DPRK 2011 food shortage debate compendium

UPDATE (2012-2-1): Karin Lee of the National Committee on North Korea wrote a great summary of the DPRK’s food situation in 2011:

In December 2010, North Korea began asking multiple countries for food aid. Its request to the U.S. came in early 2011, but it wasn’t until December 2011 that a deal seemed close, with the U.S. prepared to provide 240,000 metric tons (MTs) of assistance. Kim Jong Il died soon after this news hit the press, and details of the potential deal were never announced.

In the ideal world, Ronald Reagan’s “hungry child” knows no politics. But the case of North Korea is far from ideal. The U.S. government states it does not take politics into consideration when determining whether to provide aid to North Korea. Instead, the decision is based on three criteria: need in North Korea, competing demands for assistance, and the ability to monitor aid effectively. Yet these three criteria are subjective and tinged by politics.

In 2011 a succession of four assessment delegations (one by U.S. NGOs, one by the U.S. government, one by the EU and one by the UN) visited the DPRK. All found pretty much the same thing: widespread chronic malnutrition, especially among children and pregnant or lactating women, and cases of acute malnutrition. The UN confirmed the findings late last year, reporting chronic malnutrition in children under five in the areas visited — 33% overall, and 45% in the northern part of the country.

Some donors responded quickly. For example, shortly after its July assessment, the EU announced a 10 Million Euro donation. Following its own May assessment, however, the U.S. government was slow to make a commitment. Competing demands may have played a role. In July, the predicted famine in the Horn of Africa emerged, prompting a U.S. response of over $668 million in aid to “the worst food crisis in half a century.” While there was no public linkage between U.S. action on the African famine and inaction on North Korea, there could have been an impact.

But the two biggest factors shaping the U.S. government’s indecisiveness continued to be uncertainty about both the severity of the need and the ability to establish an adequate monitoring regime. At times, South Korean private and public actors questioned the extent of the North’s need. Early on, a lawmaker in South Korea asserted that North Korea already had stockpiled 1,000,000 metric tons of rice for its military. Human rights activist Ha Tae Keung argued that North Korea would use the aid contributed in 2011 to augment food distributions in 2012 in celebration of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung and North Korea’s status as a “strong and prosperous nation.” According to Yonhap, shortly after the U.N. released the above-noted figures, South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-Ik called the food situation in North Korea not “very serious.”

South Korea’s ambivalence about the extent of the food crisis was noted by Capitol Hill, exacerbating congressional reluctance to support food aid. A letter to Secretary Clinton sent shortly before the U.S. assessment trip in May began with Senators Lieberman, McCain, Webb and Kyl explaining they shared South Korean government suspicions that food aid would be stockpiled and requesting State to “rigorously” evaluate any DPRK request for aid. With the close ROK-U.S. relationship one of the administration’s most notable foreign policy accomplishments, such a warning may have carried some weight.

Monitoring is of equal, if not greater congressional concern. Since the 1990s U.S. NGOs and USAID have worked hard with DPRK counterparts to expand monitoring protocols, and conditions have consistently improved over time. In the 2008/2009 program, the first food program funded by the U.S. government since 2000, the DPRK agreed to provisions such as Korean-speaking monitors. The NGO portion of the program was fairly successful in implementing the monitoring protocol; when implementation of the WFP portion hit some bumps, USAID suspended shipments to WFP until issues could be resolved. The DPRK ended the program prematurely in March 2009 with 330,000 MT remaining.

In 2011 the Network for North Korean Human Rights and Democracy conducted a survey of recent defectors to examine “aid effectiveness” in the current era. Out of the 500 interviewees, 274 left the DPRK after 2010. However, only six were from provinces where NGOs had distributed aid in 2008/2009. Disturbingly, of the 106 people interviewees who had knowingly received food aid, 29 reported being forced to return food. Yet the report doesn’t state their home towns, or when the events took place. Unfortunately such incomplete data proves neither the effectiveness nor ineffectiveness of the most recent monitoring regime.

Some believe that adequate monitoring is impossible. The House version of the 2012 Agricultural Appropriations Act included an amendment prohibiting the use of Food for Peace or Title II funding for food aid to North Korea; the amendment was premised on this belief. However the final language signed into law in November called for “adequate monitoring,” not a prohibition on funding.

The U.S. response, nine months in the making, reflects the doubts outlined above and the politically challenging task of addressing them. It took months for the two governments to engage in substantive discussions on monitoring after the May trip. In December, the State Department called the promised nutritional assistance “easier to monitor” because items such as highly fortified foods and nutritional supplements are supposedly less desirable and therefore less likely to be diverted than rice. The reported offer of 240,000 MT– less than the 330,000 MT the DPRK requested – reflects the unconfirmed report that the U.S. identified vulnerable populations but not widespread disaster.

In early January, the DPRK responded. Rather than accepting the assistance that was under discussion, it called on the United States to provide rice and for the full amount, concluding “We will watch if the U.S. truly wants to build confidence.” While this statement has been interpreted positively by some as sign of the new Kim Jong Un regime’s willingness to talk, it also demonstrates a pervasive form of politicization – linkage. A “diplomatic source” in Seoul said the December decision on nutritional assistance was linked to a North Korean pledge to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Linkage can be difficult to avoid, and the long decision-making process in 2011 may have exacerbated the challenge. Although Special Representative Glyn Davies was quick to state that “there isn’t any linkage” between the discussion of nutritional assistance and dialogue on security issues, he acknowledged that the ability of the DPRK and US to work together cooperatively on food assistance would be interpreted as a signal regarding security issues. Meanwhile, the hungry child in North Korea is still hungry.

UPDATE 75 (2011-12-5): The ROK will donate US$5.65 million to N. Korea through the UN. According to Yonhap:

South Korea said Monday it will donate US$5.65 million (about 6.5 billion won) for humanitarian projects in North Korea through the U.N. body responsible for the rights of children.

The donation to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, will benefit about 1.46 million infants, children and pregnant women in North Korea, according to the Unification Ministry, which is in charge of relations with the North.

Seoul’s contribution will be used to provide vaccines and other medical supplies as well as to treat malnourished children next year, said the ministry.

There have been concerns that a third of all North Korean children under five are chronically malnourished and that many more children are at risk of slipping into acute stages of malnutrition unless targeted assistance is sustained.

“The decision is in line with the government’s basic stance of maintaining its pure humanitarian aid projects for vulnerable people regardless of political situation,” Unification Ministry spokesman Choi Boh-seon told reporters.

South Korea has been seeking flexibility in its policies toward the North to try to improve their strained relations over the North’s two deadly attacks on the South last year.

Despite the South’s softer stance, North Korea recently threatened to turn Seoul’s presidential office into “a sea of fire” in response to South Korea’s military maneuvers near the tense western sea border.

South Korea donated $20 million for humanitarian projects in North Korea through the UNICEF between 1996 and 2009.

Last month, the South also resumed some $6.94 million worth of medical aid to the impoverished communist country through the World Health Organization.

Separately, South Korea also decided to give 2.7 billion won ($2.3 million) to a foundation to help build emergency medical facilities in an industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.

UPDATE 74 (2011-12-2): The Choson Ilbo reports that the DPRK’s food prices are rising after the 2011 fall harvest, however, the price increase is not due to a shortage of output, but rather political directives. According to the article:

The price of rice in North Korea is skyrocketing, contrary to received wisdom that it drops after the harvest season. According to a source on North Korea on Wednesday, the rice price has risen from 2,400 won a kg in early October to 5,000 won in late November.

North Korean workers earn only 3,000-4,000 won per month.

This unusual hike in rice price seems to be related to preparation of next year’s political propaganda projects.

A South Korean government official said, “It seems the North Korean government is not releasing rice harvested this year in order to save it up” for celebrations of regime founder Kim Il-sung’s centenary next year, when the North has vowed to become “a powerful and prosperous nation.”

UPDATE 73 (2011-11-24): According to the Daily NK, DPRK television is calling on people to conserve food:

With barely a month left until 2012, the year in which people were promised a radical lifestyle transformation to coincide with the North Korea’s rebirth as a ‘strong and prosperous nation’, programs calling upon people to conserve food are now being broadcast by Chosun Central TV and the fixed-line cable broadcaster ‘3rd Broadcast’.

Chosun Central TV is broadcasting the programs as part of ‘Socio-Culture and Lifestyle Time’, which begins directly after the news on Thursdays at 8:40pm. The majority of the content is apparently now about saving food.

A Yangkang Province source told The Daily NK on Wednesday, “Recently the head lecturer from Jang Cheol Gu Pyongyang Commercial University, Dr. Seo Young Il, has been appearing on the program both on television and the cable broadcasting system, talking about saving food.”

In one such program, Professor Seo apparently noted, “In these days of the military-first era there is a new culture blossoming, one which calls for a varied diet,” before encouraging citizens to eat potatoes and rice, wild vegetables and rice and kimchi and rice rather than white rice on its own, and then adding that bread and wheat flour noodles are better than rice for lunch and dinner.

It is understood that older programs with titles such as ‘A Balanced Diet is Excellent Preparation for Saving Food’ and ‘Cereals with Rice: Good for Your Health’ are also being rebroadcast, while watchers are being informed that thinking meat is required for a good diet is ‘incorrect’.

Whenever North Korea is on high alert or there is a directive to be handed down from Kim Jong Il, both of Chosun Central TV and the 3rd Broadcast are used to communicate with the public. For this reason, some North Korea watchers believe the recent food-saving campaign may reflect a particularly weak food situation in the country going into the winter.

According to the source, one recent program showed a cookery competition involving members of the Union of Democratic Women from Pyongyang’s Moranbong District. During which, one woman was filmed extolling the virtues of potato soup, saying “If we follow the words of The General and try eating potatoes as a staple food, there will be no problem.”

Read all previous posts on the DPRK’s food situation this year blow:

UPDATE 72 (2011-11-25): Aid agencies claim DPRK needs food assistance (New York Times):

North Korea’s harvests this fall were expected to increase by 8.5 percent compared with a year ago, but the most vulnerable segments of the population, especially young children, still urgently need international aid, two United Nations agencies said Friday.

The country will need to import 739,000 tons of grain, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report after an on-site assessment of the North’s food situation. But North Korea, constrained by high global food prices, is planning to import only 325,000 tons.

“The situation remains precarious,” Arif Husain of the World Food Program said in a statement.

The report was the latest in a series of appeals from international relief agencies for food aid for North Korean children.

And according to the AP (via Washington Post):

U.N. food agencies say that North Korea’s main harvest has improved but warn that malnutrition persists.

The report published Friday by two Rome-based agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, says harvests are expected to increase by about 8.5 percent compared to last year’s.

The U.N. assessment team says hospital staff report a “significant” increase in malnutrition among young children. Diets lacking in protein or nutrient rich foods are blamed.

The report says nearly 3 million people will continue to require food assistance next year. U.N. officials have appealed to wealthy countries to put aside politics to help hungry North Koreans. There have been concerns about whether Pyongyang’s authoritarian government diverts food aid.

UPDATE 71 (2011-11-6): On the UN mission to the DPRK (Korea Times):

Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief just returned from a fact-finding mission to North Korea; her findings were nearly as grim as the gray landscape, where approximately 6 million people, or a quarter of the population, relied on international food aid. She spoke of the country’s “chronic poverty and underdevelopment,” while at the same time adding that the long-term dangers of malnutrition affect 33 percent of children under five years old.

Significantly Amos delegation included Kim Won-soo, close personal confident and chef de cabinet to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself a South Korean.

Food shortages would have “long-term implications for generations to come, even if drastic action is taken today.” Amos added, “Traveling around the country, one cannot help but notice that people, children and adults alike, are generally short and thin.”

For example, government food rations were cut from 400 grams per person in March to 200 grams in July, and have remained at this dangerously low level since. People are surviving on maize, rice and cabbage.

International donor appeals have received a tepid response, largely because contributors are rightly concerned over the lack of transparency in the food aid distribution process in this hermetically-closed country. The European Commission, Sweden, Switzerland and Australia are key donors. Notably missing are global good guy aid givers; Canada, Japan and the United States. Allegations persist that food aid goes to the military and regime stalwarts.

Amos added that she called on government officials in Pyongyang to “lead the humanitarian effort, not be an onlooker.” She implored the government to share data and information. She stated, “I made clear that the quality of international support will rest on the credibility of the information that we are able to provide, particularly on humanitarian needs and how donor money is being used.”

Admittedly in soliciting humanitarian aid for this serial human rights offender, Amos walks a thin line; she stated judiciously that the U.N.’s efforts must be based on “independence, neutrality and impartiality.”

In fact, the $218 million appeal for 2011 has seen only $74 million in delivered funds or about 34 percent of the total.

Though North Korea faces a shortage of arable land and perpetually bad weather, there’s also little doubt that the antiquated and state-structured socialist farm system is part of the problem. One has only to contrast the two sides of this divided nation to see the bountiful food production in South Korea.

Addressing the food aid distribution, days earlier Marzuki Darusman, the U.N.’s special rapporteur in human rights in the DPRK warned that U.N. agencies working in North Korea “have faced numerous operational challenges, especially in accessing various parts of the country in order to monitor and ensure aid reaches its intended recipient.” He spoke of the government authorities “often either unwilling or unable to provide access required for humanitarian agencies.”

While barred from access into North Korea, Darusman later enumerated the worsening human rights situation in the country. “In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, freedom of speech and expression is extremely limited,” and criticism of the government is strictly curtailed, and is punishable by arrest and incarceration in prison camps.

Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general, warned that North Korea maintains a wide network of political prison camps, some of which date back to the 1950s. These political prisons hold an estimated 200,000 people! He characterized the DPRK as a state where “practically a whole range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are denied on a regular basis.”

The contradictions abound. There’s a growing humanitarian crisis while the neo-Stalinist regime surrealistically pursues a costly nuclear weapons program which, while politically destabilizing, equally draws a huge amount of otherwise scarce resources.

UPDATE 70 (2011-11-3): N. Korea in ‘not much need’ of fresh aid: EU legislator. According to Yonhap:

The European Union has no immediate plan to offer more food aid to North Korea, because the communist country can expect to ease its chronic food shortages with the fall harvest, an EU lawmaker said Thursday after a trip to the North.

Christian Ehler, chairman of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations on the Korean Peninsula, warned, however, that the North could face severe food shortages next year if its harvest falls short of this year’s.

