Should the World Fund Food Aid to North Korea?

Excerpt from the Guardian's North Korea Network Expert Panel

September 10, 2014

For nearly three decades a chronic food emergency has gripped North Korea. In the 1990s a famine killed up to 5 percent of the precrisis population.

Humanitarian activities by the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP) and private relief groups constitute the longest ongoing engagement between the hermit state and the international community. But the North Korean regime's actions create an ethical conundrum that may be reaching its breaking point.

North Korea's long-running food crisis is the outcome of decades of economic mismanagement and a political system that absolves its leadership of any real accountability.

The long-running food crisis is the outcome of decades of economic mismanagement and a political system that absolves its leadership of any real accountability.

The country is cold and mountainous, but the government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency instead of exporting industrial products, earning foreign exchange, and importing bulk grains, as its neighbors China, South Korea, and Japan do. The result has been environmental degradation and recurrent shortages.

The most recent UNICEF survey suggests that 10 percent of the country's two-year-olds are afflicted with severe stunting. Stunting of that degree at that age is irrecoverable and confers a lifetime of physical and mental challenges.

When the country finally admitted in 1995 that it was facing famine, the international community responded with considerable generosity, at one point feeding roughly a third of the population. But the North Korean government has never accepted the international norms in the provision of aid—impeding normal assessment, monitoring, and evaluation functions of the relief organizations.

Critically, with assistance ramping up, the government cut commercial grain imports—in essence using humanitarian aid as a form of balance of payments support, freeing up resources to finance the importation of advanced military weaponry.

Even at the famine's peak, the resources needed to close the gap were modest, on the order of $100 million to $200 million, or about 5 to 20 percent of revenues from exported goods and services, or 1 to 2 percent of contemporaneous national income.

Today, the gap could be closed for something on the order of $8 million to $19 million—less than 0.2 percent of national income or 1 percent of the military budget.

Donor fatigue has set in. The WFP's assistance requests are grossly undersubscribed, and the organization may be forced to shut down its remaining program. And if it tries to soldier on with reduced resources, its ability to monitor its own activities will be badly affected, risking aid diversion and catastrophic scandal.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does. We should provide assistance. But we should be clear-eyed about the terms of that engagement and seek to provide aid in ways consistent with our values and our obligations under international law.