North Koreans in dark about potential South Korean humanitarian aid

Editor’s Note: Following a report by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stating that 40% of North Koreans are “in urgent need of food assistance,” the South Korean government and local civic and religious organizations have moved to take humanitarian action to mitigate the problem. However, rice prices are in a holding pattern across North Korea’s markets and sources are reporting no increase in food shortages. Daily NK is publishing an interview series featuring North Korean residents across a range of demographics in an effort to gain a better understanding of the picture on the ground regarding the country’s food security and the practicality of getting humanitarian aid to those who need it most.

South Korean President Moon Jae In talks with World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley at the Blue House on May 13
South Korean President Moon Jae In talks with World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley at the Blue House on May 13. Image: Cheongwadae

The South Korean government’s plans to provide North Korea with food have been given wings by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Food Program (WFP)’s recent report on North Korea’s food shortages. President Moon Jae-in, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha and Unification Minister Kim Yeon Chul recently met with WFP head David Beasley, and the Ministry of Unification is now considering when and how to provide aid to North Korea.

South Korea’s government is moving rapidly to provide aid to North Korea, but what do North Koreans think, given that they are the actual recipients?

Daily NK held an interview with a North Korean market merchant in Hoeryong in her 40s. She told Daily NK that she had heard nothing about South Korean aid provided to her country. The interview was conducted over three days from May 11 to May 13.

“North Koreans never know when South Korean aid is arriving, and they’ve never received any of it anyway. People have never seen rice from the South before, so they don’t care whether it comes or not,” the source told Daily NK.

She also expressed cynicism toward South Korea’s food aid to North Korea.

“The food situation here is not terrible. People can buy as much rice as they want if they have the money […] I’ve never seen anyone starve. People are now well adjusted to surviving in difficult environments given their experience during the Arduous March (mid-1990s widespread famine). This situation can change, of course, if food shortages continue, but right now I don’t feel that the food situation is an urgent problem,” she said.

Her stance differs from the FAO/WFP report, which states that 40% of North Korea’s population, or 10.1 million people, are facing severe food shortages. The report estimates that North Korea produced around 490 tons of food last year, which is the lowest rate of food production since 2008 and 12% lower than last year.

“That being said, business has become harder. The economic sanctions mean that companies can’t do much business anymore. People used to survive on smuggling activities led by the donju (newly affluent middle class) and private companies. These days there’s just no money. It’s really hard to make a living,” she said.

She explained that businesses are feeling the impact of sanctions more than the food shortages. When asked how food aid from international organizations is used in North Korea, she replied that she had seen rice being sold in local markets.

“Food [aid] is never provided to regular people. People say that its used by the military, but I’m not entirely sure about that. I don’t know how the government uses the aid, but I’ve sometimes seen rice being sold in local markets,” the source explained.

Despite the situation, she expressed hope that South Korea’s food aid will help relieve the food situation in North Korea.

“North Koreans are just concerned about whether South Korean rice is provided to them or not. They’ve never received such aid before, but I hope that this time around the aid could help people here,” she said.

She expressed hope that the arrival of South Korean aid could reduce the amount of taxes the government takes from citizens and the share of harvested crops farmers have to give to the state.

The North Korean authorities have shown a negative attitude toward the South Korean government’s efforts to provide food aid, calling it “patronizing humanitarianism.” After being informed about the North Korean government’s attitude, the woman expressed frustration toward her government.

“The government just talks about being proud of socialism under the slogan that self-sufficiency is the only way for the country to survive. They don’t care about regular people so nobody has any hope that self-sufficiency will work out. People are just unhappy with the government and are getting more and more frustrated,” she lamented.

She also suggested that the North Korean government needs to change its economic policies to resolve the country’s food shortages.

“I don’t think that food aid from abroad will solve the country’s food problems because the aid is not provided to regular North Koreans. The government should take steps to improve the economic system. We can resolve the food situation using the farmland in our country,” the source said.

“Farmers, however, don’t receive much of what they harvest, and they don’t think that farming is something that benefits them. This has naturally led to falls in production. Farmers need to receive proper compensation for the work they do.”