North Korea’s Food Crisis Pushes the Envelope on Politics and Aid

May 17, 2011 Updated: February 15, 2016

WASHINGTON—No one likes to see a child go hungry, but in the case of the North Korea regime, it is never a simple matter of providing food. In the mid-1990s, as many as 1 million North Koreans died in one of the worst famines of the twentieth century. Today, organizations allowed inside North Korea warn that the “hermit kingdom” is again on the brink of a severe food shortage crisis.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) say that some 6 million people, or a quarter of the population, suffer from malnutrition.

North Korea, one of the most closed and oppressive regimes in the world, has appealed to the world for food aid. The WFP, the FAO, and various non-governmental organizations are calling on the international community to help with at least 434,000 metric tons (478,000 tons) of food.

The United States and South Korea are currently considering whether or not to respond to the request, and appear close to agreeing.

Stephen W. Bosworth, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, was in Seoul on May 17 to discuss the issue with his South Korean counterpart, Ambassador Wi Sung-lac.

“We had a good discussion today on the North Korean request for food assistance, and I think we have largely reached a common view on that. And we will be addressing that as we move ahead,” said Bosworth at a press briefing.

The question of food aid is a thorny one because it is difficult to ensure the food gets to the hungry masses and is not diverted to North Korea’s military and political elite.

Pyongyang says it is willing to accept strict monitoring to prevent any diversion, but past experience has made some experts skeptical.

“When it comes to North Korea, there is nothing that is purely humanitarian,” says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for New American Security. He spoke as a panelist at a discussion on North Korea organized by the Heritage Foundation on May 11.

Cronin argues that food assistance is “fungible,” in that it “will be basically used as a balance of payments subsidy to the North Korean regime,” he said.

A Congressional Research Services report from March last year talks about how North Korea has over the years “been adept at maintaining this inflow of food by opportunistically turning from one donor to another.”

The United States used to provide food aid to North Korea. From May 2008 to March 2009, it sent over approximately 170,000 metric tons of food, but that aid ended abruptly in March 2009 when Pyongyang unexpectedly declared that it no longer wanted U.S. food and told monitoring personnel to leave.

Nonetheless, Cronin still favors supplying limited humanitarian aid, as long as it is done with eyes open and at the first sign that food is being diverted, the aid should stop.

Currently, the only American aid to North Korea is $600,000 in flood assistance delivered via a handful of NGOs.

South Korea had in the past provided much food aid to North Korea, but that mostly stopped when President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008. What limited aid was being sent north stopped after last year’s two unprovoked attacks that killed 50 people. Today, most food aid comes from China.

The U.S. position is that its strategic objective is a stable security environment in Asia-Pacific. North Korea’s nuclear activities—uranium enrichment and ballistic missile programs—its provocations against the south, and ongoing human rights violations, undermine that stability.

Moreover, while the population is starving, the regime is undertaking expensive nuclear programs to guard itself against the very nations considering sending aid.

RELUCTANT: Dr. Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for New American Security, expressed many doubts about providing humanitarian food assistance to North Koreans afflicted with malnutrition and lack of food, a situation that is expected to worsen. ( Gary Feuerberg/The Epoch Times)
Dr. Patrick Cronin, senior advisor and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for New American Security, expressed many doubts about providing humanitarian food assistance to North Koreans afflicted with malnutrition and lack of food, a situation that is expected to worsen. ( Gary Feuerberg/The Epoch Times)

The Urgency

In February, a team from five NGOs, including Mercy Corps and World Vision, visited three provinces in North Korea, and found food shortage and rising malnutrition.

In April, WFP and FAO conducted surveys in the country and concluded “food shortages in [North Korea] have led to a serious deterioration in the health of millions of people who are already struggling to feed themselves.”

“[I]f there is any significant reduction in food intake the situation could deteriorate rapidly,” warns WFP in its report.

Former president Jimmy Carter reported after his visit to North Korea last month that roughly one-third of children tested by the WFP were physically stunted from inadequate food. He also said that authorities plan to cut the daily food allotment in half, to only about 650 calories.

Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute, thinks that the WFP and FAO have overstated the true need, but nonetheless admits “it is clear that all indicators point to a deteriorating food security situation in North Korea,” he wrote on May 14. Noland co-authored a book on the famine of the 1990s.


The WFP reached an agreement with the North Korean regime on several monitoring conditions. The WFP international staff will make more than 400 site visits every month, with only 24-hour notice required. About a fifth of all international staff will be Korean-speaking.

Nonetheless, diversion of international food aid to the military remains a major concern.

“Even when inspectors observed proper distribution, credible reports indicate the military would recoup the food after monitors departed,” said Bruce Klinger, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation Asian Studies Center.

A more trusting view of the regime was given by David Austin, an officer responsible for managing Mercy Corps programs in North Korea, which provided food aid as recently as 2008 and 2009.

“Normally, aid organizations don’t operate in the country, but because of our relationship with officials there, Mercy Corps and a few other NGOs were given unprecedented access. We were able to feed 890,000 people for eight months and crisscross the country visiting with the people who received the aid,” said Austin.

In an interview last January with the Wall Street Journal, Noland spoke of the bitterness of North Korean refugees whom he interviewed several years after the famine ended in 1998.

Noland and co-author Stephen Haggard recently published in “Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea.” They found “that significant numbers of people were unaware of the food aid program. It was astonishing to us,” said Noland.

Among those who were aware of the programs, only a small number of people believed that they themselves were a beneficiary. “This status of knowing of the existence of the program, but believing you were not a beneficiary, this is a profoundly demoralizing experience. These people feel they were abandoned at this time of need, when they were seeing their families and neighbors dying. They [believed it was] going to the army and the elites,” said Noland.

Based on psychological tests administered, the authors determined that the effect of the food diversion on this embittered group was even greater than being sent to one of North Korea’s numerous prisons.