The Obama administration has been deliberating for months now whether to resume food aid to North Korea. And, with North Korean representatives now being joined by international relief organizations in citing the threat of famine, there would seem to be an easy case for resuming assistance. Or at least it would be easy — if it were virtually any other country in the world.
The US government has traditionally been the largest source of international food assistance to North Korea, supplying almost $800 million of food aid to the country. Almost all of this was flown through the UN World Food Programme – until Pyongyang’s decision a few years back to refuse to accept the WFP’s strict conditions led to a suspension of deliveries.
And, although conditions aren’t as bad as during the mid-1990s famine, when perhaps a million people died due to a lack of food, there’s general agreement that most North Koreans are suffering from insufficient food consumption. Indeed, missions from several US and other foreign relief organizations have seen starving children eating grass.
The European Commission decided in July to spend €10 million ($14.5 million) to provide sufficient emergency food aid for at least 650,000 of the most vulnerable people in North Korea, focusing on children under five, pregnant and breastfeeding women, hospital patients and elderly people living mainly in North Korea’s northern and eastern provinces. The EU will distribute its aid through the WFP, and has received pledges from North Korean authorities that the deliveries will be strictly monitored.
Still, there’s general agreement that the North Korean government is almost entirely responsible for the famine and other calamities plaguing its people. The government’s skewed economic and political policies have resulted in its prioritizing defence spending and other spending categories besides food, sanitation, health care, and essential public services. Its restrictions on economic activity, combined with the political criteria that govern the government’s centrally controlled food distribution system, has also prevented food from reaching the neediest people even when it’s available.
For example, the country’s best products, as well as imported luxuries, often go to the elites in charge of the country’s security forces and other institutions. Unlike many former communist countries, the North Korean leadership has declined to introduce major reforms in what remains essentially a Stalinist-style command economy for fear of undermining this patronage system and allowing market freedoms that might encourage greater demands for political liberties.
Most recently, the North Korean government mismanaged a comprehensive currency reform introduced in 2009. The policy ended up impoverishing many North Koreans by wiping out their savings, depriving them of the means to purchase adequate food and other goods. Meanwhile, last winter was much colder and longer than usual, while this summer saw heavy rainfall. The elevated international prices for oil and food have reduced the volumes of these goods that North Korea is buying for imports. Although like other countries North Korea suffers from floods, crop and livestock diseases and other natural disasters, its government’s policies have left many North Koreans excessively vulnerable to such calamities.
Of course, the country’s culpability alone wouldn’t prevent the United States and other countries from providing assistance. After all, they’ve given help to needy inhabitants of the Soviet Union, Sudan, and many other people suffering due to government mismanagement. These people typically have little say in their governments’ policies. In addition, there’s a widespread principle that humanitarian aid decisions should be above politics.
But many people consider North Korea to be an especially odious recipient of international assistance. Its government’s foreign policies are as horrific as its domestic practices, and the country is presently the regime most clearly in violation of its non-proliferation commitments. Not only has it regularly peddled nuclear and ballistic missile technologies on international markets to rogue actors, but Pyongyang has already tested two nuclear explosive devices and is trying to perfect a long-range ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.