Humanitarian food aid has long been a tool of diplomacy; no country has exemplified this than North Korea. Even while decrying the government as an instrumental member of the "Axis of Evil", the United States and its allies have funneled aid into the country. Is it worth it?



Bargaining with North Korea


Matt Lowe

Whenever international food aid arrives in the "Democratic People's Republic Of Korea," the People are informed by proud superiors that it has been sent as fealty—payments from terrified Western imperialists and the "puppet traitors" to the South.  This is ridiculous, but not so far from the truth: the North Korean government has in fact succeeded in extorting the (seemingly terrified) international community, and it has used famine and systematic malnutrition as leverage.  Although several donor states have recently suspended food aid as part of nuclear negotiations, Pyongyang has consistently won virtually unconditional commitments over the past two decades.  By accepting only "pure" aid without monitors or oversight, it has siphoned off billions of dollars and acted with impunity.  Meanwhile, the People have starved to death.


That over twenty million North Koreans show an unflinching devotion to their dictator makes the situation uniquely challenging.  As the Ministry of State Security routes every would-be dissident and extended family to a network of gulags across the country, the remaining party members and proles fall over themselves to express loyalty and prepare for the next "arduous march" through production shortfalls.  Foreign humanitarian advocates have labored in a parallel spirit of self-infliction: every delivery of free flour and rice allows Pyongyang to spend more money elsewhere, and many deliveries are simply diverted to the military and ruling elite.  While food aid is potentially lifesaving to those trapped in the grossly mismanaged economy, it also extends the life of the regime and does little to address the underlying humanitarian emergency.


With a history of surviving on outside help, the "Hermit Kingdom" has never actually lived up to its absurd "juche" ideology of self-reliance.  Following World War II, it enjoyed decades of Soviet support and since 1989 has continued to maintain strong relations with China.  In the mid-1990s, a series of natural disasters led to unprecedented food shortages and widespread hunger that claimed millions of lives, prompting even South Korea, Japan, the United States to provide relief.  Yet at the height of the crisis, Kim Jong Il delivered on his "military first" platform.  In 1997, World Food Program monitoring officials were greeted in port at gunpoint by the People's Army, who assured them that their assistance would be unnecessary.  A year later, even as it phased "alternative foods" like boiled tree bark into its public distribution system, the government launched its first ever three-stage missile into space, dispelling any lingering doubts about its priorities.


Early incidents of stolen aid installments prefigured a long and ongoing tradition of profiting off hunger while making few concessions.  In 2011, following one of the best harvests in decades, the government cut food spending by 40%, appealed for massive food aid, and then rejected—for the second year in a row—an aid offer from South Korea that it deemed too meager.  In 2012, it agreed to an aid offer from the United States that included conditions for strict monitoring.  Officials stationed in China prepared to ship some 240,000 tons of food products that were specially tailored for pregnant women and children and would have been difficult for the military to use.  Less than three weeks after the deal was struck, Pyongyang excused itself from a litany of UN resolutions and conducted another missile launch.  The shipment was cancelled, and critics condemned the Obama administration for "punishing the North Korean people."


The total cost of North Korea's annual food shortages is a small fraction of the annual budget of its military—an estimated $5 billion, much of which is appropriated to a nuclear program.  After signing the 1994 Agreed Framework in bad faith, exchanging a false commitment to disarm for food and fuel, North Korea went on to become the only state ever to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Following its first successful nuclear test in 2006, several other states held onto hopes that it might disarm and trudged through years of fruitless six-party talks.  Not to be misunderstood, Pyongyang went on to amass a yet more comfortable stockpile and conducted another test in 2009.  The United States—one of North Korea's all-time most generous benefactors, donating over $1.2 billion in food, energy assistance, and medical supplies since the 1990s—has withheld food aid since the 2012 missile launch and instead adopted an even more cunning and fruitless policy of "strategic patience."


Patience is difficult to justify, let alone effect, particularly with the knowledge of hundreds of thousands of guilt-by-association political prisoners enduring endless labor, torture, sexual violence, medical experimentation, and, of course, hunger.  Yet those who bemoan any reduction in food aid hold no monopoly on the moral ground at stake.  No one is eager to deprive food to a population of 26 million people, who, due to prolonged deprivation, are on average several inches shorter than their brethren south of the 38th parallel.  Nonetheless, a backwards, bankrupt government has rendered policymakers impotent and noble-minded NGOs counterproductive.  While those wary of subsidizing the nuclear program balk at the issue altogether, others throw money at the regime, cementing its sovereignty.


The call to withhold food aid does not emerge from an ignorance of suffering, but from the conviction that there must be a more effective, more immediate approach.  The World Food Program mandates strict monitoring in almost all of its operations.  Yet compromises have been made in its largest operation in history, due in part to the fact that North Korea—unlike its other client states—still has a well-functioning political apparatus.  Now, more than a year after the succession from the "Dear Leader" to his (yet unanointed) son, no new compromises need be made.  In his first public address, Kim Jong Un declared the military to be his "first, second, and third" priorities.  Replying to the latest UN inquiry into his government's human rights abuses, he threatened another nuclear test.