Ehler arrived in Seoul this week following a four-day visit to North Korea.

Asked whether North Korea sought more food aid from the EU during his trip there, Ehler said yes.

“From our point of view, however, there is not much need of food aid in practical terms,” the lawmaker said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on the sidelines of a forum in Seoul. “But in terms of productivity, if harvest is bad, the result will be devastating.”

In July, the EU announced plans to provide North Korea with 10 million euros in emergency food aid.

South Korea suspended its annual aid of 400,000 tons of rice in 2008 when conservative President Lee Myung-bak took office with a policy of linking assistance to progress in efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear programs.

Inter-Korean relations plunged to one of their lowest levels last year, following the North’s two deadly military attacks on the South.

Seoul is also known to have reservations about Washington’s move to resume food aid to Pyongyang, which has not shown any clear sign of keeping its earlier denuclearization commitment.

South Korean officials said they could give large-scale aid to North Korea if Pyongyang demonstrated its commitment to denuclearization, a key precondition set by both Seoul and Washington for the resumption of long-stalled six-party talks on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

Ehler acknowledged monitoring concerns about food aid to North Korea, but he argued that the international community must help the impoverished communist nation feed its people.

“Because this is in international terms a non-political issue, everyone would be obliged to engage in talks for food aid,” Ehler said.

“We would have to divide between the intentions of the regime and the mere question of whether food aid is needed.”

UPDATE 69 (2011-11-3): The Daily NK reports that once again, the KPA has been named as the nations top food priority:

The North Korea government has long been increasing public anticipation that next year will represent the start of the ‘strong and prosperous state’; however, once again the People’s Army has been handed first priority for receipt of this year’s grain harvest.

According to sources in Pyongyang today, on two occasions, the 7th and 19th of last month, North Korea’s Commander-in-Chief (meaning Kim Jong Il) and the Party Central Committee ordered administrative organs, cooperative farm management committees and parts of the state food network to send food to the Chosun People’s Army stocks first.

One source explained, “Prior to the harvest, farms were instructed to conduct an ideological drive to secure provisions for the army, with each manager handed orders to fulfill a set plan for military supplies.”

Official documents further stated that the relevant organs had to put in place practical plans to provide the electricity, fuel and transportation needed to transmit the provisions to the army, while emphasizing a number of reasons why efforts to block thievery or other mishandling of the domestic grain harvest had to be enhanced.

The source went on, “Central organs took the order from the Commander-in-Chief and Party Central Committee and passed it on to the provinces directly, launching an ideological mobilization drive and emphasizing the battle to secure extensive military food stocks.”

In North Korea, both the people and the military are suffering under the weight of malnutrition, and in the case of the military this is driving rising numbers of AWOL soldiers and weakening relations with local civilians.

In the midst of which, the order from North Korea’s central leadership appears to represent circumstantial evidence of official concerns that plans to increase food production this year in advance of 2012 will not bear any fruit.

UPDATE 68 (2011-10-14): NGO’s accuse US of politicizing food aid.  According to Reuters:

U.S. aid groups have accused the Obama administration of playing politics with North Korean food aid, imperiling millions of hungry and vulnerable people in the isolated Communist state.

As South Korean President Lee Myung-bak continued his state visit to the United States on Friday a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) wants the Obama administration to explain what they call unconscionable delays in deciding whether to resume U.S. food assistance to North Korea.

“There has clearly been a political lens put over a humanitarian issue,” said Jim White of the international relief organization Mercy Corps, which took the lead in prior U.S. aid efforts to North Korea.

“We are seeing large numbers of people in North Korea slip from chronic malnutrition to acute. There are needs now.”

The United States says it is weighing North Korea’s request for new food aid as Washington and its ally South Korea seek to maintain a firm line on Pyongyang’s disputed nuclear program and sporadic bursts of belligerence against Seoul.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) declined to answer inquiries about when the decision may be made or what factors may be at play.

They stress, however, that any decision will be based on humanitarian need in North Korea — a secretive country which is largely closed to foreigners.

North Korea “must address our concerns about monitoring and outstanding issues related to North Korea’s suspension of our previous food aid program before any decision can be considered,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said last week.

Rising global commodities prices coupled with summer floods and typhoons have compounded the emergency this year, and the United Nations estimated in March that more than 6 million North Koreans urgently need food help.

But North Korea’s requests for aid help have gone mostly unanswered by a skeptical international community. The current World Food Program (WFP) appeal for the country is only about 30 percent funded.

The United States and South Korea, the two biggest donors to the North before sanctions, have suggested they will not resume aid until they are satisfied the government will not divert the assistance for its own ends as some critics of prior programs allege.

Aid workers with U.S. NGOs which helped implement a U.S. food aid program for North Korea in 2008-09 as well as deliver emergency U.S. flood help last month say these concerns are overblown and that they could get a credible food aid program up and running swiftly if given the green light.

“We’ve made significant improvements on the level of monitoring that we can do in communities to ensure that food got from the U.S. to individuals who need it,” said Randall Spadoni of World Vision. He noted that official North Korean rations were cut earlier this year from 400 grams of wheat or potatoes per adult per day to just 200 grams, a fraction of what a healthy adult would require.

“They’ve been receiving that for about five months. They get no protein, very little vitamins. We don’t know how people can cope with this, and we are very afraid of what we are going to see in the future if this goes on.”

The NGOs say they have been able to operate with Korean-speaking staff on the ground, track aid deliveries and make spot checks as long as they give officials 24 hours notice — reducing concerns of aid diversion.

“There is a learning that begins to happen, and they begin to understand and accept that a certain set of principles and paradigms can be put in place,” said White of Mercy Corps.


North Korea suffered a crippling famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated one million people, and has seen chronic food shortages due to mismanaged farm policy, a string of natural disasters and sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile programs.

The United States has given North Korea about $800 million in food aid since 1996, but stopped in 2009 after Pyongyang suspended the program operated in conjunction with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) in a row over monitoring.

After devastating floods, the United States in August agreed to provide North Korea with up to $900,000 in emergency relief supplies, which arrived early last month aboard a chartered jumbo jet at Pyongyang’s airport.

Under bright spotlights — all the more noticeable in energy-starved North Korea’s nighttime gloom — workers bustled to unload 83 tonnes of oral rehydration tablets, plastic tarpaulins, emergency medicine and community water filters which were then shipped to flood-hit areas in North and South Hwanghae and Kangwon provinces.

Matthew Ellingson of Samaritan’s Purse, one of the U.S. NGOs involved in the delivery, said the six-person NGO team, which included three Korean speakers, was stunned by the devastation they saw on the ground.

The U.S. flood aid, like the discontinued 2008-09 U.S. food aid program, was negotiated through the Korea America Private Exchange Society (KAPES), an official North Korean organization charged with managing aid donations.

White, of Mercy Corps, said that while KAPES officials did shadow the aid delivery team, the U.S. groups were satisfied that monitoring and transparency standards were upheld.

“We are verifying that the people who are receiving the goods are in fact vulnerable. We require them to show us a list of vulnerable people and match those goods to the names … and we can verify that the goods have arrived at pediatric hospitals and there are hungry kids,” he said.


U.S. officials sent their own needs assessment team to North Korea in May, but five months later have yet to release the team’s report.

Political observers say the food aid decision appears bound up in the larger question of whether to reengage with North Korea despite its reluctance to accede to international demands that it scrap its nuclear arms program.

“As a practical matter no decision has been reached on food aid because no decisions have been reached on broader policy considerations with respect to North Korea,” said one congressional staffer familiar with the issue.

“The food aid question is enmeshed bureaucratically in the overall fabric of North Korea policy and they just can’t cut it loose and make it an independent decision.”

The NGO groups concede that the 2008-09 food program collapsed due to a dispute over monitoring by the World Food Program, tasked with handling the bulk of the 500,000 metric tonnes of food aid.

“The 2008/2009 operation was not well-funded and as a result our operating conditions were changed, meaning we could not use Korean speakers, had to give seven days’ notice instead of 24 hours’, and the geographical scope of the operation was cut,” WFP spokesman Marcus Prior said.

WFP continues to operate in North Korea, with a smaller, largely nutrition-based program. The U.S. NGOs say they now have assurances that North Korea would agree to resuming bigger aid programs based on the original 2008 aid agreement which the United States accepted.

The proposed food aid would include a nutritional corn/soy blend and vegetable oils, which are not generally easy to resell, they say, and the North Koreans have also indicated they would consider new steps such as nutritional monitoring to ensure the food is reaching the needy, which could further tamp down fears of food diversions.

“All signs that we have gotten from the North Korean side is that they are willing to negotiate that if something is on the table,” said White of Mercy Corps. “We are waiting for the U.S. government to engage.”

UPDATE 67 (2011-10-14): The Financial Times makes the point that unoffical and black market agriculture have taken off since the “Arduous March” of the 1990s, and as a result, fewer people are likely to suffer a famine again:

Mrs Choi argued the scale of personal cultivation had made people less fearful the country could slide back into the famine of the 1990s, which killed as many as 1m people. “People now feel more resourceful and less vulnerable,” she says as she wipes tables at the Seoul restaurant where she now works.

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But Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin university, says North Korean authorities have softened their stance towards private cultivation of land, which would once have been an anti-socialist heresy. Forestry and land registry officials now take bribes rather than cracking down on smallholdings that many defectors insist are more productive than state farms, he says.

“They will never starve [in a 1990s-style famine] again,” says Mr Lankov. “If there is a really bad harvest, then China will send enough to keep North Korea just above the starvation line.”

More broadly, Mr Lankov argues the scale of private agriculture in the last decade does not just help poorer families gain more food but is part of a “grassroots revival of a capitalist, market economy”. Jangmadang costs move in line with the dollar and Chinese supply, owing nothing to authoritarian state price planning.

Another defector who also fled in mid-2009 agreed security agents patrolling markets paid little attention to home-grown produce. “The only thing they really looked for at the stalls were South Korean electronic goods or clothes. That was sensitive.”

UPDATE 66 (2011-10-7): Reuters: Special Report: Crisis grips North Korean rice bowl:

In a pediatric hospital in North Korea’s most productive farming province, children lay two to a bed. All showed signs of severe malnutrition: skin infections, patchy hair, listless apathy.

“Their mothers have to bring them here on bicycles,” said duty doctor Jang Kum Son in the Yellow Sea port city of Haeju. “We used to have an ambulance but it’s completely broken down. One mother travelled 72 kilometers (45 miles). By the time they get here, it’s often too late.”

It’s also getting late for North Korea to get the massive amount of food aid it claims to need before the harsh winter sets in. The country’s dysfunctional food-distribution system, rising global commodities prices and sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs had contributed to what appears to be a hunger crisis in the North, even before devastating summer floods and typhoons compounded the emergency.

The regime’s appeals for massive food aid have gone mostly unanswered by a skeptical international community. Only 30 percent of a United Nations food aid target for North Korea has been met so far. The United States and South Korea, the two biggest donors before sanctions, have said they won’t resume aid until they are satisfied the military-led communist regime won’t divert the aid for its own uses and progress is made on disarmament talks.

South Korea also says the North is exaggerating the severity of its food crisis. Visiting scholars, tourists and charity workers have sent out conflicting views about it.

The U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), for instance, said last month after visiting the North that “the damage was not so significant.” Another U.N. body, the World Food Programme, which has a regular presence in the North, warned in March of growing hunger. The sharp divergence of views is one reason why the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator will visit this month to assess the situation.

North Korea’s Economy and Trade Information Center, part of the foreign trade ministry, invited Alertnet to see the extent of the crisis on a rare reporting trip to its rice bowl in South Hwanghae province in the southwest.

Alertnet (www.trust.org/alertnet/), a humanitarian news service run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation which covers crises worldwide, saw evidence of alarming malnutrition and damaged crops, but also signs of some promise for the coming rice harvest.

Although tightly controlled by government officials, an Alertnet reporter and Reuters photographers and video journalists were able to conduct a week-long trip into the South Hwanghae region. The visit included rare access to collective farms, orphanages, hospitals, rural clinics, schools and nurseries.

The regime’s motive in granting the access appears to be to amplify its food-aid appeals. North Korean officials at first asked Alertnet to reach out to its subscriber base to mobilize help–and at one point asked the Thomson Reuters Foundation for a donation. Alertnet declined, saying all it could do is visit and report on the situation.

The picture the regime presented in South Hwanghae was largely one of chronic hunger, dire healthcare, limited access to clean water and a collapsing food-rationing system, all under a command economy that has been in crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago threw North Korea into isolation.

In one orphanage in Haeju, 28 children huddled together on the floor of a small clinic, singing “We have nothing to envy” — an anthem to North Korea’s longstanding policy of juche, or complete self-reliance, that has made this one of the most closed societies on earth.

Measurements taken of each child’s mid-upper arm with color-coded plastic bracelets — a standard test for malnutrition — showed 12 were in the orange or red danger zones, meaning some could die without proper treatment.

Nutrition experts from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), who accompanied AlertNet, found similar results among children at other institutions. But they stressed their findings were not statistically representative.

At an orphanage in Hwangju town, across the provincial border in North Hwanghae province, 11 of 12 children in the clinic were critically malnourished. They looked to be no more than three or four years old, but orphanage staff insisted they were eight, citing severe stunting due to malnutrition.

“I’ve never seen stunting like this before, not ever — not even in Ethiopia,” said Delphine Chedorge, deputy program manager of emergencies for MSF France.

In the orphanage’s kitchen, the only food for the 736 children was maize and a thin soup made of onion and radish leaves. Cooks said they had no oil, sugar or protein — vital ingredients for adequate nutrition.

“They’ve had to reduce the minimum height limit for the army by 2 cm,” a Western aid worker in Pyongyang said, speaking of stunting.

North Koreans on average live 11 years less than South Koreans due mainly to malnutrition, according to U.N. health indicators.


In March, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that 6 million North Koreans needed food aid and a third of children were chronically malnourished or stunted. By contrast, the United Nations says 4 million people face a food crisis in Somalia.

The WFP’s appeal inevitably raised the specter of the mid-1990s, when years of mismanaged farm policy and natural disasters resulted in famine that some estimates said killed as many as a million people. Nobody is saying this year is anything like that — and South Korea has said it suspects Pyongyang of exaggerating the crisis.

