Why Sanctions Can Hurt North Korea

EDITOR’S NOTE: As much as 10 percent of food aid to North Korea is diverted, possibly to the country’s military, Marcus Noland, deputy director and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, says in an interview with Jayshree Bajoria of the Council on Foreign Relations. There are two steps the U.S. can take to mitigate aid diversion in the poor Asian country: send aid to areas worst affected by food shortages and donate food less preferred for consumption by the North Korean elite. A few excerpts:

How much international food aid really reaches the people in North Korea and how much of it is appropriated by the elite?

It’s been a constant tug of war between the North Koreans and the aid agencies to improve the degree of monitoring, and, frankly speaking, it’s never been particularly good. When you estimate how much aid is diverted, it depends on what your definition of diversion is. If the aid was supposed to go to its intended recipients gratis–food to be delivered to a pregnant woman or a widow or an orphan for free–then the share actually being delivered on those terms was probably quite small, on the order of 10 percent. If you adopt a more relaxed view of the rules, so that it got to the school child or the guy in the hospital, but they had to pay for it, then the share diverted was not that big–maybe half.

The food situation in North Korea remains difficult. Recent actions [such as currency reform] have contributed to a worsening of that situation. [In past interviews, a large number of refugees from North Korea] expressed that they were not recipients, that the food went to the military, and they are profoundly embittered by that experience.

Are there steps international aid agencies take knowing this fact?

In the most recent period in which the United States was providing any significant aid to North Korea, agencies managed to get some of the private NGOs to be able to use Korean speakers, for example, which had not been the case before. Apart from negotiating the specifics, there are some broader things we can do that would increase the likelihood that aid gets to the intended recipients. One of these is one the Bush administration did, which was to insist that a certain percentage–I believe it was 75 percent of our donations to [the UN’s World Food Program]–had to go into the ports in the Rust Belt of the far northeast, which is the worst-affected area. So if you think that food aid is going to be diverted, at least send it to the worst-affected part of the country. The intended recipients may not get it for free, but it will increase the supply of food available in this very hard-hit area.

A second thing that the United States has done a much less good job of than other donors is to donate food in forms that are not preferred for elite consumption. Rice is the staple starch of the elite; other grains such as barley or millet are less preferred. So basically sending barley and millet into the Rust Belt port cities of the northeast would, regardless of the specifics one can negotiate about monitoring, more likely put food into the bellies of food-insecure families.

Re-published with permission by the Council on Foreign Relations. Visit the original article.

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