Strict monitoring is an essential, though probably insufficient starting point for any operation going forward.  Reports from North Korean defectors describe military personnel recouping aid packages even after monitored deliveries. Given the failure of all international efforts thus far to curb the hunger crisis, the call for more comprehensive intervention should be taken seriously. The diplomatic obstacles in play are significant—principally, China benefits from a dismembered Korean Peninsula.  But as long as Pyongyang crushes any semblance of civil society that might be capable of popular protest, the onus remains on the rest of the world to take more substantive action.



Humanitarianism First


Anthony Wohns

In the mid 1990s, North Korea’s economy effectively collapsed, causing a famine of horrific proportions. The causes included immense flooding and the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been buoying the North Korean economy, along with the general incompetence of the North Korean government. Estimates of the number of deaths caused by the famine range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions. The North Korean government was even driven to ask the United States, South Korea, and Japan, nations usually vilified as enemies, for food. As in all such tragedies, those who suffered the most were people considered nonessential to the regime: children, the elderly, and those who opposed the government. 


Arguments against providing food aid to North Korea are often based on the idea that food aid helps reinforce the oppressive North Korean regime. Others argue that because the food is inappropriately allocated, too much goes to elites and the military.


However, these objections are problematic both ethically and practically. According to the Songun, or “Military-First” policy, the military receives top priority in the distribution of resources. The ramifications of this policy were evident in the famine of the 1990s, for the food that was available was sent directly to the military and political elites. Because of Songun, the common people were made to suffer the brunt of the shortage. However, fears that food aid is going to the North Korean military do not always have factual support. Humanitarian workers in non-governmental organizations that distribute food in North Korea, such as David Austin of Mercy Corps, say that the food being sent to North Korea is often a corn-soy blend that requires hot water, a food designed exclusively for the severely malnourished; such meager rations would hardly be serviceable to a military that is already comparatively well-fed due to the Songun policy. 


Another one of the common criticisms put forward by objectors and skeptics is that food aid donors have no control over the distribution of the food. However, according to Wonhyuk Lim of the Brookings Institution, international agencies like the UN World Food Program were often able to help guide the distribution of aid to North Korea. Since it has been shown that this oversight is possible, donors of food aid should simply insist on it.


Ethical concerns should come before any political calculations in the debate over food aid for North Korea. While the issue of the means by which food aid is distributed is an important question that must be addressed, the need to help starving North Koreans should take precedence over all other matters. We must take a page from the book of one of the most hardened cold warriors, Ronald Reagan, when he decided to send food aid to Ethiopia in 1985, despite the fact that Ethiopia’s communist leadership fell solidly in the Soviet camp. In justification of his action, Reagan declared that “a hungry child knows no politics.” Such a maxim should be our vindication for food aid to North Korea.  After all the political and strategic calculations are accounted for, the ability to help suffering humanity will more than justify the risks.


In the mid 1990s, North Korea’s economy effectively collapsed, causing a famine of horrific proportions. The causes included immense flooding and the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been buoying the North Korean economy, along with the general incompetence of the North Korean government. Estimates of the number of deaths caused by the famine range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions. The North Korean government was even driven to ask the United States, South Korea, and Japan, nations usually vilified as enemies, for food. As in all such tragedies, those who suffered the most were people considered nonessential to the regime: children, the elderly, and those who opposed the government. 


Arguments against providing food aid to North Korea are often based on the idea that food aid helps reinforce the oppressive North Korean regime. Others argue that because the food is inappropriately allocated, too much goes to elites and the military.


However, these objections are problematic both ethically and practically. According to the Songun, or “Military-First” policy, the military receives top priority in the distribution of resources. The ramifications of this policy were evident in the famine of the 1990s, for the food that was available was sent directly to the military and political elites. Because of Songun, the common people were made to suffer the brunt of the shortage. However, fears that food aid is going to the North Korean military do not always have factual support. Humanitarian workers in non-governmental organizations that distribute food in North Korea, such as David Austin of Mercy Corps, say that the food being sent to North Korea is often a corn-soy blend that requires hot water, a food designed exclusively for the severely malnourished; such meager rations would hardly be serviceable to a military that is already comparatively well-fed due to the Songun policy. 


Another one of the common criticisms put forward by objectors and skeptics is that food aid donors have no control over the distribution of the food. However, according to Wonhyuk Lim of the Brookings Institution, international agencies like the UN World Food Program were often able to help guide the distribution of aid to North Korea. Since it has been shown that this oversight is possible, donors of food aid should simply insist on it.
Ethical concerns should come before any political calculations in the debate over food aid for North Korea. While the issue of the means by which food aid is distributed is an important question that must be addressed, the need to help starving North Koreans should take precedence over all other matters. We must take a page from the book of one of the most hardened cold warriors, Ronald Reagan, when he decided to send food aid to Ethiopia in 1985, despite the fact that Ethiopia’s communist leadership fell solidly in the Soviet camp. In justification of his action, Reagan declared that “a hungry child knows no politics.” Such a maxim should be our vindication for food aid to North Korea.


After all the political and strategic calculations are accounted for, the ability to help suffering humanity will more than justify the risks.