North Korea has relied on food aid since the mid-1990s. Critics say Pyongyang spends most of what little hard currency it earns maintaining a million-strong army and developing nuclear weapons and missiles instead of feeding its millions of malnourished people.

A savage winter that froze seeds in the ground hit early crops even before this summer’s floods. In South Hwanghae, the governing People’s Committee said, the cold wiped out 65 percent of the province’s barley, winter wheat and potato crops, which are sown in autumn and harvested in spring.

Between late June and early August, torrential rains, successive floods and two typhoons inundated southwestern and central provinces. Hardest hit were the plains of South Hwanghae, whose sprawling, collective farms are essential food providers in a mountainous nation where only a fifth of land is arable and the climate is harsh.

Typically, the province generates about a third of the country’s total cereal supply, pumping wheat, maize and rice into the Public Distribution System, on which two-thirds of the population relies.

Last year, 16 of South Hwanghae’s 22 counties produced a surplus, providing precious calories for people elsewhere, especially in towns and cities where chances to fish, forage and keep household gardens are limited. The summer storms destroyed 80 percent of the province’s early maize harvest, the People’s Committee said.

Those figures were impossible to verify.

AlertNet saw fields buried under mud and sand washed down from higher ground, as well as broken concrete bridges and collapsed school buildings and medical centers.

“The harvest is lost, and we’ll just have to turn the ground over,” said a senior official with the provincial Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee. “We don’t have any tractors so we’ll do it by hand.”

At Soa-Ri collective farm, which was hit three times by floods, about 100 families were living under Red Cross tarpaulins amid the buckled ruins of bungalow-style homes.

An enormous tree lay prone in the muck, snapped at its base by the force of flash floods, whose power and frequency have intensified in recent years due to rampant deforestation in a country where many still need firewood for cooking.


Jong Song Hui, 40, recalled how she was sleeping when her house started caving in, its mud bricks turned to mush by days of heavy rain. Woken by the crashing of timbers, she grabbed her two children and got out just in time.

“The only things I could save were the portraits of the Great Leaders,” she said. She was referring to pictures of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il-Sung, and his now ruling son, Kim Jong-il, which adorn many walls in one of the world’s most enduring personality cults. The elder Kim remains posthumously the formal head of state, proclaimed “eternal president” four years after his 1994 death.

The rains also destroyed Soa-Ri’s clinic, which serves 4,790 people on the collective farm. “Living conditions are terrible,” said the clinic’s doctor, standing outside a dilapidated building that functioned as a substitute clinic.

“The water supply is heavily contaminated — wells are polluted. So people are suffering diarrhea and digestive disorders. Also, it’s getting colder, so people are getting pneumonia and bronchitis.”

In Haeju, 40 percent of the city’s 276,000 people were still without water due to damage to the mains system, forcing residents to trek 4 kilometers into the mountains to lug water from fresh streams, municipal officials said.

Teams of students and factory workers were digging to find the broken concrete pipes connecting Haeju with a reservoir almost 7 kilometers away. All the pipes would have to be replaced.


The U.N.’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, will visit the country for the first time later this month to assess the country’s food needs and how aid can be monitored to ensure it does go to those who need it most.

Experts have presented conflicting views about North Korea’s harvests. Last week, Hiroyuki Konuma, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s regional representative in Asia, said crop damage from the summer’s extreme weather was “not so significant” after finishing a three-day trip to North Korea.

Ondine Ripka, a food security analyst with MSF France, said even minor natural disasters could have catastrophic consequences for vulnerable people.

“We did witness some damage in the fields,” she said. “But we shouldn’t forget that people are already living on the edge, and it takes very little to push them over into malnutrition.”

Along pot-holed roads neatly planted with cosmos and asters, AlertNet saw acre after acre of brown, drooping cornstalks, suggesting some damage at least to South Hwanghae’s maize crops.

Pak Su Dong, manager of the Soksa-Ri farm, held up a withered cob and pulled back the husk, revealing just a few yellow kernels inside.

“Since June, we had heavy rain for two months, so that’s why the maize couldn’t get enough nutrients to grow properly,” he said. “We now expect to harvest only 15 percent of the maize output we had originally planned.”

Despite the sorry-looking crops, soldiers were guarding many cornfields against raiders, keeping watch from wooden shelters with straw roofs.


Next April marks the 100th birthday of “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung, and skeptics accuse North Korea of hoarding food for the centennial celebrations.

South Korean officials say the North is stockpiling food ahead of a possible underground nuclear test, which would likely provoke another round of sanctions.

In August, the United States offered $900,000 in flood assistance that consisted largely of supplies such as plastic sheeting and tents, saying it carried less risk of diversion.

North Korea’s closed society and fixation on weaponry have thrown up plenty of doubt over the years about its perennial food aid requests. Aid has often been intertwined with diplomacy over its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea said in August, in the midst of its food aid appeals, it was willing to resume regional disarmament talks at an early date without preconditions.

North Korea in the past has won food aid pledges after resuming talks on its nuclear program, which have dragged on for much of the past decade. Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests, in October 2006 and May 2009, and is believed to have enough nuclear material for up to a dozen warheads.

South Korea halted shipments of food and fertilizer in early 2008 at the outset of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s five-year term. He demanded progress on the disarmament talks before resuming aid.

Russia, one of the six parties to the disarmament talks, expects them to resume soon, its foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.


Experts have noted that North Korea could better survive natural disasters if it adopted more market-based food policies.

North Korea’s Public Distribution System was the main source of food for most North Koreans until it broke down during the mid-1990s famine. Gradually, the regime allowed a limited form of commercial trading to develop. The majority of people began to rely on crude rural markets to survive.

But in 2005, the state clamped down on the market system, reverting to the PDS, which can ensure food goes to soldiers, officials, party apparatchiks and priority workers but has again proved unable to meet most people’s needs, North Korean experts said.

That became evident again this year.

North Korea’s standard daily food ration is 700 grams of cereals per person per day. After the harsh winter it was reduced to 400 grams, then cut further to 150 grams in June, officials said. From July it was raised back to 200 grams, where it remains — about a third of the government’s minimum standard of 573 grams.

Back in March, the World Food Programme predicted the PDS would run out of food by early summer. In fact, it didn’t — possibly because of the drastic reductions in rations. One of the tasks of the U.N. assessment mission this month is to figure out why.

AlertNet was not permitted to visit the struggling rural markets where farmers are allowed to barter goods, although a few people were seen on the roadside selling potatoes, eggs, fruit and cigarettes.

The October rice crop will soon be harvested here, and official expectations are muted.

“We’re only expecting about 45 percent of the rice crop to come through,” said the senior official from the South Hwanghae People’s Committee.

However, a North Korean Red Cross official said he was optimistic about the rice harvest, as there had been plenty of sunshine since mid-August.

All over the province, AlertNet saw lush-looking paddies with golden-green rows swaying in the breeze. Under a balmy autumn sun, some men, women and children were beginning to reap rice, working the rows with hand-held sickles.

Visitors to the central parts of the country, including areas around Pyongyang, have also reported seeing crops in good condition.

Red flags marked paddies ready for early harvest and enormous signs proclaimed: “Let’s all help the farmers!”

Some farmers used ox-drawn carts to transport produce. Not a single piece of farm machinery was seen during the trip.

Many houses were surrounded by small kitchen gardens, with climbing beans and even melons growing onto roofs. Personal plots were crammed with cabbages, radishes and other vegetables.

A woman whose house was destroyed by floods at the Soa-Ri collective farm showed the food stocks she kept in her tarpaulin tent: corn and a few green leaves.

“I had about 15 square meters by my house that I was allowed to cultivate for myself, but everything was washed away,” she said. “So now I have to dig wild grass.”

See here also (The Guardian).

UPDATE 65 (2011-10-5): UN relief chief visits North Korea:

The United Nations’ top humanitarian official says she will make her first visit to North Korea this month.

Valerie Amos, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said in New York Tuesday she wants to raise awareness of the situation in North Korea, where the world body estimates that 6 million people are in urgent need of food aid.

She said she also wants to talk to North Korean officials about their long-term plans for meeting the nation’s food needs. She will be in the country from October 17 to 21.

World governments have contributed less than 30 percent of the amount the United Nations is seeking to avoid a food crisis in North Korea.

Amos said that is largely because of concerns that food aid will not reach those most in need. But she said that monitoring has improved in the past year, with the North allowing random visits and the use of Korean-speaking staff for the first time.

The United States and the European Union both sent teams to assess North Korea’s food needs earlier this year. The Europeans said they will send aid, but Washington still has not announced a decision.

Rajiv Shah, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has said the United States will not send food aid until it receives adequate guarantees that any aid will not be used to prop up the government.

The North’s military was found on roughly 10 occasions to have stored about 400 sacks of rice meant for relief on their bases in February 2008 before the Lee Myung-bak administration was in place, according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. Last September, then-Grand National Party floor leader Kim Moo-sung had said during a meeting at the National Assembly that he suspected North Korea’s military had stored up 1 million tons of rice for its soldiers.

A female North Korean defector in her forties who had recently entered the South said during a press conference on July 7 that ordinary citizens “do not even see a glimpse” of rice sent as aid from other countries.

UPDATE 64 (2011-7-14): Sweden, China Pledge US$2.6 Million for N. Korean Food Aid.  According to the Choson Ilbo:

According to the Voice of America on Wednesday, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency has pledged US$1.6 million to the World Food Programme, and China has provided US1 million. With these latest contributions, the WFP has secured a total of $38 million for the North Korean project.

The humanitarian organization categorizes North Korea as a country with a moderately high level of malnourishment. Between 20 and 34 percent of its population are believed to be suffering from hunger.

UPDATE 63 (2011-7-13): Roberta Cohen makes her case for food aid in 38 North.

UPDATE 62 (2011-7-12): Glyn Ford, former MEP, makes his case for food aid.

UPDATE 61 (2011-7-112): Marcus Noland has a good summary up of the political economy of international food aid.

UPDATE 60 (2011-7-6): The DPRK has approached the Thompson Reuters Foundation for food aid.  Accoridng to AlertNet:

North Korea has appealed directly to Thomson Reuters Foundation and its network of international relief agencies to help mobilise emergency aid to tackle severe food shortages in the reclusive state.

Hwang Hyon Chol, director of North Korea’s Economy and Trade Information Centre, made the unprecedented request in an email to the Foundation, which has built up an alliance of about 500 aid agencies through its AlertNet humanitarian news service.

“As no less people including children in orphanages in Wonsan, Sariwon etc. and researchers in research institutions face a serious problem arising from lack of food, we are seeking food aid either from your Foundation or international charities introduced by you,” he wrote.

“The quantity of needed food compiled till now amounts to 100 thousands tonnes (sic) no later than end-August and any species of cereals including rice, wheat, maize, beans etc. is needed.”

In the email to Thomson Reuters Foundation’s chief executive, Monique Villa, North Korea’s Economy and Trade Information Centre invited Foundation representatives to visit Pyongyang to assess the severity of the food crisis.

“I earnestly request your sincere assistance in the solution of this problem as you regard humanitarian issues as of great importance,” the centre’s Hwang Hyon Chol wrote.

Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the world’s leading provider of news and information, runs free humanitarian and legal news services and journalism-training programmes around the world.

AlertNet was set up in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide to help international aid agencies better coordinate their activities.

UPDATE 59 (2011-7-5): Bloomberg reports on rising food prices in the DPRK.

UPDATE 58 (2011-7-4): India is donating food to the DPRK.  According to Reliefweb:

The Indian Ambassador to the Democatic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) His Excellency Pratap Singh travelled to the port of Nampo last week to welcome the off-loading of food supplies destined for hungry women and children via the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

Earlier this year, the Government of India donated US$1 million to WFP’s operations in DPRK, a contribution which was used to purchase 900 metric tons of soya beans and 373 tons of wheat.

“I am very happy to see the safe arrival of this food in a country where it is needed so urgently,” Ambassador Singh said while in Nampo. “India is keen to ensure that our Asian neighbours in need receive the help they need in difficult times, and that is why we have stepped forward and offered this food assistance.”

The diet of the most vulnerable people in DPRK lacks protein. The soya bean is protein-rich and a base ingredient in WFP’s locally-produced blended foods, which are enriched with vitamins and minerals. The foods are distributed through institutions to children and their mothers under WFP’s current emergency operation, which aims to reach 3.5 million people.

Ambassador Singh witnessed the offloading from ship to port warehouses, and was briefed on how WFP monitors food movements to final distribution points in institutions across the country.

“WFP is enormously grateful to the government and people of India for this contribution which comes at a critical time for the people we are helping here in DPRK,” said WFP DPRK Country Director Claudia von Roehl.

WFP current emergency operation targets 3.5 million children, women and the elderly in DPRK. In addition, WFP is supplying targeted cereal rations to the elderly and school children between 7-10 years-old during the current lean season.

WFP has been working to alleviate hunger in DPRK since 1996.

For Further Information:
Radhika Srivastava, WFP/New Delhi, Tel (+91) 1146554000, Mob (+91) 9871710646

UPDATE 57 (2011-7-4): According to Yonhap, the South Korean government remains opposed to food aid to the DPRK:

South Korea ruled out sending any government food aid to North Korea Monday as the European Union (EU) announced a plan to give emergency aid to the impoverished communist country.

According to the Daily NK, the US has not made a decision as to whether or not it will provide food assistance.

UPDATE 56 (2011-7-5): UN anounces launch of food operation in the DPRK.  According to the UN web page:

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an emergency food supply operation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to assist some 3.5 million vulnerable children, mothers, and elderly persons, the agency said today.

Emilia Casella, a WFP spokesperson, told a news briefing in Geneva that the agency had participated in an assessment of food needs in the DPRK in March, which concluded that “a bitter winter, crop loss and a lack of financial resources meant that the country was unable to secure cereal supplies from abroad although it needed them to supplement the local production.”

“This left the DPRK highly vulnerable to food shortages,” Ms. Casella said. “The WFP therefore launched an emergency food operation valued at just over $200 million to reach 3.5 million of the most vulnerable children, mothers and elderly in the country’s most food-insecure areas.”

“Acute malnutrition had not reached crisis levels yet, but chronic malnutrition and poor diet was widespread in the DPRK, meaning that the situation could deteriorate with any significant reduction in food intake,” Ms. Casella said.

