Food Aid, Prosperity and Needing to Talk

The World Food Program (WFP) is currently investigating the actual food situation in North Korea, and proposes to release its final report at the end of March. This, in turn, is drawing particular attention to the possibility of the United States resuming food aid.

Certainly, recent public statements from members of the Obama administration have suggested that humanitarian support for North Korea and long-standing political problems between the two states are being treated as separate, increasing the feeling that Washington is seriously reviewing the possibility.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on March 1st, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell stated, “The choice here is whether these people are allowed to starve. It’s a humanitarian issue, not a political one.” It was a view mirrored by another hearing attendee, Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. point man on North Korea issues.

Then, this past Monday, Department of Defense Assistant Secretary Wallace Gregson reiterated to reporters in Seoul that the United States government is indeed considering humanitarian food aid.

For its part, the South Korean government believes that the U.S. stance will be driven partly by the results of ongoing investigations. This is because the actual situation is still far from clear, even though the North Korean authorities have been calling for international food aid from the entire world. It has been suggested that the U.S. may even seek to send its own assessment team to try and get a firmer grip on the reality.

One source from the office of President Lee cautioned that an investigation is also not the same as agreeing to act, saying, “Currently, the United States’ stance is not one of resuming food aid, simply one of paying attention to the food situation. If the results of international inspections suggest that the food crisis is not severe, they will not send food aid.”

“Some in the media interpret the fact that the United States is reviewing food aid as meaning that they will resume it for sure,” the source went on. “Actually, the United States will make a decision after close consultation with the South Korean government against the backdrop of the results of the investigation into the situation.”

Especially, the source pointed out, “If North Korea made the call for food aid to prepare for next year, when it has stated that it will launch the strong and prosperous state, then the possibility of food aid being resumed is low.”

For its part, South Korea says it has no official position on U.S. food aid provision. “The South Korean government cannot say that it ‘agrees’ or ‘disagrees’ with United States’ food aid to North Korea. All we can say is that we are in close consultation with the United States government on the matter,” according to one Ministry of Unification official.

This absence of decisiveness may be partly because it has been widely suggested in South Korea of late that North Korea’s food situation this year is actually not noticeably worse than in previous years. Citing defectors, Open Radio for North Korea reported on March 12th, “North Korea, which has recently requested food aid from the international community, is reserving six months worth of food for wartime provisions. Recently, farming in places like North Hamkyung and Yangkang Provinces has been going so well that no one starving to death.”

The South Korean government’s own evaluation seems to bear out claims that North Korea is not in the kind of dire straits that it’s international panhandling would otherwise tend to suggest. According to Hyun In Taek, the South Korean Minister of Unification, on March 9th, “North Korea going around requesting food aid can be seen as preparation based on predictions of future stocks.”

However, it has also been suggested that the United States might elevate its consideration of food aid in any case, using it as a way to leverage a resumption of denuclearization negotiations.

Choi Kang, a professor with the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, told The Daily NK yesterday, “The United States has stated that they will separate humanitarian aid and political issues; however, they feel there is the need to create a discussion atmosphere so as to resolve denuclearization issues like North Korea’s UEP. There is the possibility of the U.S. using the atmosphere created by the resumption of food aid to kickstart the discussion.”

In addition, Professor Choi pointed out, “The United States is separating the North Korean people from their regime and, to the extent that it does not wish to make instability in the North Korean system worse, there is even the possibility of food aid for stability’s sake.”

However, “From the United States’ perspective, if the research results suggest that the food situation is not so bad, it will be difficult to resume food aid solely based on the necessity of resuming the discussion of denuclearization.”