Balance of Principle and Flexibility Are Needed When Providing Food Assistance to North Korea

Experts continue to disagree on how they assess the food situation in North Korea and how to provide aid to the country.

On May 27, the World Food Programme (WFP) requested the South Korean government to provide food assistance to North Korea. The South Korean government had proposed a meeting with North Korea to discuss providing 50,000 tons of corn as humanitarian aid before the US made a decision to send aid to the country. North Korea turned down South Korea’s proposal.

Regarding North Korea’s recent food situation, the WFP said, “North Korea is short of 1.67 million tons of food,” adding, “The number of those vulnerable to death by starvation reaches 6.5 million.” Earlier, the Good Friends said in warning, “Between May and June, about two hundred thousand people are expected to die of hunger.”

Meanwhile, Newsweek, a weekly news magazine published in the US, said in an article released on May 18th, “Right now, the WFP says North Korea is short by about 1.67 million metric tons, which would mean famine conditions. Our estimate of the shortage—100,000 tons—means the real crisis is about to begin.” It also said, “The UN system’s repeated invocations of a much larger gap have lulled people into a sense that North Korea is always short, and have obscured the actual conditions.”

The National Intelligence Service of South Korea said in a briefing at the National Assembly on May 23, “The food situation in North Korea is not as bad as it was in the mid 1990s when more than two hundred thousand people died of starvation.”

The Ministry of Unification also warned not to assess the food situation in North Korea too pessimistically, saying “The government still believes that North Korea’s food situation is not so bad as to be in need of emergency relief.”

Jung Gwang Min, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, whose research work focuses on the issue of hunger in North Korea said, “Starting with May, food prices have been decreasing substantially,” in a report titled, “Price change of crop imports from China and trend in market price in North Korea.”
The researcher said, “The rise of food prices in North Korea does not always indicate that the country’s food shortage is deepening.”

Jung indirectly refuted the rumor that there would be mass starvation in North Korea, saying, “Many reports that North Korea’s food situation is rapidly deteriorating and say that around two or three hundred thousand people would die of starvation. However, the study [his research result] shows otherwise.

Sources inside North Korea and defectors whom Daily NK have interviewed lately at the border all tend to say, “Overall, the food situation is not very good. It is true a small number of people died of starvation in some areas. However, things like mass starvation where thousands or tens of thousands people die of starvation at a time would never happen.”

South Korea should not jump to a hasty decision but continue to uphold principle with respect to providing food assistance to North Korea

Just as the assessment on North Korea’s food situation varies, people disagree over the issue of providing food assistance to North Korea.

The Good Friends said, “The South Korean government is violating the principle of humanitarianism by maintaining the position that it would not provide humanitarian aid unless North Korea asks for one.” The organization argued that the government must send humanitarian aid to North Korea in order to prevent mass starvation.

Dr. Lee Young Hoon at the Institute for Monetary and Economic Research of the Bank of Korea said, “Depending on information given, people vary in their assessment of emergency. Even with the same information, different people come up with different assessments.” Dr. Lee urged the government and civil groups to send humanitarian aid to North Korea, saying, “Food prices in North Korea have never increased as high as they do now. Even if very few people starve to death, [I believe] that is an emergency.”

However, there are those who continue to argue that the South Korean government should not push things too fast as that has been the case in the last ten years and call for a principled approach. They say that the government should not commit a hasty action.

Regarding the matter of sending 50 thousand tons of corn as humanitarian aid to North Korea, Song Dae Sung, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute said, “Since we offered the aid first, North Korea would probably wait long enough to put South Korea on a string and then receive the aid.” Song added, “Showing a sign of impatience at the possibility of a deadlock in the talks with North Korea would not help improve the inner-Korean relations.”

Yoo Ho Yul at Korea University said, “With food assistance, South Korea can send a wrong message. North Korea might think that South Korea gives in if it exerts pressure. That way, things can turn worse.” Yoo said that the South Korean government should uphold principle regarding assistance and adopt a different approach to North Korea in order not to repeat the same mistakes occurred during the past ten years of “Sunshine Policy” governments

In fact, some people insist that South Korea should take a strategic approach to providing food aid because the same mistakes can occur if North Korea uses the aid not to improve the living standard of people but to help sustain the Kim Jong Il regime as it did before.

Doh Hee Yun, secretary general of the Citizen’s Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees said, “Regardless of the past ten years of food assistance, North Korea continues to have food shortage. This means the country has some serious defects in its system.” Doh said, “Some civic groups argue that the South Korean government must provide food aid to North Korea unconditionally. However, that is like shoveling sand against the tide. And that is repeating the same mistake of helping sustain the Kim Jong Il regime.”

A researcher at a national policy research institute (who asked not to be named) said, “North Korea maintains this position that it would never ask for aid but take one if South Korea sends one. As long as North Korea assumes this highhanded attitude, there is no need for South Korea to give up the principle that it would send aid to North Korea when North Korea asks first.” The researcher said, “South Korea should stand firm for the principle. It is desirable to resume the aid when North Korea asks for aid and guarantees transparency in monitoring and access to the needy population.”

Be flexible when channeling aid through international organizations

Others insist that the most prudent solution to North Korea’s food problem is to channel aid through international organization such as the WFP.

Until recently, the Ministry of Unification simply maintained this theoretical position that it did not consider providing humanitarian aid to North Korea via international organizations. However, the ministry showed a sign of flexibility lately. It said, “In June, when international organizations like the WFP release their inspection report on North Korea’s food situation, the Ministry will assess the severity of food insecurity in North Korea and then examine various solutions accordingly.”

Kim Yun Tae, secretary general of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights said, “I understand that the government is trying to find a breakthrough in the stalled relations with North Korea. However, the government should be more flexible when channeling aid through international organizations. ”

Kim said, “By cooperating with international organizations, the issue of monitoring will become more salient. The South Korean government should continue to uphold its principle. It can send humanitarian aid directly to North Korea at the request of North Korea. If North Korea needs short-term emergency relief, the government should channel the aid via international organizations such as the WFP. [I believe] this is the most realistic and effective solution to North Korea’s food problem.”

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