About a third of the children in the country were stunted, Ms. Casella said, and about a quarter of all pregnant women and nursing mothers were malnourished.

Marixie Mercado of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told the same briefing that the March assessment “underlined a context of chronic malnutrition.”

“The emergency efforts are being undertaken in order to stop that situation from becoming a context of acute malnutrition,” she said.

UPDATE 55 (2011-7-5): Haggard offers a summary of the EU’s assistance program.

UPDATE 54 (2011-7-4): The EU has offered to provide food assistance.  According to the New York Times:

Responding to the growing threat of a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, the European Union announced on Monday that it will provide about $14.5 million in emergency aid to feed more than some 650,000 North Koreans.

The bloc’s executive body, the European Commission, said that after its experts witnessed evidence of a developing crisis last month during a mission to North Korea, it negotiated an agreement with the North Koreans about how to monitor the delivery of assistance.

The severity of the situation prompted a switch of tactics by the commission. In 2008, it stopped sending humanitarian aid to North Korea in favor of offering financing for longer-term development projects.


The European aid will be distributed through the World Food Program, which has been used by the United States and other countries and donors. Ms. Georgieva said it would be strictly monitored, from the point of delivery at ports to when it reached recipients.

“If at any stage we discover that the aid is being diverted from its intended recipients, then the commission will not hesitate to end its humanitarian intervention,” she said.

According to the European Commission, its experts found that in North Korea the state-distributed food rations had been more than halved in recent months. Two-thirds of the population depends on the rations, it said.

The per-person ration, which had been 400 grams of cereals per day, about 14 ounces, was reduced to 150 grams, about 5.3 ounces, in June. That is a fifth of the daily average nutritional requirement, according to European experts. Most of the rations consist of corn.

“Food assistance will reach children under 5 who have already been hospitalized with severe acute malnutrition,” the commission said in the statement. “Children in residential care will also be fed, as well as pregnant and breast-feeding women, hospital patients and the elderly.”

The food shortages have been caused by years of economic mismanagement and underinvestment, and have been made worse by poor weather and a reduction of food imports from China and South Korea. The next main grain harvest is in October.

Initially, the North Koreans had planned to import 353,000 tons of grains, but that target was reduced to 220,000 tons, of which about half has been secured so far, European experts said.

The North Korean government has promised unrestricted access for random checks related to the aid, the commission said. While distributing the European aid, the World Food Program will pay 400 visits per month to warehouses, institutions caring for children, hospitals and distribution sites.

And according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

The European Commission has invested 35 million euros ($A47.47 million) in long-term nutrition projects in North Korea between 2007-2010 to address the country’s “structural food insecurity”.

A second phase of the program will be implemented between 2011-2013.

The EU’s executive branch provided around 124 million euros ($A168.19 million) in humanitarian aid to North Korea between 1995-2008 to supply emergency food, improve health care and provide access to clean water and sanitation.

UPDATE 53 (2011-6-20): According to the Donga Ilbo, the US has stated its position that the DPRK is not suffering a food shortage:

The U.S. has tentatively concluded that North Korea is not suffering from a food crisis though certain areas in the Stalinist country do have food shortages.

This conclusion is based on the visit by a U.S. assessment team for food assistance to the North led by Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights, said a South Korea diplomatic source Sunday.

“Though the U.S. has yet to release an official report on the visit, it made a preliminary judgment based on the results of the assessment team’s trip that the North has no comprehensive food crisis,” the source said.

Based on the judgment, Washington is known to believe that food assistance is necessary for certain regions in the North where food is in short supply.

The U.S. will make a final decision on sending food assistance to the North by putting together the results of the U.S. visit and those of European Union officials to the Stalinist country between June 6 and 17. The U.S. team went to the North on May 24 and stayed there until June 2 to visit Hamkyong and Jagang provinces.

In the visit, King is known to talked to North Korean officials on how the U.S. will provide food aid if it decides to do so. The U.S. team, however, reportedly failed to agree with Pyongyang on a monitoring system aimed at securing the transparency of food distribution.

A source in Seoul said, “Washington’s stance is that negotiations with the North on the monitoring system need to be continued.”

Despite Washington’s active move to provide food support to Pyongyang, time is needed before a final decision is made. The source in Seoul said, “The U.S. government is more active than the South Korean government in providing food assistance to North Korea, but the situation in the U.S. on the matter is quite complex, with the U.S. House of Representatives seeking a bill to ban food assistance to the North.”

“What’s left is Washington persuading Congress after the announcement of the U.S. assessment team’s visit to Pyongyang.”

UPDATE 52 (2011-6-2): Toni Johnson writing for the CFR makes some good points:

CFR’s Scott Snyder writes that North Korean authorities have not let international agencies independently identify and respond to the greatest humanitarian need. “This circumstance heightens the moral hazard of providing food aid,” Snyder says, because working through North Korea’s public distribution system affirms the government’s priorities. Andrew Natsios, former head of USAID, suggests a “take it or leave it approach” that includes bypassing the state’s public food-distribution system and making food shipments on a monthly basis to encourage more cooperation.

UPDATE 52 (2011-5-25): Marcus Noland on the strategies of distributing food aid in the DPRK and how some of these challenges can be overcome.

UPDATE 52 (2011-5-25): Marcus Noland on the strategies of distributing food aid in the DPRK and how some of these challenges can be overcome.

UPDATE 51 (2011-5-23): The AP (via Washington Post) has a good article on the politics of food aid to the DPRK here.

UPDATE 50 (2011-5-20, 23, 24): The US is sending a team to assess the DPRK’s food situation.

According to the Washington Post:

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday that the special envoy for North Korean human rights, Robert King, and an official from the U.S. Agency for International Development would lead a team of food experts visiting the country for five days starting Tuesday.

U.S. officials have stressed that any aid would be based solely on humanitarian need. Washington’s relations with Pyongyang have been icy in the past few years, a time when the North Koreans have sunk a South Korean ship, bombarded civilians in the South and tested a nuclear weapon.

According to the Donga Ilbo:

The U.S. government will provide food aid to North Korea under five principles governing the timing, scale, purpose, items and methods of its aid through consultation with South Korea, diplomatic sources said Sunday.

Washington’s principles reportedly include the timing of aid after summer; no massive volume of aid over a short period of time; sending aid to social groups in crisis due to chronic food shortages rather than the food crisis; selection of items to send as aid to prevent North Korea from stockpiling and converting the assistance into military use; and a monitoring system stronger than the one the North allowed the World Food Program to use.

A source said, “By choosing to provide aid after May or June, or the time the World Food Program claimed that food in the North will be depleted, Washington will show that it does not accept results of the U.N. food agency’s inspection results as they are.”

Accoridng to the Joong Ang Daily:

With a U.S. food assessment team led by special envoy Robert King entering North Korea today – a move some regard as a preliminary step toward resuming U.S. food aid to the North – a group of high-profile U.S. senators urged Washington not to make a hasty decision.

In a joint letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday, Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl, Democrat Jim Webb and independent Joseph Lieberman said the U.S. should use extreme caution so as not to play into the hands of the North Korean regime, which they said may be using the food aid issue as a political weapon.

The senators said Washington should respond to the North’s request through careful consultation with South Korea and Japan.

UPDATE 49 (2011-5-19): (Daily NK) The South Korean government and supporters of its policy expressing skepticism of the DPRK’s food shortage report on problms with the WFP food assesment survey (here and here). Although the South Korean government remains opposed to official assistance, they have allowed private assistance from the ROK to trickle into the DPRK.

UPDATE 48 (2011-5-20): The EU is mulling the need to send an independent food shortage evaluation team to the DPRK.

UPDATE 47 (2011-5-19): The UN WFP claims it has been given “new monitoring powers” in the DPRK in an effort to divert fears in the west that food aid will be diverted to the benefit of the DPRK’s leadership. According to Reliefweb:

A senior UN food agency official called Thursday for urgent assistance for North Korea, stressing that Pyongyang has given the agency new monitoring powers to ensure aid is not diverted from the needy.

Roehl pledged to improve monitoring by getting more access to distribution venues and even private markets under an agreement signed with Pyongyang last month.

“We are… granted, for the first time ever, access to markets in both urban and rural areas… we are checking market prices of food being traded,” she said.

“We will increase the presence of international staff up to 60… and more than half of those involve monitoring activities.”

Roehl added that aid officials must give only 24 hours’ notice to authorities before visits to private homes, markets or other venues, compared to a week in the past.

Of course there is a time inconsistency problem here. Once the aid is delivered, the DPRK could renege on its promise and still keep the aid. The problem for Pyongyang on many fronts is they cannot easily credibly commit to any kind of rule because there are few (none?) institutions that can constrain easily constrain the political whims of the leadership….

UPDATE 46 (2011-5-19): Accoridng to the Daily NK, a Russian delegation has agreed to send food aid:

A delegation of Russian officials has agreed to send 50,000 tons of grain to North Korea following wide-ranging discussion on relations between the two countries, according to an Interfax News Agency report.

The Russian delegation, led by Mikhail Fradkov, the director of Russia’s intelligence agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service, apparently held a meeting with Kim Jong Il during which they discussed not only aid, but also economic projects and North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

The piece cites a Russian diplomatic source as saying that the conversation dealt with economic development in the far north of North Korea, notable a train connection and the issue of a long-mooted gas pipeline connecting Russia with South Korea.

Chosun Central News Agency also reported news of the Russian delegation’s visit, but without revealing any details.

UPDATE 45 (2011-5-17): (Der Spiegel) At the invitation of Pyongyang’s embassy in Berlin, the head of the German relief organization Cap Anamur, Bernd Göken, 45, recently visited two provinces and four cities in the DPRK. According to KBS, the organization is already distributing 200 tons of rice and plans to distribute 200 more:

The VOA quoted an official from the German civilian humanitarian organization “Cap Anamur” as saying that it is giving out 150 tons of rice in Anju, South Pyeongan Province and 50 tons in Haeju, South Hwanghae Province.

The German relief group has another plan to deliver more than 200 tons of rice and beans to the poverty-stricken communist country next month.

UPDATE 44 (2011-5-11): The Heritage Foundation held an event on providing the DPRK with food aid. You can see it here.

UPDATE 43 (2011-5-11): Rice planting battle launched at Wonhwa Farm (Daily NK):

The annual “rice planting battle” has been launched by the North Korean authorities, with Chosun Central News Agency (KCNA) reporting on the 11th that rice planting has begun on Wonhwa Collective Farm in Wonhwa-ri in Pyongwon, South Pyongan Province.

Wonhwa Collective Farm has been held up as a model farm since May 10th, 1952, when Kim Il Sung visited and sowed seeds with the farmers. The reporting of rice planting there now triggers all farmers in rice-farming flat areas to start planting.

KCNA reported, “Even in this hitherto unprecedentedly unfavorable climate, the workers and farmers here poured their energy into treating seedbeds and raising strong rice seedlings. Maintenance of farming machinery including tractors was also completed in time, everything has been made ready and rice planting has begun.”

Naturally, since Wonhwa is held up as a model farm from which the start of rice planting tends to be reported by Rodong Shinmun, Chosun Central TV et al, farm machinery is also provided preferentially by the authorities, standing in contrast to the reliance on draught animals and manpower in most other locations. Many Party cadres and members of the Rural Management Committee even participate in the showpiece.

Meanwhile, Rodong Shinmun, the publication of the Workers’ Party, used the day to encourage people to take full part in the rice planting battle.

“Based on the principle that everything obeys farming, every effort, equipment and material necessary for the rice planting battle must be guaranteed them unconditionally,” it announced, calling for the whole country to be filled with people helping with the battle.

Soldiers and students are both mobilized for the battle. Students from 12 to 19 years of age, for example, spend the whole of May on collective farms, helping plant rice rather than attending school.

Wonhwa-ri is located at 39°15’1.66″N, 125°39’48.00″E, just west of the Sunan Airport. It was also featured in the Bonner/Gordon film, The Game of their Lives.

UPDATE 42 (2011-5-11): North Korea exerting extra effort to increase food production (IFES):

North Korea is calling for national effort in increasing food production with the spring farming season approaching. Agriculture was emphasized as the “lifeline of the people” from early this year.

All the major news media outlets of the DPRK including the Rodong Sinmun, Minju Joson, the Korean Central News Agency and Korean Central Television were utilized to deliverdaily news encouraging food production.

The premier of the DPRK, Choe Yong Rim,was reported to have visited various fertilizer and agriculture facilities recently and farmers’ organization heldralliesto increasefood production.

Rodong Sinmun last month praised South Hwanghae Province — the grain belt of the western DPRK — for rising up on its own feet to improve food production. The newspaper also stated, “We should charge forward for a fruitful autumn this year,” and emphasized not only the role of farmers but also the people of North Korea to participate in the agricultural efforts in preparation for the spring farming season.

Also last month in Chongsanri in Nampo City, the Agricultural Workers’ Union of the DRPK held a rally to complete spring farming on time with its chairman, Ri Myong Gil present.

North Korea’s recent effort to improve food shortages reflects the urgency to accomplish the national goal of building a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012, which is less than a year away.

However, the prospects for this year’s harvest are reportedly dim. The past winter — one of the coldest in history — had a negative effect on the production of double crop potato, wheat, and barley. The spring harvest of potato is already reported to be lower than expected. Chronic shortage of fertilizer is another impeding factor affecting this year’s harvest.

Fertilizer aid to North Korea halted with the deterioration of inter-Korean relations and even China that produced one-third of the world’s fertilizer is restricting fertilizer export to stabilize its domestic prices, adding to North Korea’s predicament.

Premier Choe Yong Rim recently visited Namhung Youth Chemical Complex and held a special meeting after inspecting the fertilizer production process, suggesting that this year’s harvest is dependent on distribution of fertilizer. The KCNA reported, “The meeting emphasized the important role of the Namhung Complex in contributing to the fertilizer production. In addition, new measures of boosting fertilizer production, updating the gasification project based on the state-of-the-art technology, and ensuring a timely and sufficient supply of raw materials and power by all the appropriate units were reiterated.”

Despite such efforts, however, North Korea is expected to undergo hardship in securing sufficient supply of fertilizer. Although North Korea is making extra efforts to beef up its independent fertilizer production, the country’s undersupply of raw materials will make it difficult to significantly increase production. With the thawing of inter-Korean relations, North Korea is most likely to request for fertilizer aid.

