Why to Give North Korea Food Aid (Page 2 of 3)

Nor is North Korea an easy government to work with. The government restricts the number and movement of aid workers, prohibits Korean-speakers from assisting in the distribution, and has shown little gratitude for the help. Due to the lack of a free market, some collective farms underreport their food production and sell the hidden surpluses on the black market. There are also legitimate fears that, even if the government doesn’t divert the aid, then the North Korean authorities will use any assistance to free up resources for other malign purposes, such as supporting their military.

And a new worry is that the regime is hoarding food to enhance the celebrations planned for next year’s centennial of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. The government has said that next year will see North Korea become a ‘militarily strong and economically prosperous’ country. Current leader Kim Jong-Il may, then, use these events to consolidate the transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong-un.

South Korea, meanwhile, has been a long-time victim of its northern neighbour’s malicious behaviour, most recently with several brutal out-of-the blue attacks last year: the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March and the shelling of, Yeonpyeong, a civilian-occupied border island under South Korean control, in November. From 1998 to 2008, South Korea’s leftist governments had pursued a ‘sunshine’ policy of seeking to moderate North Korean behaviour through generous supplies of food aid, fertilizer, and other economic assistance as well as side payments (i.e. bribes) to Pyongyang’s elite. The aid and payments, supplied with little monitoring, did secure several high-profile North-South leadership summits. But they didn’t appreciably alter North Korea’s internal mismanagement or foreign maliciousness.


The current South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak has abandoned these sunshine policies and adopted a somewhat harder line since taking office in 2008. Unlike the pre-1970s South Korean governments, which refused to engage in direct dialogue with the North or recognize the legality of the North Korean state, the current government has stressed its eagerness to resume discussions on the major issues dividing the two countries. But it considers the generosity of the years immediately before 2008 a form of counterproductive appeasement. By rewarding bad behaviour, these policies only encouraged North Korea to resort to further provocations to secure more help.

Many Americans have been inclined to agree. In 2008, before the latest downturn in North Korea-US relations, Pyongyang had accepted a rigorous monitoring arrangement that provided greater assurance to US officials that the food would reach its intended recipients, namely needy women and young children. The relief workers could make advance assessment trips, deploy Korean speakers in the field, and make hundreds of monitoring visits to supervise the movement of food aid from North Korean ports to warehouses to the recipients. The hope is that the North Koreans might now also accept something as rigorous now that their desire for foreign food help has increased and the country has (so far) ceased conducting armed provocations against its neighbour or testing nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles.

The Obama administration, deferring to South Korean sentiment and wary of looking soft before its domestic critics, has thus far declined to offer extensive humanitarian assistance. It hasn’t, however, ruled out such help. And, like earlier US administrations, it has provided emergency flood relief as well as small amounts of medicine, equipment, and other health assistance.

The fact is that as with many policy questions regarding North Korea, there are no good options regarding the food aid question. But on balance, the best course would be for the United States and perhaps the South Korean government to modify their policies and render the food relief.

South Koreans for their part need to consider the additional problems they will face following reunification if the North Koreans that join a reunified country suffer from stunted physical and mental growth, vitamin and iron deficiencies, and increased diseases due to chronic maternal and child malnutrition. These problems are already evident in the large number of Northern refugees who flee to the South.

Furthermore, both Americans and South Koreans should consider that, while the current suspension of engagement with North Korea may be tolerable for another year, when the North Korean leadership will be focused on its political succession process, the stalemate is inherently unstable. Pyongyang could at any time resume testing its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Together, these capabilities could render the continental United States vulnerable to a direct nuclear attack. And the risk that further North Korean provocations on the Peninsula will escalate into a major war have increased due to South Korea’s new policy of retaliating more directly to further North Korean outrages.

The United States should therefore offer food assistance as a means of jump starting a dialogue with Pyongyang that eventually needs to extend to security issues. Official US policy is to separate humanitarian aid decisions from strategic considerations. In the words of the US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, ‘The United States policy is that when we provide assistance, humanitarian assistance, it is based on need and no political consideration should be involved. That’s the first condition.’ 

March 19, 2013 at 00:33

No, aid to North Korea is not "the lesser of two evils."
That is insane. North Korea has the 4th largest standing army in the world. 
Every cent of U.S. taxpayer funded food aid we send them just gives them more money to allocate to their army and nuclear weapons program.

[...] long-range missile development program had more bark than bite. Pyongyang had been reportedly using missile tests as a bargaining chip rather than as part of a concerted effort to attain long-range capability. North Korea’s leap [...]

February 12, 2013 at 18:07

North Korea is, and always will be, a rogue state. As such they will not and never intend to disarm their nuclear weapons regardless of whether or not we give them aid. In fact, their incredibly self- centered and world ignorant governement don't seem to give a damn about their own people! So, if they don't care then why should we? This sounds harsh of course and don't think of me as anything but a humaintarian. However, how can we be so blind as to bleed our economies to feed one that is actively and openly seeking to create weapons to destroy us all!? I humbly suggest that this is the definition of insanity! Far better, as someone suggested in an earlier post, to feed starving areas of the world such as Africa where we can effect  real and lasting change.

September 18, 2011 at 04:28

I believe that the title should have reffered to the aid that the people from Somalia received. I did not read the article but the title had me thinking.

John Chan
September 16, 2011 at 22:21


September 16, 2011 at 17:33

I have to wonder – how much good are aid organizations doing by supplying food aid to the DPRK. It is a country that is starving, or nearly so, for no good reason. It get’s plenty of rain and has enough land to be able to feed itself. (No?) By sending aid aren’t we just supporting a regime that doesn’t even see the importance of feeding it’s own people?

September 16, 2011 at 06:05

Well, U.S. can always reinitiate the dialogue with North Korea by providing Food Aid, but do not expect North Korea to change its policy and denuclearize itself or be a nice neighbor for Northeast Asia. Remember being a jerk and having nuclear warheads are only bargaining chips that North Korea has at this point.

If North Korea makes a decision for another crazy approach, it wouldn’t be another attack on South Korean soil. For a majority of South Koreans, two previous military actions created more hatred than fear towards North Korea, and another presidential election is coming less than a year; if North Korea increases its military threat towards South Korea again, the next administration will not have many options but has to continue its current aggressive policies against North Korea.

The next step will most likely be another nuclear testing or another missile testing towards U.S. Definitely, it is not a job of China. And, South Korea has a legitimate reason not to provide food aids after two military actions by North Korea. The best cost-saving way for U.S. is conjoint food aid program for North Korea with international organizations and NGOs. Sharing a burden with either South Korea or China would be a pipedream. Even if South Korea agrees to support food aid, amounts would be minimal.

September 16, 2011 at 00:10

“humanitarian” means nothing to White Americans from South.

They enslaved blacks.

John Chan
September 15, 2011 at 23:20

Although China has a lot of foreign reserve, but it is not enough to save all those mindless and selfish people spending recklessly.

China is doing its best to save Euro, and pop up the US; are you suggesting China should abandon your kin now for NK? Don’t you think you are heartless to your kind?

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