In advance of the lean season, it is not uncommon for the issue of humanitarian food aid for North Korea to be on everyone’s lips; the issue is like an annual event at around this time.
However, one thing is a little different this year; that the North Korean regime has been calling for food from all around the world, from the U.S. and South Korea and even from countries in South Asia and Africa. The North Korean authorities have also invited humanitarian organizations and UN organs to investigate the food situation, and have supported them in looking around the country.
First, early last month, seven experts from Mercy Corps, World Vision and three other NGOs, which have aided North Korea with food in the past visited the country to investigate the food situation. After which, they urged the U.S. administration to provide food aid.
They asserted that they had witnessed cases of extreme malnutrition; that, for the previous six months, low birth-weight infants and patients with malnutrition had been on the increase; and predicted that if the food crisis persists, the health condition of vulnerable classes could be seriously affected.
More recently, the UN has also suggested that more than six million people in the vulnerable classes are in need of 430,000 tons of urgent food aid. Before that, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs held an urgent meeting to ask for around $82.6 million in aid for North Korea from 15 countries which have aided it in the past.
It is an obvious, long-lasting reality that the majority of people cannot afford sufficient nutrition as a matter of course. Even worse, for the last few years due to North Korea’s attacks on South Korea, even regular food aid from South Korea has ceased, while it is presumed that the unfavorable climate of last year may have affected food supplies in many provinces this year.
However, information coming from inside North Korea sounds a bit different.
In the jangmadang, where rice reached its peak in mid-February, prices have settled at around 2,000 won per kilo, and are currently at 1,900 won. According to diverse sources, there is no shortage of rice in the jangmandang, although that is of course not necessarily reflective of rural area supply. People can apparently afford meals, although this may often be of corn porridge or noodles. According to recent Daily NK research, in Haeju, South Hwanghae Province, only around 20% of people cannot have three full meals of some kind per day. It’s not good, but they are not starving.
Meanwhile, the North Korean authorities have been carrying out a campaign of gathering rice for the military. This is meant to be voluntary, but inside sources say that in some places they have been taking it forcefully, and offering incentives to those who make larger donations.
In other words, while the North Korean authorities have been begging for humanitarian aid, they have been depriving the people of food in the name of provisions for the army, and failing to provide it to the vulnerable classes.
Indeed, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and a leading advocate of North Korean human rights in the U.S. administration, has suggested that food aid could well end up being used for political events on the centenary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
It is a reasonable analysis. According to a survey conducted by the Committee for Democratization of North Korea in late 2007, a mere 7.6 percent of respondents had experience of consuming aid rice, and even that rice was not given through regular distribution, but in the form of a special holiday gift to celebrate Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il’s birthday.
It is an unchangeable fact that humanitarian food aid is necessary for the North Korean people. However, it is clearly wrong to suggest that the hunger of the North Korean people is caused by the indifference of South Korea and the international community.
And of course, considering the fact that the one who has been trying to get more humanitarian food aid from the world is none other than the Kim Jong Il regime which left a few million people to starve to death and expelled investigators from international aid organizations for demanding transparency of food distribution, it is natural to contemplate the background to the regime’s calls.
Thus, international food aid organizations need to observe closely and realistically whether the North Korean regime is going to use that aid they advocate for their people or for political events in order to strengthen the Kim Jong Eun succession under the banner of the strong and prosperous state.
Before voices are raised to call for rice to be sent to North Korea, the priority is to obtain reliable assurances from the North Korean authorities that the aid will go to the really vulnerable people. To do that, even monitoring to check whether or not the food is taken back by the authorities after being handed out is needed, since there is evidence of even this deplorable act.
And the fact is that it is perfectly reasonable for both the South Korean administration and international society to confirm that vulnerable people are consuming the rice they give, by insisting on transparency of distribution and sticking to the principle of no transparency, no aid.
Otherwise, aid food will just be used to settle the third generation succession, not for the North Korean people. The legitimacy of the call for aid is far less important than confirmation that it is eaten by those who are genuinely hungry.