In addition, the North is also reported to be suffering from forest pests and diseases. According to a South Korean official who recently visited the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a North Korean official complained of a severe pest problem and requested for pesticide aid. Until 2009, South Korea provided North Korea with pesticides but this aid was also halted with the onset of the Cheonan and Yeonpyong attacks.

UPDATE 41 (2011-5-11): Scott Snyder chimes in on the food debate. Also the WSJ blog.

UPDATE 40 (2011-5-1): The UN WFP and UNICEF have announced a food relief program in the DPRK.

UPDATE 39 (2011-4-27): Samaritan’s Purse claims some parts fo the DPRK will run out of food. According to the AFP:

The United States and South Korea have been cautious over reports of dire food shortages in the North, with some officials suspecting that the communist state is exaggerating the problem to win assistance.

But Samaritan’s Purse, one of five US groups that visited North Korea in February, said that a harsh winter has reduced crop yield by up to half and that some people were already eating grass, leaves and tree bark.

“We believe that, in many of the areas that we visited, in mid-June they’re going to run out of food,” said Ken Isaacs, the Christian-oriented group’s vice president for programs and government relations.

“We are certain, based on our field surveys, that there is an urgent need and that if it’s not met, people will suffer and people will die this year,” he told a seminar at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank.

Isaacs said that the relief groups want to provide 160,000 to 175,000 tons of food to North Korea — about half of what the regime requested — but that it would be impossible to arrange shipments in time to meet the shortfall.

“If a green light was given today, that food probably isn’t going to be into North Korea for about three months,” Isaacs said.

UPDATE 33 (4/14/2011): Noland and Haggard have a piece on food aid at 38 North. It is well worth reading.

UPDATE 32 (4/13/2011): The Hankyoreh reports on a press conference by South Korean religious organizations in support of food aid to the DPRK:

Following a recent World Food Programme (WFP) recommendation urging the delivery of food aid to North Korea, a group of 658 religious leaders is calling on the South Korean government to resume its humanitarian food aid efforts.

The Association of Religious Workers for Peace and Reconciliation for the Korean People held a press conference at the Korea Press Center in Seoul’s Jung District on Tuesday in which its members expressed their hope “that we can help North Koreans suffering from starvation through government humanitarian aid to North Korea and achieve reconciliation and peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

The association includes representatives from the five main religious groups in South Korea, including Galilee Church Head Pastor In Myung-jin, Venerable Beomnyun, Cheondogyo Office of Religious Affairs Head Lee Chang-beon, Munjeong-dong Catholic Church Head Priest Father Kim Hong-jin, and Won-Buddhism Kyomu Kim Jeong-deok.

The representatives also produced a petition signed by 658 figures from the five religious groups. The petition noted “it came to light in a recent World Food Programme examination of the food situation in North Korea that the country is suffering a shortfall of more than one million tons of food.”

“Estimated to include at least 6.1 million people, the class of the especially vulnerable, such as young children, the elderly, pregnant women, nursing mothers, the disabled, and tuberculosis patients, is suffering from a particularly severe food shortage,” the petition stated.

The religious leaders noted the WFP’s recommendation of international assistance of 430 thousand tons of food to North Korea and warned that millions of people could die of starvation if the government and private aid groups fail to provide large amounts of food assistance.

UPDATE 31 (4/12/2011): According to Xinhua (PRC), Russia is increasing food donations to the DPRK:

Russia has increased its humanitarian assistance to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the request of the DPRK and will continue offering such assistance, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said on Tuesday.

Borodavkin made his remarks during a reception in the DPRK’s embassy in Moscow marking the 99th anniversary of DPRK late leader Kim Il Sung.

“Russia has already increased the volume of food aid for the DPRK within the framework of the World Food Program, and is ready to further provide humanitarian aid on a bilateral basis,” Borodavkin said, adding that total volume of Russia’s aid to the DPRK is worth up to 5 million U.S. dollars.

The diplomat also said that Moscow has been concerned over the tension on the Korean Peninsula and called for the reviving of dialogues between Pyongyang and Seoul and the resumption of the six-party talks.

“We hope that Russia-DPRK agreements reached this March in Pyongyang would pave the way for the resumption of the six-party talks over the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue,” Borodavkin said.

Borodavkin added that both Russia and the DPRK have made joint efforts based on equality and mutual respect to promote bilateral political dialogue and cooperation in various areas.

In March, Borodavkin arrived in Pyongyang and held talks with senior DPRK officials. During their talks, the two sides exchanged opinions on bilateral relations, the situation in the area and resumption of the six-party talks.

UPDATE 30 (4/7/2011): It seems one South Korena lawmaker is opposed to food aid because he believes the military already holds plenty of reserves. According ot Yonhap:

“It is true that the North Korean authorities have stockpiled 1 million tons of rice for the military in case of war, including 300,000 tons for regular forces and 700,000 tons for reserve forces,” Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the Grand National Party (GNP) said in a press release.

Yoon said North Korea has also stored 1.5 million tons of oil and 1.7 million tons of ammunitions for emergencies, adding the information was confirmed by intelligence authorities.

The press release by Yoon supported a similar claim made by GNP floor leader Kim Moo-sung last September. At that time, Kim said he had secured confirmed information that the North had a reserve of about 1 million tons of rice for the military.

There was no immediate way to independently verify the claim, but officials in Seoul and Washington have long suspected that North Korea may divert food aid to its armed forces.

UPDATE 29 (4/6/2011): The Daily NK reports that food prices are falling in the DPRK:

Despite it being the spring shortage season, the price of grain in North Korea’s markets is actually falling and the food security status of the average citizen is relatively good.

And this is despite the fact that the chairman of North Korea’s legislature, Choi Tae Bok, recently called for food aid on a trip to London, telling government officials there, “Due to the harshest winter in 60 years and last year’s poor harvest, the next two months are a crisis time.”

Choi was referring to the time when the rice gathered in the fall has almost all been eaten, and June, when the first potatoes can be harvested, has yet to come. Those with little choice tend to survive this period on whatever they have, often substituting in vegetables and edible wild plants for grains.

However, the price of rice in North Korea’s markets seems to be taking the urgency out of Choi’s public call for assistance, given that while Choi has flown all the way to Europe in pursuit of aid, the price of rice in the market is actually falling. On March 28th, the day Choi arrived, the price was 1,800 won, a colossal decline in comparison with the price at the end of January, which reached a momentary high of 3,000 won.

The decline since then has been steady; from 3,000 won to 2,000 won last month, and even as low as 1,600 won at the turn of April.

In North Korea’s case, declining food prices are closely related to declining exchange rates, which have also been stable since mid-February. Where one Yuan was worth 520 won at the beginning of this year, it is now worth just 400 won.

According to one domestic source who sells clothes in the market, “It looks like the price of rice will be 1,500 won by the middle of this month. There are sufficient supplies of rice in the market, so as long as you have money you can buy it anytime.”

However, the picture is not perfect, because the people’s purchasing power is still not what it was and, in particular, those in the poorest classes struggle under high rates of interest on loans of money or food, making it hard to secure the supplies they need to survive.

Kwon Tae Jin, Vice-Director of the Korean Economic Research Institute said that currency is the key, explaining, “The price of food in North Korea is linked to foreign currencies like the dollar and Yuan. If the Yuan exchange rate is stable, the price of food will fall and stabilize.”

Kwon continued, “In the short term, it might be that smuggled food and stocks siphoned off from military bases could be flooding the market. The overall food situation is not bad, but, in the markets, it may be that the fall in food prices is temporary.”

UPDATE 28 (4/6/2011): Marcus Noland expresses some skepticism of the UN’s food security assessment, but believes we should offer food aid nonetheless:

The World Food Program, Food and Agricultural Organization and UNICEF have released their potentially fateful report on the North Korean food situation (formally, “WFP/FAO/UNICEF Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission to the DPRK, March 24 2011”). Although these assessments are a staple of public discussions on North Korean food security issues, for multiple reasons the balance sheet exercise that is reported is almost surely inaccurate, possibly by a large margin—if taken seriously, the past WFP/FAO reports would imply that North Korea was in almost continuous famine for the past decade, something no one asserts.

The report concludes that the country has an uncovered deficit of 886,000 MT, which is equivalent to 3.68 months of PDS rations for the entire nation. Nonetheless, out of realism (they’ve read our critique of their balance sheet methodology) or because of its focus on the most vulnerable, the report recommends a program of 297,000 MT of grain as well as another 137,000 MT of blended fortified foods. As is politically necessary, the report provides incredible detail on the affected populations, although no one really believes that outside donors will be granted the access to monitor at the level proposed.

But it doesn’t entirely matter; even if some food is diverted it would have the beneficial effect of lowering prices. The relatively high share of blended fortified food will also help assure that food is provided in a form that will be taken up by the more desperate. And if we are right—that the hoarding and demonetization of the food economy that appears to be underway is connected to the self-destruction of government credibility associated with the currency reform—aid may burst the bubble and encourage the disgorgement of hoarded stocks.

Given the high level of uncertainty, it seems to us that the costs of not acting outweigh the risks of being played for a sucker. Starving populations are not going to bring the regime down; costs will only be pushed off on the vulnerable.

UPDATE 27 (4/2/2011): Choe Tae-bok requests food assistance from the UK. According to Yonhap:

North Korea’s parliamentary speaker asked Britain to send food aid to his country in the midst of a deepening food shortage, saying the upcoming two months would be the most difficult, a report said Saturday.

Choe Tae-bok, chairman of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, visited Britain between March 28 and 31 on an invitation from the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.

David Alton, a British lawmaker, said in an interview with the Voice of America that in a meeting with senior officials there, Choe had requested food aid as North Korea is suffering from food shortages, hit by the most severe cold snap in 60 years and a decline in harvests.

Choe was quoted as saying by Alton that the upcoming two months for North Korea would be the most serious.

North Korea has suffered from a chronic shortage of food and energy due to years of isolation, mismanagement and natural disasters. The communist state has relied on international handouts since 1995 to help feed its more than 20 million people.

South Korea has suspended food aid to the North since the conservative government of President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008 and linked denuclearization efforts by Pyongyang as preconditions to resume cross-border exchanges.

Inter-Korean relations have suffered due to a series of provocations by North Korea, including the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March 2010 and its shelling of a front-line island in November.

By taking into account calls that at least civilian aid should be allowed, the Seoul government on Thursday approved the first civilian humanitarian assistance to the communist country since November.

The United Nations called for more than 430,000 tons of food aid to support the most vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women in North Korea.

Alton said he doesn’t agree with the Korean government’s stance on food assistance to the North, adding that given about 6 million North Koreans are facing an acute food crisis, there is an urgent need to address Pyongyang’s food shortages.

UPDATE 26 (3/31/2011): The US is still undecided on the issue of Food aid. According to Yonhap:

The United States has not yet made any decision on the provision of food aid to North Korea despite United Nations appeals for aid to the North as it suffers from severe food shortages, the State Department said Thursday.

“Our review on the food situation is ongoing, but nothing else than that,” Mark Toner, State Department deputy spokesman, told reporters. “We took part in the World Food Program meeting in Rome, but I am not aware of any additional meeting.”

Toner also said, “Not yet,” when asked if the U.S. has any plans to send officials or NGOs to North Korea to assess the food situation there.

The United Nations last week appealed for the provision of 430,000 tons of food to North Korea to feed 6 million people stricken by floods and severe winter weather. A U.N. monitoring team concluded a fact-finding mission in North Korea early this month.

Some say North Korea is exaggerating its food shortages to hoard food in preparation for its distribution on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late leader Kim Il-sung, the father of current leader, Kim Jong-il, which falls on April 15 next year.

U.S. food aid to the North was suspended in early 2009 amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and controversy over the transparency of food distribution.

Washington pledged to provide 500,000 tons of food in 2008, but delivered only 169,000 tons before the shipments were suspended in March 2009.

UPDATE 25 (3/30/2011): Agro Action Skeptical of Aid Plea. According to Chris Green at the Daily NK:

An NGO with a long history of giving agricultural assistance to North Korea has added weight to suggestions made by both South Korean officials and a number of inside North Korean sources; that the food situation in North Korea may not be as serious as recent reports and the North Korean government’s own claims suggest.

A representative for German Agro Action revealed the stance in comments made to Radio Free Asia yesterday, saying that while there are unquestionably food shortages in North Korea, there are also political reasons behind Pyongyang’s international drive to obtain aid and doubts about a recent UN report into conditions in the country, which called for 430,000 tons of urgent food aid for up to six million vulnerable people.

It is a stance borne out by the organization’s 2010 annual report, which states, “Conditions in North Korea have improved so much that people can again grow enough to eat, thanks to new seed varieties and agricultural extension.”

The representative added that rather than many thousands of Euros of food aid from European countries, North Korea would benefit far more from overall agricultural reform and better use of the land that it already has under cultivation, given that North Korea’s agricultural fragility is primarily a result of its own poor policy choices.

Elsewhere, British Ambassador to South Korea Martin Uden has revealed that Pyongyang markets were adequately stocked with food when he visited the city in early March, although with less variety than during a previous visit in 2008.

There was, Ambassador Uden explained in a blog posting, “Plenty of chicken of all sizes, both cooked and uncooked, and some duck. Large amounts of good-looking fish (don’t ask me what sort) and plentiful root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, radishes) but little green vegetable.”

“From the attention paid by the throngs of customers, I guess that the prices were within reach of their pockets,” he added, though with the caveat that markets in Pyongyang are likely to be in better shape than in other areas of the country beyond the reach of foreign diplomats.

While the controversy over the true situation continues, North Korea is set to receive some additional food aid from the international community, including pulses worth $1 million from the Indian government to be distributed through the World Food Programme.

In addition, a number of NGOs are continuing with planned provision, while a number more including Save the Children have put out a joint call for aid before North Korea’s annual spring shortages are amplified in April and May.

See here as well (Daily NK).

UPDATE 24 (3/28/2011): Marcus Noland offers some good advice and data on donating food to the DPRK:

There are two analytically distinct issues, roughly corresponding to Bosworth’s and Campbell’s respective answers. The simplest is the issue of diversion–if aid is diverted to military consumption, the military can then devote money that would have otherwise gone to food on other items. The more subtle possibility is that aid relaxes the state’s budget constraint and frees up resources for a panoply of purposes, including the military, in effect acting as implicit balance of payments support.

