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North Korea is so secluded from the rest of the world that the country is not prominently discussed in foreign aid and international development circles. Contrary to its national ideology of juche which emphasizes self-reliance, however, North Korea has relied on food aid since the mid-1990s. Today, food insecurity and child malnourishment might be worsening to the point that the international community can no longer ignore it – a situation which holds major diplomatic and political implications.

Last March, the World Food Program (WFP) warned of growing hunger in North Korea. Recently, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) claimed that millions of children and women of child-bearing age in North Korea face malnutrition which can leave them at higher risk of death or disease. UNICEF encouraged foreign donors to help avert a “nutrition crisis” in the country by providing the full $20.4 million that is needed immediately. To date, UNICEF has received only $4.6 million. Likewise, while last April the WFP appealed for $218 million for emergency assistance to North Korea, only a third of that amount has been pledged.

The lackluster donor response is not new. Although donors have met relatively low aid appeals beginning 2008, those development practitioners who have visited North Korea say that requirements are chronically underfunded. The most drastic shortfall occurred in 2010 – the result of aid suspension by the US beginning 2009 due to the North’s refusal of assistance and by South Korea following the sinking of a navy ship in March of the same year. While aid increased significantly this year compared to 2010, roughly only $90 million has been received for disbursement. Beginning in 2005, aid appeals and actual funding have dropped off considerably – a clear symptom of North Korea’s inaccessibility and isolation.

The current hunger crisis has shifted the focus of humanitarian assistance from health, water, and sanitation back strictly to food aid. Last year, North Korea reportedly ordered all of its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid in what appeared to be a concerted effort to counter food production shortfalls. The nation’s dysfunctional food-distribution system, collapsing command economy, rising global commodity prices, and sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs contributed to pushing the country to the edge of a hunger crisis, even before devastating floods, typhoons, and a harsh winter compounded the emergency.

Despite UNICEF’s recent assessment, donors are still deliberating over whether or not aid should be extended to a country known for its hostile regime and nuclear brinkmanship and how exactly assistance should be applied. Indeed, the decision to help feed North Koreans remains mired in political calculations by governments cautious about engaging Kim Jong-Il’s regime which appears to be spending the nation’s scarce national resources on developing weapons rather than feeding its own people. Given the lack of international monitoring in the country, the most skeptical donors are concerned that the authoritarian and evasive leadership is intentionally exaggerating the country’s food shortages and will divert food aid to its million-strong army, hoard it in advance of the 100th anniversary of the “Eternal President” Kim Il-sung in April 2012, or just stockpile it because the regime anticipates further sanctions.

There are mixed professional opinions from outside the country on the severity of the situation. South Korea’s Unification Minister Yu Wook-ik labeled the country’s food situation as “not very serious.” After visiting North Korea last month, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) concluded that “the damage was not so significant” since heavy rain and floods this summer may not reduce crop production considerably. Conversely, the Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI) finds that though “there has been harm caused by the flooding, [crop yields] should still improve a little over last year. These statements have confused foreign aid donors and policy makers.

While the U.S. and South Korea (North Korea’s largest donors) insist officially that politics do not play into the decision of providing countries humanitarian assistance; the North Korea dynamics are beginning to cause some heartburn and debate. President Barack Obama’s administration remains firm in its position that there will be no six-party talks unless North Korea improves relations with its southern neighbor and adheres to certain longstanding conditions. Heeding growing appeals by international relief agencies arguing that the country’s most vulnerable should not be punished for their government’s deeds; South Korea through the World Health Organization resumed medical aid to North Korea.  Also, South Korean officials claim that the country is ready to step in with significant aid shipments in the event of another countrywide food crisis in the North. Significantly, next year both President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak make their bids for re-election so it will be interesting to see to what extent North Korea factors into their campaign strategies and the elections in both countries. 

About the author

  • Christine Dugay

    Christine is a former senior analyst under the Surveys and Advisory Services team of Devex. A skilled researcher, she contributes to and/or leads custom research projects and surveys commissioned by leading companies and development institutions. Christine has a professional certificate in political economy and a master’s degree in Japanese studies, and is a fellow of the Japan Foundation.