Half of the Food Aid to North Korea, Sold in the Market

Stephan Haggard, an American expert on North Korea and currently a professor in University of California, San Diego recently published a report with the title of 「Hunger and Human Rights: The Politics of Famine in North Korea」with the assistance of U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea(HRNK).

In the report, he criticizes how the South Korean government is sending food to North Korea without any transparency guarantee and the food never reaches those really in need. In the result, the Kim Jong Il regime is spending the money which ought to be used for food purchase on nuclear development or arms stock while relying on the international organizations for food.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification immediately gate out a statement arguinst against the report, which stated that it has been working to secure more transparency. It criticized the report for undermining the government efforts to secure more transparency yet working in consideration of the special circumstance of the inter-Korean relations.

Haggard visited South Korea to attend an international conference and to present his report with the invitation of the East Asia Institute(EAI) on September 7. Prior to the North Korean hunger discussion held by EarthNet 21 in EAI, The DailyNK met him to share his insights with the readers.

– What was your impression of Korea, meeting the South Korean politicians and scholars?

It seems as though there are controversies in South Korea too. It seemed to me the Grand National Party is focusing on the issue of North Korean human rights problem and transparency in distributing food. The government of South Korea seems to be turning much of its interest toward aid to North Korea. I had deep conversations with assemblymen of both ruling and opposition parties as well as the scholars. I must not say further (the details).

– What are the real difficulties for security transparency in distribution of food aid in North Korea?

First of all, it is hard to distinguish subject. The problem lies in that there is no information on who is poor and who needs the food the most. Furthermore, local sites must be visited, but there is lack of personnel. Recently, food aid sent to North Korea is enough to feed four million people but they allow 40 people for screening. Even after the food is distributed, it must be verified whether the nutrition state of the people have improved or not. For the forty people to visit 100 sites in a month, conduct a study, and analyze nutritional state of the people is not easy.

– You have pointed out that the observation system of the government of South Korea for food distribution is much looser than that of the WFP system.

The government of South Korea sends 500,000tons of food a year and only visits North Korea 20 times. They only visit the sites the North Korean government designates. It is hard to say the food is reaching the fragile class. Its transparency system for the food distribution is incomparable to that of the WFP.

Furthermore, because the aids are sent as in a form of loan that the (SK government’s) right for monitoring is also limited. Of course, that does not mean that there is no monitoring. A loan form aid can create a politically friendly environment but it becomes an obstacle for the effect of humanitarian aid.

In order to maximize the effect of humanitarian aid, the international society must be able to cause decrease in market price for food through the international aid. However, in most of the cases, the privileged class or the military sell the food and make profit out of it.

– Recently North Korea is known to have said that it will not receive food aid from the UN and the international organizations.

There could be two reasons. First is that with the food aid from Chin and South Korea, it may no longer need food aid from foreign aid organizations. They argue that they do not need emergency aid, but assistance for development. However, what we must keep in mind is that international society suggests stricter preconditions; when it decides provide development assistance. South Korea has already experienced it when it received money from the IMF (International Monetary Fund), have it not?

The other one is that North Korea is trying negotiations with the stricter international monitoring. It wants less monitoring but still receive food. Its intention is to decrease NGO intervention. I can think of these two possibilities but I would have to verify more accurately.

– Professor Amartya Sen who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 for suggesting a solution to the problem of hunger in North Korea emphasizes, “hunger does not occur in a properly working democratic state.” As the reason for hunger, Sen gives a special emphasis on “the failure of entitlement.” How is problem of “the failure of entitlement” found to be in North Korea?

What it says is failure of the state food providence system. Such food distribution system in North Korea changed with time. In some of the cities in North Korea, food aid covers 70% of the city food distribution system. If it fails, it means failure of the government food providence.

Currently, the amount of food per day is 200g per person. People, short in food, buy food from the market. 50% of the worker families in the city buy food from the market. Perhaps more. Failure of entitlement of the individuals in North Korea is due to the lack of money to buy food. Workers in the city do not have money.

The solution must be sought in resurrection of the industrial economy. North Korea in the present imports manufactures and buys food with the profit it makes from it.

– Although foreign food aid is increasing, the amount of food North Korea buys from foreign countries is decreasing.

Loan is decreasing as well as the international aid. The overall amount of production also decreased. Now the farmers are planting in other farms. The farmers plant what they can harvest and sell in the market in their farms. The farmers are at least making a living. The problem is the people living the city. North Korea is not buying food from the outside countries. It uses that money on other things.

– In your report, you have analyzed that 25%-30% of food aid does not reach the people in need but is sold in markets and other places. What evidences do you have?

In fact, hidden evidences are hare to find. That is the amount we can predict from the defectors’ testimonies, interviews with the international aid organizations, and internal North Korean documents. From these sources the minimum amount predicted is 10%-15%.

One of the humanitarian aid sending organizations reported amount of food circulated in the market reaches up to 50%. According to some of the North Korean internal sources, it is argued that the food aid must go to the military. In calculation of all these, you can estimate how much is being circulated in the market. At least 50% of the food aid is not reaching the people in need.

– How should the human rights problem and humanitarian assistance be seen in relation to each other?

The two must be looked differently. Usually a nation that has food crisis is one where its government does not appropriately protect is people and democracy not practiced. When a food crisis occurs, it could be seen as a nation with human rights fall very behind.

The difficulty is what policy we are to have on human rights. About the human rights problem, I believe we must constantly raise the issue. We must also raise the monitoring issue. However, we must seriously reconsider about making humanitarian assistance a problem in the premise of human rights.

Human rights problem is a task which is difficult to be solved immediately. However, it is something a democratic state must take care of. President Roh Moo Hyun is a human rights lawyer. He must take the lead in the human rights issues, but he seems skeptical.

Fundamentally its is the problem of carrying out economics and politics in parallel. With economy reformed, industry will be revived and it will able to import food. However, with a decade long food crisis, the problem is that the state does not care about its people at all. Although economic reform is important, I believe political reform is more necessary. The two have to go together.

-Do you think fundamental food reform is possible under the Kim Jong Il regime?

Not everything comes down from above. In present North Korea, change is emerging from the below. People make deals, food flows into markets, people travel to China, and Chinese tradesmen come and go out of North Korea.

– Recently state control on food became stricter.

It seems like they are trying to control the market. I am skeptical about the state’s intention. There can be many reasons and we need enough of information analysis. Kim Jong Il too mentioned about his worries about cadres stealing food in the middle. Perhaps it is an attack to those people, the middle sellers. Or it could be an attempt to heighten control of the people.

– What do you think about those arguments about the international society should create an environment to weaken the North Korean regime?

I agree. However, it is a very difficult thing to do. First of all, it is important to have monitoring for food distribution so the food reaches those in need. We must also pay attention to the changes in the state providence of food. It could be a signal that the North Korean government started to worry about the market. Power of the market grew so big now. We must be more interested in the problem of transparency too.

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