So, is food aid fungible?

Of course it is.

The evidence is quite compelling, actually. The first chart below demonstrates that as food aid ramped up during the 1990s, imports on commercial terms fell—and never came back. Some might object that the fall in commercial grain imports was a due to the poor state of the North Korean economy, but as the second chart shows, other imports began rising after 1998—just not food imports. Sherman Robinson, Tao Wang and I even constructed a computable general equilibrium model that would allow one to analyze how military expenditure increased as a result of this implicit balance of payments support. (It would be less than dollar-for-dollar since the government would presumably use the windfall on a range of goods and services purchased by the state, not just the military.) The anecdotal evidence suggests that such concerns are not misplaced: for example, in 1999, after the famine had ended, but aid from South Korea and the WFP continued to ramp up, the North Korean military went on a buying spree, purchasing among other things, the Kazakh air force.

As one who supports the provision of food aid to North Korea, I understand the temptation to deny this linkage. I have particular sympathy for sitting officials questioned about this issue in a public setting. But there is something to be said for being honest with ourselves. Providing food aid to the people of North Korea is the right thing to do—even if at the margin it advances the military ambitions of their government.

UPDATE 23 (3/28/2011): Rep. Chung claims ROK not opposed to DPRK food aid. According to Yonhap:

South Korea does not oppose providing humanitarian food aid to North Korea as the communist country suffers from severe food shortages due to a poor harvest last year, a senior South Korean lawmaker said Monday.

Speaking to a forum here, Rep. Chung Mong-joon of the ruling Grand National Party said, “Nobody in South Korea opposes humanitarian aid to North Korea by South Korea or the U.S.,” but added, “We don’t want to give the wrong message to North Korea as we have done until recently.”

Chung, the former GNP head, was apparently referring to the former liberal South Korean presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, who provided hundreds of thousands of tons of both food and fertilizer to North Korea every year despite Pyongyang’s continued development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

The conservative Lee Myung-bak administration cut off aid to North Korea, calling on the North to make progress in its denuclearization effort.

Lee severed almost all ties with North Korea after the sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea and the North’s shelling of a border island that killed 50 people last year.

Chung’s remarks come as U.S. officials are assessing the food situation in the North for possible resumption of the aid suspended two years ago over lack of transparency in food distribution.

“There is a review, and the criteria for food aid are, if you will, apolitical,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said last week. “They’re set on a specific set of criteria.”

The United Nations, which concluded a fact-finding mission in North Korea early this month, last week called for the provision of 430,000 tons of food aid to North Korea to avoid “the risk of malnutrition and other diseases” for millions of children, women and the elderly in the North, stricken by floods and severe winter weather.

Some reports said that North Korea is exaggerating about its food shortages to hoard food in preparation for its distribution on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late leader Kim Il-sung, father of current leader Kim Jong-il, which falls on April 15 next year.

Chung was also skeptical that the South would provide any food aid at an imminent date.

“They say, [‘]we have nuclear weapons[‘],” he said. “If we start to give food to North Korea, they would say food aid is coming from abroad because we are a nuclear state.”

UPDATE 22 (3/25/2011): The UN report has been published on their web page. According to the UN WFP:

In response to a request from the Government of DPRK for food assistance, WFP, FAO, and UNICEF organized a Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission (RFSA). The assessment commenced in early February with WFP Country Office staff assessing the situation in several counties where WFP operates. Between 14 and 21 February WFP staff assessed five counties where WFP does not currently have operations. From 21 February through 11 March, an interagency UN mission made of WFP, FAO and UNICEF staff visited DPRK to: forecast the 2011 production of winter and spring crops; update the assessment of the cereal import capacity and requirements for the 2010/11 marketing year (November/October) made by the FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) in October 2010; and estimate the food assistance needs. UN staff was joined by experts from the US NGOs and donors. Team members represented a wide variety of skills and perspectives on food and nutrition security.

You can download the full UN report here (PDF). I have added this to the DPRK Economic Statistics Page.

UPDATE 21 (3/25/2011): Evan Ramstad at the Wall Street Journal reports on the UN’s evaluation fo the DPRK’s food situation:

North Korea’s government food distribution system will run dry in May and put one-quarter of the country’s 24 million residents at risk of starvation, the U.N. World Food Program said in an assessment that may influence whether the U.S. and other countries provide assistance to the country.

The agency said North Korea’s chronically undernourished people are facing a tougher-than-usual springtime due to the effects on crops of flooding last year and extreme cold this winter. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since December also damaged livestock production.

“Vulnerable members of society are currently facing increasing shocks to their daily coping strategies, leaving them on a knife edge,” the WFP said in a statement and report sent to diplomats in donor countries Thursday.

Dire reports about North Korea’s food situation are common. And so is the political dilemma over whether to help because previous international donations have been re-directed by North Korea’s authoritarian regime, led by dictator Kim Jong Il, away from ordinary citizens to the country’s military and elite.

But signs have grown that the current situation is worse than in recent years. The North’s government recently warned citizens several times that food problems are acute, though it also told them that food shortages are common worldwide.

North Korean diplomats this year also asked for food aid from more countries than before, including African countries poorer than it. The WFP reported that its investigators received “unprecedented access” to the country during visits this month and last.

Daily rations in North Korea have been reduced to 360 grams a day, less than half the country’s average, a diplomat from a Western country who was part of the WFP investigation said in an interview.

At one hospital visited by WFP investigators, 136 children were being treated for malnutrition and 11 were in the most severe stage of hunger, able only to take intravenous fluids and eat high-nutrition biscuits, none of which were available.

“They really were putting the hard sell on. It was awful,” the diplomat said . .

U.S. officials have said they will scrutinize the WFP’s report. Some congressional leaders have expressed skepticism about North Korea’s desperation.

At a U.S. congressional hearing on North Korea earlier this month, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Fast approaching is the 100th anniversary next year of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s father, and there is the danger that aid provided would be diverted for this spectacle.”

Food aid to the North was a topic when deputy foreign ministers from the U.S. and South Korea met in Seoul earlier this month. At that time, they said they were waiting for the WFP’s report.

“Korea and the U.S. have the same views. If it is needed, we will do,” Kim Jae-shin, deputy foreign minister for South Korea, said March 12.

The U.S. and North Korea in 2008 negotiated a detailed agreement for the U.S. to provide new levels of food assistance. But when the time came to implement the pact, North Korea ended it. Some U.S. diplomats and North Korea watchers believe Pyongyang didn’t want to allow the U.S. to carry out verification measures called for in the deal, which included allowing Korean-speaking Americans to travel around the North.

The U.S. is likely to push for at least the same level of verification that it got in the 2008 deal.

In the report, the WFP said its investigators were able to interview people in 122 North Korean households, spread through all nine of its provinces. They visited hospitals and collected data on 272 malnourished children under the age of 5.

The WFP said the most critical months for food in the North will be May, June and July. It proposed assistance of 297,000 tons of cereal products over the next five months to about 6 million people—mainly children, young mothers and the elderly—who are at most risk of starvation. The report also proposed sending 137,000 tons of fortified blended food.

The report didn’t say how much such assistance would cost. The proposed assistance program amounts to approximately 5% of the 5.5 million tons of rice and cereal grains that outside experts estimate North Korea needs to produce annually to feed its people.

The North Korean government late last year estimated it would buy 325,000 tons of cereal products from outside the country. But it cut the estimate to 200,000 tons early this year, citing high international food prices.

In another sign that the government is scrambling to reduce its burden, it also recently moved four of the 14 districts in the capital city of Pyongyang to the jurisdiction of a less-powerful provincial district. That move cut off tens of thousands of people from food and other privileges granted to residents of the city, according to news agencies in Seoul run by North Korean defectors.

UPDATE 20 (3/25/1011): India is donating $1m US to the UN World Food Program to assist its North Korea operations. According to the UN WFP web page:

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) today welcomed a generous donation of US$1 million from the Government of India for its operation to reach the most vulnerable children and their mothers in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

In an event organised at the Government of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Honourable Minister of State for External Affairs Mr. E. Ahmed handed over an official pledge letter to WFP India representative Mihoko Tamamura.

“We are delighted to accept this donation from the government on behalf of the people of India,” said Ms. Tamamura. “As the people of DPRK are coming to the end of one of the bitterest winters in living memory – this act of generosity is extremely timely.”

The donation from India is to be used to buy pulses, rich in protein, which is a key missing ingredient in the daily DPRK diet.

WFP currently provides specialised nutritious food to around 1.7 million children and their mothers every month in DPRK. The country has some of the highest chronic malnutrition rates in Asia and faces regular, significant food shortages.

WFP has been working in DPRK since the mid-1990s.

The government of India is a highly valued donor to WFP operations worldwide. It contributed about US$6 million for the Pakistan flood relief operation in 2010, as well as half a million metric tons of wheat since 2002, which has been converted into biscuits for about a million children in WFP’s Afghanistan school meals programme.

The Telegraph of India also reports on this donation.

UPDATE 19 (3/15/2011): A snapshot of the DPRK’s food situation was released. You can download it here (PDF). According to the report:

A joint FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission (CFSAM) that visited DPRK in September-October 2010 had estimated the 2010/11 marketing year (November/October) total food supply of a 5.33 million tonnes of staple food production including paddy rice, other cereals, potatoes in cereal equivalent and soybeans. This is about 3 percent higher than in 2009/10. When paddy is converted to milled rice, the above total production comes to 4.48 million tonnes. On the basis of this supply the country faces a cereal import requirement for the current marketing year of an estimated 867 000 tonnes. The Government had plans to import commercially only about 325 000 tonnes, leaving 542 000 tonnes as an uncovered food deficit. The production and food estimates are likely to be slightly revised in view of the bad prospects for the 2011 wheat and potato crops which were only forecast at the time of the Mission.

Cereal import requirements remain high
Despite the relatively good harvest, based on the Mission’s estimate of total utilization needs of 5.35 million tonnes of cereal equivalent (rice in milled terms), there is an import requirement of 867, 000 tonnes for the 2010/11 marketing year (November/October).

Food insecurity in the DPRK could be worsening
Given that the overall food production situation in 2010/11 is not expected to improve significantly, the CFSAM Mission recommended the provision of international food assistance to about 5 million most vulnerable people (including groups with special needs such as children, pregnant and lactating women and the elderly with no support and PDS dependent populations in high malnutrition and mountainous regions), amounting to 305, 000 tonnes of cereals. The country continues to suffer from chronic food insecurity, high malnutrition rates and economic problems, and has great difficulties meeting the needs of its population. The Government has indicated that its ability to import food is even more constrained given the recent increases in international prices of cereals, especially maize.

The Overview Funding Document requires in total USD 82.4 million for 2011 to respond to key humanitarian priorities, including USD 7 million for agriculture and food security projects.

UPDATE 18 (3/23/2011): ROK government to allow private aid to the DPRK. According to the Hankyoreh:

Humanitarian aid to North Korea, which was completely suspended following North Korea‘s shelling of Yeongpyeong Island on Nov. 23 of last year, will be partially restarted around April. The Lee Myung-bak administration has initially decided to permit once again private aid to the most vulnerable in North Korea, including infants and toddlers.

“The administration has decided to resume from April aid to North Korea from private groups, which had been suspended following the Yeongpyeong Island shelling,” said a high-ranking government official on Tuesday. “It plans to permit items that can be used only by infants and toddlers that cannot be used by the military.”

“‘Smart aid’ means items that can be used only by North Korea’s vulnerable classes and children, and we will first permit items such as baby food and nutritional supplements for children,” said a key Cheong Wa Dae official. “Such aid goes to specific recipients even if it is not monitored well.”

In consideration of these facts, it appears the aid that will first be allowed to resume in nutritional supplements for children and basic medical supplies from private groups, which the government announced on Dec. 28, 2009 that it would subsidize with 3.5 billion Won ($3.1 million) from a fund for inter-Korean economic cooperation. The administration will also reportedly permit the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea to send children’s underwear.

UPDATE 17 (3/15/2011): According to the Daily NK the DPRK is running a nationwide military rice procurement campaign:

The North Korean authorities have been running a nationwide military rice procurement drive since the beginning of the year, inside sources revealed today.

Orders launching the drive, which came from the Central Committee of the Party, apparently forbade the option of compelling compliance, sources say, although cadres are reportedly finding ways to apply pressure nonetheless.

According to one source from Pyongyang, “These Party orders were handed down last December, and, on the basis that the military doesn’t have any provisions, they started gathering food from January.”

Departments in charge of military procurement have apparently been focusing their efforts on market traders and enterprise cadres and workers, offering ‘incentives’ to inspire people to help.

The Pyongyang source explained, “In the case of Jung-district Market, traders have been told to pay 40,000 to 50,000 extra per person. The security forces are pressuring people, suggesting that those trading from stalls in good parts of the market but who fail to pay are going to lose their places, and the management will give those stalls to people who do pay.”

Given that rice was trading for 1,900 won/kg at the end of February, the money traders are being asked to give is enough to pay for approximately 20-25kg of rice per person.

Moving on to talk about the case of enterprises, the source went on, “The policy as handed down states that enterprises must give 10kg per person, while cadres are supposed to give 30kg.”

“The authorities don’t hesitate to criticize and attack those who are slow to give their share,” he added.

A source from Sariwon in North Hwanghae Province also confirmed the story, including on the subject of pressure.

“The Party ordered that donations must be obtained by appealing to people’s consciences, but local cadres are saying ‘each person must give however many tens of kilos’, which is tantamount to compelling people,” the source explained.

Partly as a result of this, the drive has been quite successful, the source also said, adding that “anyone who gives one ton can join the Party right there and then; and nobody asks about or investigates the source of the rice.”

As a result, two people have offered ten tons of rice and ten tons of corn, 50 people have given two tons of rice, and a further 200 people have offered one ton of rice, he added.

Therefore, the source said that the Party’s target for Sariwon, which was 800 tons of rice, has been exceeded by a large margin, with the real figure now reaching 2400 tons.

IFES also wrote an article on this topic.

UPDATE 16 (3/14/2011): Is North Korea’s food crisis worsening? According to Reuters:

U.N. food agencies have wrapped up a month-long visit to North Korea to assess the food situation in the isolated state after Pyongyang appealed for aid from the international community.

