::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
       February 27 2021
Common Myths about Food Aid to North Korea by Wonhyuk Lim
Regarding food aid to North Korea, conventional wisdom in Washington may be summarized as follows:

1. International donor agencies (mainly the World Food Program (WFP)) could not ensure food was received by the neediest due to North Korea's tight restrictions on access.

2. Bilateral food aid provided by South Korea and China, with very few strings attached, reduced the negotiating leverage of international donor agencies.

3. No longer needing contributions from international donor agencies thanks to bilateral aid, Pyongyang asked them to pack their bags and leave.

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland make an additional point:

4. Pyongyang systematically reduced commercial imports as international food aid increased, intentionally leaving the population vulnerable to starvation.

Each of these points needs serious caveats, if not outright corrections.

1. As Hazel Smith makes clear in her new book, Hungry for Peace, international donor agencies had a reasonable level of access after building mutual confidence with the North Korean authorities. Their aid targeted the most vulnerable groups such as young children, and they had good access to relevant institutions such as nurseries, schools, and hospitals. The WFP was able to conduct extensive nutritional surveys, which clearly showed improvement in children's health over time. By late 2002, the nutritional levels of children aged under seven had become comparable to those in Cambodia and Indonesia -hardly well-fed but not in famine conditions, either (Smith 2005: 122). Although the WFP didn't have information at the individual household level, this is understandable because it was not targeting the general population. It had access to most of the counties in North Korea, accounting for more than 80 percent of the population. In fact, the WFP could construct a county-by-county database of socioeconomic statistics over time. As a few scholars have pointed out when comparing the WFP's monitoring regime with South Korea's, the WFP had over 40 expatriate staff and six offices around North Korea conducting thousands of monitoring trips every year. With such an extensive presence, one wonders how the WFP could fail to collect good information.

2. According to a recent CRS report, food assistance to North Korea provided by the WFP has declined dramatically from over 900,000 MT in 2001 to less than 300,000 MT in 2005. Reductions in food aid provided by Western donor countries basically account for this decline in multilateral assistance, both in relative and absolute terms. By comparison, multilateral aid from South Korea through the WFP channels has been fixed at 100,000 MT per year since 2001, and bilateral aid from South Korea to North Korea has also remained at a stable level (400,000 to 500,000 MT per year, except for 2001 when it was zero) since 2000-well BEFORE Pyongyang's request in August 2005 for the end of the WFP's humanitarian aid operations in North Korea and switch to developmental assistance.

So, how could South Korea's stable bilateral and multilateral aid to North Korea since 2000/2001 undermine the WFP's negotiating leverage in 2005? (In technical terms, this line of reasoning attempts to account for a change in the dependent variable with a constant explanatory variable. Can a five-year lag be justified?) It is actually the reduced contributions from other countries that have led to a significant decline in the relevance of the WFP's aid, at least in the eyes of the North Korean authorities. Perhaps these countries had their reasons to reduce food aid to North Korea, but it is unclear why South Korea should be blamed for their decisions.

That said, as far as the level of monitoring ("strings attached") is concerned, South Korea can do more to improve transparency. While South Korea provides multilateral aid in the form of grants, it provides bilateral assistance in the form of long-term loans (typically to be repaid over 20 years at the annual interest rate of 1 percent after a grace period of 10 years). So, strictly speaking, North Korea could argue it has no obligations to allow South Korean monitoring IF (big if, indeed) North Korea were serious about paying these loans back. I, for one, think it would be better to do away with this long-term loans approach and switch to grants with tighter monitoring. While diversion is a red herring and should not be exaggerated as an issue, donors would prefer to see their food aid go directly to the most vulnerable instead of trickling down North Korea's social pyramid. Tighter monitoring, within limits justified by technical and professional needs, would also have the added benefit of enhancing interaction with the North Korean officials.

3. In August 2005, Pyongyang did not ask the WFP to leave North Korea once and for all. Rather, Pyongyang informed the WFP that beginning in 2006, it would accept developmental assistance instead of humanitarian aid from the WFP. The improved food supply situation in North Korea and the reduced relevance of the WFP must have played a role in Pyongyang's decisions, but there seems to be another factor to consider as well. Pyongyang might have become more nervous about the regime-changing threat of "intrusive" food aid since the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act in the fall of 2004. The Act links humanitarian assistance activities to "substantial improvements" in transparency and human rights, and, by implication, to regime change, at least in the eyes of the North Korean authorities. By making transparency a central issue, when the WFP actually had a reasonable level of information access, the North Korean Human Rights Act might have made Pyongyang more suspicious and less cooperative with the WFP. However, this line of reasoning does not explain Pyongyang's request for developmental assistance because developmental assistance may actually require more information access than humanitarian aid-unless, of course, Pyongyang presumed otherwise. The WFP is presenting a proposal for a developmental assistance program for Executive Board approval, and it remains to be seen how North Korea will deal with the issue of information access if and when this program is implemented.

4. The Haggard and Noland report actually shows that reductions in North Korea's commercial imports of food occurred in two separate stages (Haggard and Noland 2005: 15). In the first half of the 1990s, North Korea's commercial imports of food declined (albeit in a non-secular manner) as part of a general economic crisis. More recently, there was a dramatic declined in commercial imports in 1998 although food aid that year also dropped. (There are conflicting estimates on North Korea's production trend around 1998.) Since 1999, commercial imports have remained at a low level and food aid has moved in an inverted-V pattern (rising from 1999 to 2001 and declining since 2001) while North Korea's domestic production has been on a rising trend since around 2000. It is this second decline in commercial imports that bothers Haggard and Noland.

However, their own simulation result (Haggard and Noland 2005: 17) shows that had North Korea maintained commercial imports at the 1993 level, North Korea's total food availability would have been approximately 10-20 percent in excess of what they define as "normal human need"(close to 5 million MT in 2003), which, by the way, is more than 30 percent above "minimum human need." In other words, it actually made sense for North Korean planners to reduce commercial imports given the expected domestic output and food assistance. Now, North Korea's actual total food availability (excluding unrecorded food aid or imports, especially from China) has been approximately 5-10 percent below "Normal human need." Based on these observations, one may suggest that the planners should have allowed a bigger margin of error before reducing commercial imports (to prepare for unexpected changes in domestic production or food aid), but it would be a stretch to argue that the planners reduced commercial imports with intent to leave the population vulnerable to starvation. Western donor countries have significantly reduced their food aid to North Korea since 2001, but scholars don't assign such a sinister motive to these reductions.


Wonhyuk Lim (CNAPS Visiting Fellow
Brookings Institution)
::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
Copyright 2005 © Korea National Strategy Institute. All Right Reserved.