Wayward Food Aid in North Korea?

US News and World Report
Thomas Omestad

It is a question that policymakers in the Bush administration, other governments, and private relief agencies have pondered for years: How much of the considerable international food aid sent to hungry North Korea has been diverted away from its intended beneficiaries? The debate is not likely to end, but a significant study released this month by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea takes a stab at an answer: 25 to 30 percent of it.

However, say the report’s authors, that diversion may not be the disaster it initially seems to be. Much of the redirected aid appears to move back into North Korea’s nascent food markets, where it is available to people who have earned the outside income to afford it. The diversions do not appear to be centrally directed but rather reflect the actions of North Korean agencies and people who are seeking financial gain, say the report’s authors, Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California–San Diego, and Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for International Economics.

The 56-page report (“Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea”) is released at a sensitive moment: Talks among six nations, including North Korea, aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons programs are scheduled to resume today. Pyongyang delayed the resumption of the talks by some two weeks, saying it was reacting to the naming of a U.S. official to focus on human rights problems in the North and to U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The regime will undoubtedly be watching for any moves to back away from international aid commitments to feed the hungry in the nation of 23 million.

North Korea has suffered food shortages for well over a decade, and a famine in the mid- and late-1990s is believed to have killed up to 1 million people–though some estimates have put the figure higher. The public food distribution system staggered under the problem, and many North Koreans are now purchasing much of their food in markets, spending upwards of 80 percent of their income on food. North Korea has received more than $2 billion in food aid over the past decade, the U.S. contribution rising above $600 million of that. The United Nations World Food Program has not been able to meet its food contribution goals this year, a reflection, some analysts say, of international annoyance with North Korea’s stance on nuclear issues.

The report cites what Haggard describes as regime efforts at “systematically blocking NGO [nongovernmental organizations] aid.” Barriers include North Korean limits on the number of food-aid monitors allowed to follow distribution, preventing the WFP from deploying Korean-speaking staff, putting several counties (with 15 percent of the population) off limits, and requiring that inspection visits be announced ahead of time. All of that, the authors suggest, worsens the problem of aid being misdirected. Further, says Haggard, the North Koreans cut commercial imports nearly in tandem with growing food aid from other countries. The meaning: “The North Korean regime was using food imports as a sort of balance-of-payments support,” he says.

Despite their qualms, the authors do not advocate stopping food aid to the North, suggesting that China and South Korea–two countries that have tried to support the North with food aid outside of U.N. channels–would simply step in and fill the gap. They do want South Korea, in particular, however, to make its food donations through the WFP, where the monitoring is at least better. The South Korean government, however, says that it does inspect its distribution site in North Korea and stresses the need for North Korea to undertake an “equitable distribution of food.”

But no one should expect quick fixes to the challenge of verifying that aid to the North goes where it should be going.

“Absolute control is not possible,” Ells Culver, a cofounder of Oregon-based Mercy Corps, said in a recent interview with U.S. News. Mercy Corps is assisting with several agriculture projects in the North. “We’ll never get as much monitoring as in other countries.” Such pragmatism, however imperfect it is, may be the best approach to helping North Korea’s hungry.


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