Why to Give North Korea Food Aid

Recent Features

Features | Society | East Asia

Why to Give North Korea Food Aid

Kim Jong-Il’s regime doesn’t make it easy to help his country’s starving population. But in the long run, offering aid is the lesser of two evils.

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.

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.’ 

In practice, the United States and other governments have regularly used aid to induce Pyongyang to modify its domestic and foreign policies. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have indicated they would continue this practice and provide a comprehensive aid package if North Korea dismantled its nuclear weapons programme in a completely verifiable manner. The Lee government has made similar offers of comprehensive assistance in return for de-nuclearization.

Of course, one needs to appreciate the limits of this approach. Foreign food aid may help re-launch talks, but it will not by itself lead to any major concessions or a long-term change in North Korean behaviour. But in addition to helping re-launch a necessary dialogue, a well-designed food assistance programme could help stimulate the growth of private markets in North Korea, which over time should weaken the regime’s control over its people.

For these reasons, US officials should consider providing some aid even if Seoul doesn’t, though the United States should respect a South Korean refusal to resume its own help—and South Korean officials should reciprocate and not consider a resumption of American aid as a breach of alliance solidarity. The recent dual aid ban is unusual and not necessarily a wise or sustainable policy.

That said, the United States, South Korea, and other foreign donors should insist on more demanding conditions for the provision of longer-term development assistance. Pyongyang has been adept at playing aid donors off against each other, relying on the softer terms of China and, until recently, South Korea whenever they tired of the more demanding monitoring conditions of the United States and the WFP. Unless North Korea revises its systemic policy distortions, the need for foreign aid, including emergency assistance, will be unending. Specifically, North Korea needs to devote more resources to agriculture and health care, expand the scope of free markets, and reduce the role of collective farms.

The one consideration that might override this objection is if North Korea credibly offered to eliminate its nuclear weapons capacity as part of a grand bargain for food, energy, and other compensation. Genuine nuclear disarmament would be worth the price, and Pyongyang would know that the steady stream of aid could be discontinued if North Korea reversed course. But North Korea isn’t going to relinquish its nuclear weapons any time soon.

It would, of course, be nice if the Chinese government would raise the standards on the development aid it provides the North. Although China isn’t a major food supplier to the North, it does provide considerable non-food assistance, such as fuel and weapons. Chinese officials have sought to induce North Korea to follow their lead and apply some of their own economic reforms by taking Kim around to various parts of China and showing off the country’s economic achievements. But, so far, he has recoiled from making sustained improvements to North Korean policies for fear of undermining his political control. Chinese authorities have refrained from coercing them into making reforms since, at the end of the day, they fear he might be right.