North Korea on the Precipice of Famine

Peterson Institute for International Economics Working Paper
May 2008
Stephan Haggard, University of California, San Diego
Marcus Noland, Peterson Institute for International Economics
Erik Weeks, Peterson Institute for International Economics

Download the paper here: haggard_noland_weeks_pb.pdf

Abstract:

North Korea is on the brink of famine. As detailed [in this policy brief], the margin of error between required grain and available supply has virtually disappeared. Local food prices are skyrocketing even faster than world prices. Aid relationships have been soured and the regime’s control-oriented policy responses are exacerbating distress.  Hunger-related deaths are nearly inevitable and a dynamic is being put in place that will carry the crisis into 2009, even if as expected, the US announces that it is sending 500,000MT in return for a signed nuclear declaration.
 
The US can provide aid in ways that maximize its humanitarian impact while limiting the degree to which aid simply serves to bolster the regime.  We know that aid is diverted.  Yet given the fragmented nature of markets in North Korea, diverted aid often finds its way into markets in the catchment area where it is delivered.  Geographically targeting aid to the most adversely affected regions and providing it in forms such as barley and millet that are not preferred by the elite can increase the ameliorative impact of assistance.  The Bush Administration has taken up the first part of this equation–requiring that most of its contribution to the World Food Program be targeted at the worst affected regions–but it could do more on the second part: providing aid in forms less preferred for elite consumption. It can also encourage others such as South Korea to follow suit.
 
The US should also exercise quiet leadership with respect to the refugee question as well. The Chinese government’s practice of returning North Korean refugees may reflect a natural self-protective response against the threat of a flood of migrants and even the breakdown of the North Korean regime; it was, after all, the notorious “hole in the fence” that helped precipitate the collapse of the Eastern European regimes. But the policy of returning refugees does not conform with China’s obligations under the refugee treaty and does not in the end serve the country’s underlying political objectives either; it simply serves to cutoff another escape valve, however small, that has contributed to taking pressure off of a rapidly deteriorating situation.

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