Officials from the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are expected to issue their report at the end of the month.

The world became acutely aware of the North’s inability to feed itself in the 1990s when a famine killed an estimated 1 million of its then population of 22 million people. It continues to suffer from chronic food shortages and malnutrition.

According to the WFP’s hunger index, the North’s situation is still classified as serious. Some 5 million of the country’s 24 million people face food shortages, according to a U.N. report issued last November. While malnutrition rates among children have decreased in the last decade, one in every three children remains chronically malnourished.

Aid groups and experts say the North is facing looming food shortages due to bad weather which has hurt harvests and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Rising food prices have also pushed up the cost of imports. And international handouts have shrunk as the North has stepped up its nuclear and missile programmes.

Five U.S.-based NGOs said this month food assistance should be shipped to North Korea before the start of the ‘lean season,’ which runs May to July, prior to the fall harvest.

Experts and officials disagree over whether the impoverished North is actually experiencing worsening shortages. In November, the U.N said the North faced an overall grain deficit of 542,000 tonnes, but added the staple food output had actually increased by 3 percent in 2010/11 from a year earlier.

More than 15 years after the North first asked the international community for food aid during the deadly famine, Pyongyang is again asking for food donations. Dozens of countries have been approached in recent weeks. Essentially, the North wants more rice.

Notably, Pyongyang has asked the United States to resume food aid, which was suspended in 2008 over a monitoring row. Washington says it will consider the request after reviewing the assessment of the food situation in the North. A resumption of U.S. aid to the North might act as a catalyst for renewed diplomacy amid a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear programmes and attacks on the peninsula last year. The U.S. has given about $800 million in food aid to the North since 1996.

Critics of food aid say the North has in the past siphoned off the food to feed its million-strong army, missing its intended recipients: children, the elderly and women.

One defector, a port official, said that within two hours of being taken from a ship in 2007, the rice was being sold in the market by high-ranking military types to generate hard currency.

Washington does not want to be seen to be rewarding North Korea for its bad behaviour. At a hearing on the North last week, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said food shipments can only be resumed when full and transparent monitoring is in place.

Seoul has cut all aid to the North since two attacks last year killed 50 South Koreans. Although, just a month before the North’s deadly bombardment of the South’s Yeonpyeong island, Seoul did send its first rice aid shipment in two years.

Government officials say the North’s pleas for food are suspicious. They say it is trying to stock up on food ahead of massive celebrations next year, the centenary of state founder Kim Il-sung’s birth. The year also marks leader Kim Jong-il’s long-pledged plan to create a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012. Some experts expect Kim to further cement the succession of youngest son, Jong-un, next year.

Government officials have also said the North wants to hoard food ahead a third nuclear test, which is bound to provoke a further tightening of international sanctions.

UPDATE 15 (3/9/2011): The South Korean government has expressed skepticism that the food situation in the DPRK is as bad as many are asserting. According to the Korea Times:

North Korea appears to be cutting food rations for its people and soldiers to make the world believe that the food shortage there is becoming serious and deceptively receive more aid from South Korea and other nations, diplomatic sources said Wednesday.

“The food shortage in North Korea could be overblown,” a senior Cheong Wa Dae [Blue House] official said on condition of anonymity.

“In recent weeks, the Stalinist country has begged for food from many countries, even some poor African nations, saying that it’s becoming difficult to feed its people due to poor harvests. The problem is that we don’t know if that’s true.”

A number of international NGOs, after visiting North Korea at the invitation of the Kim Jong-il regime, called for food aid and humanitarian assistance for the North Korean population. Reports said Pyongyang has sent an unprecedented order to all its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid.

According to another diplomatic source, North Korea asked for rice from South Korea when the two sides had contact to discuss a possible summit.

“It repeatedly demanded rice from us without showing any sincerity about addressing its military provocations last year,” the source said.

The North seems desperate now to secure food, but many South Korean officials doubt whether the situation is actually serious enough to warrant aid.

“Given North Korea’s food rationing system, people are starving now mainly due to a decrease of food supplies from authorities. Our question is whether the North really has little food to provide to its people. It’s impossible to verify that at the moment,” the presidential aide said.

He alleged that the regime could have enough food for its soldiers and people, saying it may have a political motive in worsening the situation.

Next year, North Korea marks the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder and father of the current leader Kim Jong-il. It has vowed to become a “strong and prosperous” country in that same year.

Korea experts forecast that the reclusive country will officially designate Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s third son who was promoted last year to a top military post, as his successor, also in 2012.

“It is possible that Pyongyang could normalize food rations next year in a bid to raise public support for the new leader and ensure a successful power transfer,” the source said.

UPDATE 14 (3/11/2011): A UN spokesman speaks to the hardships in the DPRK (Reuters):

Impoverished North Korea faces a chronic food shortage following a harsh winter which has affected its harvest, a United Nations official said on Friday.

Years of mismanaged farm policy and natural disasters in the 1990s resulted in famine that some estimates said killed as many as a million people.

“We know that they have had a very tough winter,” Gerald Bourke, who works for the operations department at U.N.’s World Food Programme in Rome, told reporters at Beijing airport after arriving back from Pyongyang.

“They’ve had problems with the potato crop, they’ve had problems with the germination of their winter wheat,” he said.

“As we know, the DPRK is not a country that has produced more food than it requires. There’s a chronic deficit there and that has all kinds of implications from a nutrition point of view.”

DPRK is North Korea’s official name.

North Korea, involved in a face-off with the West over its nuclear weapons programme, faces “looming food shortages and alarming malnutrition,” five U.S. aid agencies said in February, urging emergency food aid for the country.

Bourke said his team was given excellent access in the normally secretive state, visiting 20 counties they had never been to before.

“We’ve been to markets, state shops. We’ve interviewed households on a random basis, we have visited schools, kindergartens, nurseries, hospitals. We have gathered a lot of information,” Bourke said.

“Now we’re at the stage, the field work finished, that we’re going to begin the analysis of that information,” Bourke said.

“That will basically give us a sense of the problem the DPRK is facing in terms of food security and it will allow us to consider the sort of options we may have by way of a response.”

Analysis of North Korea’s food production data by international agencies is still incomplete but there is a consensus that there was a modest improvement in the harvest in 2010, according to some South Korean officials and U.N. agencies.

But North Korea still falls acutely short of what is needed to feed its 23 million people even in a good year.

South Korea sent the first shipment of rice aid to the North in more than two years last year amid warming relations before the North bombarded one of its islands near their disputed sea border in November killing four people.

Western governments have also been reluctant to donate food until North Korea shows more willingness to allow monitoring of distribution and comply with international relief norms.

UPDATE 13 (3/12/2011): The US is still undecided as to whether it will provide food aid. According to the Korea Times:

The United States is assessing the food situation in North Korea and will consult closely with South Korea in deciding whether to resume assistance to the impoverished nation, a senior Washington official said Saturday.

“I think we conveyed very clearly to our South Korean friends that we are still in the process of evaluating the situation on the ground and we would continue to consult closely with the South Koreans as we move forward,” Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters.

Campbell arrived in Seoul from Mongolia earlier in the day for consultations with South Korean officials on North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program. The allies are pushing to get the U.N. Security Council to adopt a presidential statement condemning the North.

North Korea has called for food aid from countries around the world as its economic woes deepened in the wake of international sanctions for its provocations. It has relied on outside assistance to feed its 24 million population since natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s.

Pyongyang has also asked the U.S. to resume food aid, which was suspended in 2008 over a monitoring row.

Washington has said it would decide on the North’s request after reviewing the assessment of the food situation in the country. Resumption of U.S. aid to the North could possibly warm their relations amid a standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs and provocations.

UPDATE 12 (3/11/2011): Bradley Babson explores some interesting ideas at 38 North:

While the international community has been giving greater attention to better integration of “relief” and “development” strategies,[1] this has not been true in the case of North Korea thus far. Recognizing the need for a more coherent approach would allow for a nuanced discussion of the merits of providing food directly through UN or NGO channels to particularly vulnerable groups, along with the importance of encouraging North Korea to improve domestic capacity to manage its food security challenges without relying on free handouts indefinitely. This includes: 1) expanding sustainable domestic food production; 2) embracing market mechanisms for more efficient distribution; 3) focusing the public distribution system not on the general population, but on targeted vulnerable population groups; and 4) using trade more aggressively to acquire the food and fertilizer necessary to close the structural food supply gap that averages about one million tons of rice equivalent a year. The political objective should be to improve incentives for North Korea to follow a rational economic development and social protection policy that recognizes the essential role for markets and foreign trade, not one governed by isolation and bargaining for aid.

The implication of pursuing such an objective is that large-scale government-to-government transfers of food aid should be avoided. Also, any transfers targeting acutely vulnerable groups should be carefully monitored and accompanied by parallel efforts to support expansion of the role of markets in meeting the food needs of non-targeted populations, such as providing resources for building community gardens, microcredit to boost small-scale production, and investments that lower the cost of transport to market. Incentives to trade for food rather than seek food aid should also be factored into engagement policies. This is already the case for China, which emphasizes the role of commercial transactions and limits government assistance. South Korean food aid policy, by contrast, has tended to emphasize the role of government-to-government transfers rather than commercial trade for food. This approach, however, instead of stimulating the role of markets, served to prop up the public distribution system.

Read the rest here.

UPDATE 11 (3/9/2011): Food conservation stressed in the DPRK. According to the Institute for Far Eastern Studies:

The Rodong Sinmun, the official mouthpiece of the Korean Workers’ Party (of North Korea), recently reported on skyrocketing food prices around the world, describing the phenomenon as a global crisis. The newspaper encouraged North Koreans to do their part to deal with the current food crisis by being self-reliant and by practicing conservation.

By highlighting the fact that the food crisis is worldwide, the newspaper simply reported the current food shortage situation in North Korea as part of the global phenomenon.

In the government-run propaganda website “Uriminzokkiri,” an article titled, “World Food Crisis and Its Solution” was published on March 7, 2011. The article claimed, “Millions of people around the world are starving from soaring food prices and decline in world grain production and supply.” It also added, “Huge losses are expected this year with unusual extreme weather conditions and natural disasters affecting the major grain producing countries.”

Rodong Sinmun claimed, “Exacerbating global food crisis situation is threatening the lives of millions of people around the world.” It further asserted, “The current food crisis is a dire challenge to humanity today.”

In addition, strong criticisms were raised against the West, “for aggravating the food crisis by allocating massive amount of crops for biofuel production, in which developing countries are taking the worst hit.” Furthermore, the newspaper reproached Western nations as imperialists, “Taking advantage of the food crisis to interfere in the internal affairs of those countries worst affected and to further strengthen their domination schemes over these countries.”

As a solution, the Rodong Sinmun stated, “It is important to exhibit self-reliance to improve agriculture and grain production, without looking to others. It is most critical to increase food production and conserve food supply at the same time.”

According to the North Korean human rights organization “Good Friends,” the price of rice in North Korea went up 50 percent in the early to late part of January, costing over 3,000 KPW per kg of rice. The US dollar and Chinese yuan is reported to be the major form of currency in North Korea, with the value of the KPW plunging.

Recently, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) of South Korea announced at a closed-door meeting with the members of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee that, “the rice price has jumped 80-fold since the currency revaluation in North Korea,” insinuating that North Korea is still suffering from food hardship.

UPDATE 10 (3/10/2011): Andrei Lankov writes in the Asia Times that things are not as bad as they seem.

When reading the alarmist reports, the present author, a native of the Soviet Union, cannot help but think about the Soviet media’s habit of reporting that a crisis in the capitalist West was becoming ever-more profound. This “crisis” kept deepening, irrespective of the actual state of affairs in the developed West.

Messages about the “threat of hunger” apparently hanging over North Korea largely come from two groups. On the one hand, they are disseminated by political activists who oppose the Kim family regime and want to underline the economic inefficiency of the North Korean government. On the other hand, similar messages are regularly sent by groups that are involved in providing humanitarian assistance to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – in the current uneasy international situation alarmism helps to get more aid.

However, the actual situation is different. North Korea is a destitute place, to be sure, and in the past two to three months the food situation deteriorated, no doubt. Nonetheless, in recent years, the economic situation of the population has improved markedly.

Almost no economic statistics are available when it comes to North Korea: the authorities discontinued the publication of statistical data almost half a century ago, in the early 1960s. Almost everything one reads about the current state of the economy should be seen as a guesstimate, and hence should be approached with considerable caution. Nevertheless, experts agree that recent years have been a time of economic growth, albeit this growth has been slow and uneven.

The most oft-cited estimates of the economic situation in the DPRK are produced by the Bank of Korea. According to its analysts, the average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the DPRK for the years 2000-2009 was 1.3% (though there were years when GDP declined).

This author frequently talks to North Korean refugees and their stories confirm this picture. The lives of North Koreans are tangibly better than 10 years ago – and keep improving slowly.

North Korea remains a poor country, though. Even rice, the staple food of East Asia, remains beyond the reach of the majority. The basic daily food of most North Koreans is boiled corn accompanied by pickled vegetables. Meat and fish appear on the table only occasionally, being a rare delicacy.

However, one thing is important: throughout the past seven or eight years, there has been little hunger in North Korea, even though malnourishment remains common. A meal of boiled corn is now regularly available to all but a very small minority of North Koreans. This is a far cry from the late 1990s, when between half million and one million people perished in a famine.

Read the full story here.

UPDATE 9 (3/8/2010): UNICEF appeals for more funds. According to Yonhap:

The U.N. children’s fund, UNICEF, said this week it received as of October last year only a fifth of the funding it had needed in 2010 to feed children and women in North Korea.

In its 2010 “Humanitarian Action Report,” UNICEF had said US$10 million would be needed to fund its work in the impoverished communist country.

In its 2011 report released on Monday, the organization said only 21 percent, or US$2,050,636, was received as of October last year, forcing it to intervene in only the direst situations.

“Persistent domestic food shortages, brought about by recurrent natural disasters and decreased international food aid to the country, have added new dimensions to a landscape marked by food insecurity,” UNICEF said in its report.

“These are grim tidings in a country where an estimated 37 percent of the population depends on food aid,” it said, citing a 2008 report by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

UNICEF added in its own report that it is seeking US$12 million for its 2011 humanitarian work in North Korea.

“Without funding for the key activities, the adverse effects of lack of food will continue to haunt the country’s women and children, with no sign of abating,” it said.

