While the World Food Programme has announced an emergency food aid operation for North Korea, the donations have yet to come in.

In remarks to start the meeting, USIP President Richard H. Solomon described a thicket of moral, social and political considerations underlying the food-aid issue, adding, “There’s plenty of evidence that the food may wind up on the plates of the elite members rather than the underprivileged.”

The three panelists who followed broadly agreed on the aim of continuing food shipments despite the obstacles created by Pyongyang, though seemingly with varying conditions on the aid.

Andrew Natsios, who served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Bush administration, proposed 11 conditions on food aid but emphasized that cutting off such assistance altogether in response to disputes with Pyongyang would be “a preposterous idea.” Said Natsios, “We are running this program for the people who are the victims of the North Korean government.”

The conditions Natsios suggested include bypassing the state’s public food distribution system, requiring on-ground access for conducting regular nutritional surveys, directly dispensing cooked food to school children and making food shipments on a monthly basis as an incentive for cooperation—not upfront. “I would not negotiate with North Korea. I would tell them, ‘Take it or leave it,’” Natsios said.

Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, suggested that North Korea would not likely accept all such conditions and that assistance should continue, even though “food aid may strengthen the regime.” Noland, who co-authored the 2007 book “Famine in North Korea,” called the North Korean government “wholly unaccountable for its manifest failures” in causing food insecurity and impoverishment. The food-aid question, he said, “really resembles a hostage situation.”

Food prices have typically been rising at 35 percent to 40 percent a year, though they have jumped by more than 500 percent since last year after a botched government attempt at currency reform that wiped out the savings of many North Koreans, Noland said. The regime opposes the expansion of existing informal markets, he argued, because as “a zone of personal autonomy and freedom” they pose a political threat.

The Venerable Pomnyun Sunim, a Buddhist monk who chairs a group providing food aid called Good Friends for Peace, Human Rights, and Refugee Issues, called for continued food aid even if North Korea continues to refuse reforms and some aid flows to the military and other parts of the regime. “We’re really at a state where humanitarian aid is critically needed,” Sunim said. “We don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel.”

Pomnyun Sunim said the North Koreans are heading into a food crisis that will be worse than that experienced in 2008 though not with the same lethality of the starvation in the mid-1990s. He said that even some North Korean soldiers and lower-level officials are not receiving their normal food allotments; nor are schools and hospitals.

The USIP session on food aid reflects elements of the Institute’s behind-the-scenes policy work on developments on the Korean Peninsula. USIP runs three distinct “Track 1.5” projects bringing together U.S. and Asian experts for policy research and analysis. The term Track 1.5 is meant to convey the participation of some serving government officials, albeit in a private capacity and in an off-the-record setting, which facilitates frank exchanges.

USIP Senior Program Officer John Park directs the Korea Working Group, which covers political, security and humanitarian issues related to the Korean Peninsula. In addition to the food aid issue, the Korea Working Group has been closely assessing U.S., South Korean, North Korean and Chinese governmental and think tank views on how to restart the stalled six-party nuclear talks. USIP also co-leads the Trilateral Dialogue in Northeast Asia, involving U.S., South Korean, and Japanese officials. And USIP holds closed discussions with Chinese and U.S. officials on security, diplomatic and economic issues in its U.S.-China Project on Crisis Avoidance & Cooperation. U.S. policymakers are briefed regularly on the deliberations and on related USIP policy research on conflict prevention in Northeast Asia.

With the three Track 1.5 efforts, said Park, “We’re able to track trends, better understand policymakers’ evolving viewpoints regarding complex policy issues….It’s like doctors getting around a table and discussing how the patient’s condition—say, a key policy issue—has changed and how to improve treatment.”

May 11, 2011
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