Food Aid: RIP?

Marcus Noland (PIIE) and Stephan Haggard (PIIE)
July 12, 2011 7:45 AM

We have made what we believe is a measured, eyes-open, risk-averse case for aid.  The limited evidence we have on aggregate supply, commercial trade, existing stocks, the likely performance of the summer harvest and prices—both international and domestic—point to ongoing shortages that will almost certainly have adverse effects on vulnerable portions of the population. These problems will arise both because of declining rations for those dependent on the Public Distribution System and for those purchasing food in the market because of rising prices and erratic supply. Even if people are not dying in large numbers—a bizarre standard for judging whether assistance is necessary--chronic shortages have obvious implications for long-term mental and emotional as well as physical health.

It increasingly seems like it ain’t going to happen—or if it does it will be for programmatically “wrong” reasons and likely to yield a problematic effort. The situation arises partly due to reasonable substantive disagreements springing from North Korea’s credibility problems combined with limitations on access that make conventional assessment impossible. But the reasons are also political, and have to do with decisions on the part of both the North Koreans and the Five Parties, particularly the US and South Korea.

First, where are we? The World Food Program launched its appeal for a program for 3.5 million vulnerable North Koreans in April of this year; the program would require nearly 350,000 metric tons of grain or grain equivalent and have a price tag of about $220 million. This appeal grew out of a rapid assessment mission in March as well as an assessment by a consortium of NGOs; our analysis of the WFP/FAO evaluation can be found here. We have further argued that while WFP’s assessment is overly pessimistic, distress is real.

But the North Koreans themselves had to come forward, and they quietly did. From December of last year, reports began to surface of an all-out press on the part of North Korean embassies and other entities to secure bilateral donations. Some of these stories—such as an approach to Zimbabwe, itself a WFP recipient and others of which we are aware but are not at liberty to divulge—seem strange to say the least. But in the heated post-Yeongypyeon setting, the North Koreans also directly approached the US through the New York channel. We took these signs as both typical of North Korean brazenness, but also indicative of distress as well; the two are not mutually exclusive, as some seem to believe.

The WFP can only tap a very limited pool of multilateral funding and is thus dependent on major donors.  The dependence on major donors is not simply a result of their capacity to supply; it is also political. If the larger countries step up, it has a catalytic effect. That the US is on the sidelines is reflected in the fact that very little has been forthcoming. While the EU recently stepped forward, their contribution is modest—a fraction of what they regularly contributed 5 or 10 years ago. The top six contributors to this appeal are—in descending order—the EU, Russia, Brazil, Switzerland, Canada and India. Their generosity deserves applause, but together these five have pledged about $30 million and the total committed is roughly 20% of the total program size.

Even China, which has never participated in multilateral aid efforts and remains highly non-transparent in its dealings with North Korea, appears to be providing only tepid support.

It might seem as if the pivotal country is the US, and it ultimately is. But US policy has to contend with the Lee Myung Bak government as well. From the outset, the LMB government has been consistent that aid to the North will come after—not before—progress on political issues of interest. This position was no doubt reiterated in the 24 June meeting between Secretary of State Clinton and Korean foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan and associated working-level discussions.

To eliminate cognitive dissonance, this stance has quite naturally been associated with the view in South Korea that the food situation in the North is “not that bad.” Minister of Unification Hyun In Taek has made a number of statements to this effect, as have many (though not all) conservative commentators in the South. In fact, these political forces invert the argument of politicization, claiming that food aid is simply being used in a misguided effort to restart the Six Party Talks. They are not entirely wrong.

The Obama Administration appears to be torn. On one side, multiple forces are arrayed against aid. In part this opposition reflects presumably sincere disagreements about need.  On a recent trip to Pyongyang, human rights envoy Ambassador Robert King and AID Deputy Administrator Jon Brause appear to have reached the conclusion that the crisis was not a generalized one. The EU assessment team reputedly reached a similar conclusion—real through not widespread need--but the political decision was to give. But some of the opposition within the Obama Administration revolves around concerns about monitoring issues that are unlikely to be addressed satisfactorily by North Korea; a warning shot on this issue has already been fired by a bipartisan group of Senators. Even if diversion per se was not widespread, in a world of competing needs, it is difficult to argue in favor of allocating limited resources to a country with a so obviously uncooperative government.

On the other side, rumor has it that a faction of the Obama Administration wants to push forward with aid as a sweetener for North Korean re-engagement in nuclear negotiations—the “food for talks” exchange that we have observed repeatedly over the past 15 years.  It is a perspective that sees aid as instrumental to other diplomatic aims, and as a consequence, puts less weight on need, monitoring, or other programmatic considerations central to humanitarian efforts.

But the Administration does not operate in a political vacuum and it is impossible to overlook the changed Washington environment after the November elections, heading into the presidential campaign season. These circumstances are highly reminiscent of North Korea policy after the Republican tsunami in 1994, when Republicans in Congress used North Korea policy as a cudgel to beat the Clinton Administration in the run-up to the 1996 election.

Some Republicans have clearly decided to hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire on North Korea. The National Committee on North Korea is the best place to keep track of all of these developments in one place, including sanctions bills and hearings.

But one recent, exemplary action pretty much summarizes the political difficulties the administration will have in moving forward. On June 15, Representative Ed Royce (California, 40th) offered an amendment that would prevent sending aid to North Korea; the amendment passed on a voice vote.

The logic underlying Royce’s amendment is worth quoting from his press release in full, as we are likely to hear more and more of these arguments in the future. His critique cobbles together things from 13 years ago, 5 years ago, 3 years ago, two years ago. (To our knowledge, Doctors without Borders hasn’t been in the country for a decade if not more.) The arguments, while not entirely without merit, have little to do with the humanitarian situation on the ground in North Korea. RIP.

“The Obama Administration is actively considering resuming food aid to North Korea. Yet, this week there are reports that Pyongyang is making miniaturized versions of its nuclear weapons – ones that could fit atop ICBM’s – make this policy all the more dire.

Over 78 percent of all North Korean defectors say they never saw foreign food aid. The aid that’s coming into the country goes to feed the military. Other dissidents and NGOs tell of seeing foreign aid bags being sold on the black market by North Korean elites for a tidy profit. Doctors Without Borders further testified that none of the North Korean children they had met had ever seen food aid.

‘North Korea will always cheat. Providing food aid not only allows Kim Jong-il’s oppressive regime to divert scarce resources towards its military program – one that has grown increasingly threatening over the past several years – but it delays the day when real, structural reform will come to North Korea,’ Royce said.”

Two final bibliographic notes. For those with access to JStor, Robert Hathaway and Jordon Tama, “The U.S. Congress and North Korea during the Clinton Years: Talk Tough, Carry a Small Stick” (Asian Survey September-October 2004) is a great case study in divided government; the title pretty much says it all. It shows that Republicans railed against being soft on North Korea, yet actually offered few alternatives to the Agreed Framework. More recently, another useful compilation of sources on the food aid debate has been made available through Erich Weingartner’s Cankor service, reflecting a very different Canadian view of the world.

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