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is believed to have suffered a famine that killed up to 2 million people in the mid-1990’s. Since then, the country has heavily depended on international handouts to feed its 24 million people.

But the country’s provocative behavior, including two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches, has driven away much of the international support. The North’s deteriorating relations with the South have also led to a huge reduction in humanitarian aid from Seoul.

UPDATE 8 (3/8/2011): One of the other countries from whom the DPRK has requested additional food is Zimbabwe–the bread basket of Africa until the late 1990s. According to ABC (Australia):

A South Korean newspaper citing diplomatic sources says Pyongyang has been seeking food from some of the poorest countries in Africa, among them Zimbabwe.

Seoul once provided nearly 500,000 tonnes of rice to its impoverished neighbour, but that aid stopped three years ago when relations worsened.

There has also been a drop in donations to United Nations food programs operating in North Korea after the closed communist state stepped up its nuclear and missile programs.

Zimbabwe and the DPRK have a long and sordid relationship. See previous posts here.

UPDATE 7 (3/4/2011): Aidan Foster-Carter offers some helpful information on the DPRK’s food crisis in his recent Asia Times column:

In Kim Jong-il’s realm of misery, nothing gets better. You knew that. But now, some things – the most basic thing of all: having enough to eat – are actively and urgently getting worse.

Who says? The government, for a start. With no sense of contradiction or public relations, North Korea is simultaneously rattling the sabre and the begging bowl. Even as Pyongyang threatens to turn Seoul into a sea of fire, and to gun down Southern activists – many in fact refugees from the North – who launch propaganda balloons across the border, its envoys around the world are demanding that we should feed them. Obviously Kim Jong-il isn’t up to the job. The United States and the United Kingdom both confirm that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has recently asked them directly for food aid.

Is your first instinct to trust the Kim regime? Me neither. Skeptics mutter that the North isn’t really short of food. But they need to build up a stockpile, so a year hence they can throw a convincing party for the centenary of Great Leader Kim Il-sung: still president, though dead since 1994. Look, rice! And this is called meat! Bow and be grateful, you lucky peasants.

In a slogan that sounds a real hostage to fortune, April 2012 is the official target date for the DPRK to become a “great and prosperous nation” (kangsong taeguk). Won’t that backfire, like the emperor’s new clothes? Comrade, we’re rich now! So how come I can see your ribs?

Skepticism is one thing, cynicism another. I don’t trust Pyongyang, but I do trust Christian Friends of Korea (CFK). Southern Baptists: what image does that conjure up? Right-wing, preaching hellfire? Not the ones I know. CFK feeds the hungry and heals the sick – in North Korea. They’ve been going in and out since 1995, raising US$42 million to date for food and medical aid, especially for tuberculosis. But don’t believe me; read more at www.cfk.org, or a new paper from the Korea Economic Institute (KEI) about their and others’ work on TB.

Nor is CFK alone. Eugene Bell does similar work, as do several other US non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision. Last month, those four and CFK sent a team of seven experts – all with in-country experience; two are Korean-speakers – to assess current food needs in North Korea. They were there for a week, visiting 45 sites – hospitals, orphanages, ordinary homes, cooperative farms, warehouses – in 17 counties and cities in three provinces in the northwest. Access was excellent: they could and did ask to visit places on the day, rather than an itinerary pre-planned by North Korea.

It’s not looking good. It never does, but right now it’s getting worse. Nature has dealt North Korea a double whammy. Last summer brought heavy rains and flooding, which hit staple grains (maize and rice) and saw the vegetable crop cut by half in some areas. The harvested grain in granaries was further damaged by humidity.

Then came winter: always bitter, but this was the worst in 66 years. The latest newsletter (no 390) [3] from the well-informed South Korean Buddhist NGO Good Friends is a grim litany of people freezing to death. Most vulnerable are the kkotjebis: literally “flower swallows”, far too pretty a name for these sad bands of ragged orphans who survive if at all on their wits:

It is impossible to avoid bone-penetrating hunger even though they were successful begging … Some lucky children wrapped themselves up with vinyl, most of them shakes terribly only with torn rag. It is painfully pitiful to see the blackened bony body covered in dirt. Many children have pneumonia symptoms and there are no children without frostbite due to the torturous starvation and cold.

But back to food, lack of. The big freeze killed half the spring wheat and barley, which would have softened last summer’s blow. A 2 million tonne gap between supply and demand leaves three options: buy food abroad, get aid, or starve. In the past Pyongyang has cut food imports when it got aid, which doesn’t exactly encourage donors. The US team were told the government had planned to buy 325,000 tonnes of food this year, but with prices soaring this has been cut to 200,000 tonnes. Only 40,000 tonnes has actually been purchased so far.

Already, rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) have been cut to a meagre 400 grams daily. That only gives 61% of the minimum calories, 58% of protein, 51% of vitamin A and 32% of the iron a body needs. It’s not clear how many people even get this. The PDS collapsed during the 1996-98 famine, and has never fully recovered since. In today’s North Korea, Juche (self-reliance) carries an ominous new sub-text: You’re on your own, mate.

The effects are already showing up. Most vulnerable, as always, are the chronically sick, the elderly, households with few earners, pregnant or lactating women – and small children, the under-fives. Smaller than they should be. The US visitors saw children suffering from acute malnutrition, as well as stunting, wasting, and listlessness from hunger. Stunting and wasting – that means low height for age, and low weight for height – are already endemic: in 2009 the rates were 32% and 6% respectively. That means almost one in three children is stunted.

Remember the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? Well, the not visibly underfed Kim Jong-il did it for real – and marked them for life. A study in South Korea of 103 young defectors found them on average 5-11 centimeters shorter and 6-10 kilograms lighter than their Southern peers. [4]

So what are we going to do? That’s we as in you and I. You may feel the only real cure is for the Dear Leader to go the way of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and (hopefully) Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Sure, the regime is the problem. But children are children. They didn’t ask to be born North Korean. Their plight is not their fault. As former US president Ronald Reagan (no less) once said, “A hungry child knows no politics.”

Also in North Korea is a mission from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP); it will report in late March. Depending what this finds, the US and other governments might cough up; but I wonder. Everyone is just utterly fed up with North Korea. The US envoy on human rights, Robert King, said in Seoul on February 11: “It’s hard to give food to Pyongyang.”

He’s right. The Kim regime doesn’t just flaunt a new nuclear facility and attack the South. It also bites the hand that tries to feed it. WFP, whose DPRK operation was once its largest on the planet, was brusquely ordered out in 2005, along with all the resident foreign NGOs that has been helping the DPRK for a decade. Eventually WFP was permitted a greatly reduced footprint, feeding just 1.9 million North Koreans: barely a quarter of the peak of 6.5 million.

Despite severe flooding in 2007 and fresh fears of famine in 2008, WFP was not allowed to resume a larger presence – until May 2008. Food aid should be a politics-free zone, but for the George W Bush administration in its dying months to give North Korea half a million tons of grain was patently a reward for what looked like progress on the nuclear front. Most of this (80%) was to be distributed by WFP, the rest via five US NGOs: the same ones that just visited.

But this too went pear-shaped. In 2009 the US quintet were kicked out before the program was finished, as the DPRK’s missile and nuclear tests caused political relations to plummet again. The fact that these NGOs have just gone back shows a graciousness sorely lacking in Pyongyang. They freely admit there is no guarantee they won’t get messed around again.

There are some positives. In 2008-09 Korean speakers (a problem in the past) were allowed. And monitoring, often a bugbear, was excellent. In just nine months the NGOs made 1,600 monitoring visits – at all stages, from unloading in port to provincial and county warehouses, recipient institutions, and right down to individual households – to ensure the food really did reach almost a million people in the northwestern Chagang and North Pyongan provinces.

But above all, the need is still there and getting ever more desperate. Spring means a blessed end to winter – but it is also the classic lean season of hunger, which if unchecked will last through summer all the way until the next autumn harvest: itself unpredictable.

Plenty, maybe most, will walk away. The world is full of need – and most of the needy have better manners than the DPRK government. Should we starve them into submission, then?

Trouble is, the “them” who need to change their ways are not the them that are hungry. If North Korea interests you – and if it doesn’t, then why are you reading this? – then please, care too. Don’t harden your heart. Leave that to the Kim regime.

This article names seven NGOs working in North Korea. You can find their websites easily enough. There are more, plus UN and other international bodies: WFP, Red Cross (IFRC) et al. All are under-funded. They, and North Korea’s children, need you. Right now. Please.

UPDATE 6 (3/2/2011): According to Yonhap, the DPRK informally asked a visiting European diplomat for rice donations:

North Korea has recently asked a visiting Western diplomat for rice assistance, a South Korean government source said Wednesday.

The diplomat, from one of the European Union member countries, visited the communist nation in mid-February and was surprised when North Korean officials requested food aid, the source said

“I did not hear of anyone who had died of starvation,” the diplomat, however, was quoted as saying by the source who declined to have neither his name nor the diplomat’s name specified in the media.

The diplomat’s country has diplomatic relations with the North, the source added.

UPDATE 5 ( 2/24/2011): Five American aid agencies report the food shortage in North Korea has become severe. According to Voice of America:

The five aid groups say many North Koreans are foraging for wild grasses and herbs because of widespread food shortages.

Seven experts from the groups visited North Korea earlier this month at the request of the government. They were given unprecedented access to assess the food situation, and report the worst winter in decades has killed key crops. At the same time, the team says, rising global food prices make it difficult for North Korea to import sufficient food.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Donggkuk University in Seoul, says it is unusual for North Korean authorities to allow such transparency.

Kim says officials there have permitted a more objective view of the situation so the global community can know about the depth of the food shortage.

The five organizations are experienced in assisting the isolated state: Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resources Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision. But in 2009 they were ordered to leave.

The United Nations’ World Food Program says its supply for North Korea will be exhausted in about a month. WFP staff arrived in the North this week to conduct a fresh assessment of food needs.

UPDATE 4 (2/22/2011): The US appears unenthusiastic about resuming DPRK food aid. According to the Washington Post:

Plagued by floods, an outbreak of a livestock disease and a brutal winter, the government ordered its embassies and diplomatic offices around the world to seek help.

The request has put the United States and other Western countries in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to ignore the pleas of a starving country or pump food into a corrupt distribution system that often gives food to those who need it least.

The United States, which suspended its food aid to North Korea two years ago amid concerns about transparency, “has no plans for any contributions at this time,” said Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top East Asia official.

The entire Washington Post article is worth reading for its concise description of the problems of delivering food aid to the DPRK. The Wall Street Journal also offers some commentary on the State Department’s decision.

UPDATE 3 (2/20/2011): Czech republic declines DPRK request for food aid.

UPDATE 2 (2/13/2011): The South Korean government seems unwilling to allow/provide unconditional food assistance. South Korean aid groups are ready to donate and are lobbying Seoul to change its mind.

UPDATE 1 (2/11/2011): Bloomberg points out that the DPRK’s recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease could also exacerbate food insecurity.

ORIGINAL POST (2/10/2011): According to the Guardian, DPRK embassies have been given food acquisition quotas by Pyongyang:

North Korea has ordered all its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid in a sign of growing desperation in Pyongyang, according to diplomatic sources.

This direct approach to foreign capitals, launched in December, is highly unusual for the insular and totalitarian regime, which normally negotiates deliveries of food assistance with international organisations such as the World Food Programme.

The WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organisation has begun a food needs assessment in North Korea, but the WFP said that last year it managed to raise only a fifth of the budget it needed for its North Korean aid programme.

That shortfall may be one of the reasons Pyongyang is trying a direct approach this year, observers said. But well-informed official sources in the region said that the regime was also having problems feeding the army, and wanted to build up a stockpile to fulfil promises of a “year of prosperity” in 2012 to mark 100 years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founding ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic, and the 70th birthday of his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-il.

“This year, all 40 North Korean embassies have been ordered by Pyongyang to ask governments for food. They have each been given a quota,” an Asian diplomat said.

Another Asian official said the order appears to have been given in December: “Kim Jong-il has told his embassies to get as much rice as possible.”

In November the WFP and FAO warned that the majority of North Korea’s people faced continued hunger this year after harvests were affected by unusually bad weather.

The Foreign Office confirmed that the North Korean embassy in London had approached the government seeking food aid.

“Any decision we make will be based on assessments currently being made of the country’s food needs,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.

The WFP/FAO needs assessment is expected to be published in the next few weeks. Marcus Prior, the WFP’s spokesman in Asia, said: “North Korea has had a severe winter and a poor vegetable harvest and there could be an impact on the spring harvest.”

A European official said he did not expect the evaluation to justify the declaration of a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, but Greg Barrow, a WFP spokesman in the organisation’s Rome headquarters, said it was too early to judge the outcome.

“The mission got under way today. They are just going out in the field. Nobody knows yet what it will say,” Barrow said. “We will distribute as much as we can get funding for, but at the moment we are 80% underfunded.”

The WFP demands direct access to food distribution points in the North Korea countryside as a condition for handing over the food – something Kim Jong-il’s secretive government has historically been reluctant to grant. Diplomatic sources suggested that this may be another reason the North Koreans are approaching foreign capitals directly.

North Korea has been hit by repeated famines in recent decades, particularly when bad weather has exacerbated the effects of inefficient collectivist farming practices and a shortage of mechanisation. The situation was particularly acute in the mid-1990s, when between 600,000 and more than 2 million people are believed to have died.

China, which has long served as North Korea’s food supplier of last resort, faced its own food crisis as a result of a sustained drought, and that may have an impact on Beijing’s food deliveries.

In last year’s assessment of North Korean food needs, in the wake of a similarly severe winter, the WFP and FAO estimated the country had produced about 5 million tonnes of rice and other staples.

The state imported about 300,000 tonnes commercially, leaving a food deficit of half a million tonnes. However, the WFP’s focus on children and pregnant and nursing mothers helped to ensure that overall rates of malnutrition declined. Anticipating that food production was likely to improve, the two UN food agencies recommended that the international community pay for another 305,000 tonnes to meet the needs of North Korea’s 5 million most vulnerable people.

Additional information: The Asahi Shimbun reports that the DPRK boosted mineral and mining exports to purchase food from China.

Read the full story in the Guardian here:
North Korea appeals to foreign governments for food aid
The Guardian
Julian Borger


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