Food Aid to North Korea Begins to Dry Up — Should the World Give Food to States like North Korea?

worlTwo separate but closely related stories emerged within a few days of each other in January. First, the World Food Program announced that it had received so few donations to feed hungry people in North Korea that it would have to temporarily eliminate aid to more than half the 4.2 million neediest people it serves there.

Just a few days later, Amnesty International released a report claiming that North Korea had used food as a political weapon. According to Amnesty International, North Korea strictly circumscribes where humanitarian workers can visit and distribute food,

The continued restrictions on access for independent monitors, food donors, inter-governmental organizations and NGOs impede efforts to assess needs and fulfill these obligations. They appear to be a playing a significant role in the continuing food shortages. About 20 percent of North Korea’s land-mass, containing some 13 percent of its population, is not accessible to international humanitarian agencies. In 2003 NGOs complained that the government had “placed real limits on where and when NGO representatives could travel, what type of activities they could pursue, and with whom they could interact…NGO representatives quickly became frustrated as DPRK officials blocked some [of] the most common monitoring devices, including morbidity tracking, nutritional surveys, market surveys, and price surveys…”(59)

Humanitarian NGOs such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF),(60) Oxfam,(61) Action Contra La Faim (ACF), the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, Inc. (CARE),(62) the U.S. Private Voluntary Organization Consortium (PVOC) and Médicins Du Monde (MDM) have withdrawn from North Korea, citing inadequate access and their consequent inability to account for the eventual use of their aid supplies. MSF stated that restrictions on access had made it impossible to deliver aid in a “principled and effective” manner. It called on donor governments to review their aid policies towards North Korea, to exact greater accountability and to ensure that agencies were able to assess needs impartially and have direct access to the population. Several sources claim that international aid has been distributed by the North Korean authorities to those who are economically active and loyal to the state, while some of the most vulnerable groups have been neglected.

According to Amnesty International, North Korea also uses public execution to punish those who steal food or leave the country looking to escape the famine in China,

There are reports that people have executed in public for famine-related crimes such as stealing crops or livestock for food. There have also reportedly been executions of North Koreans repatriated from China who had crossed the border in search of food. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all instances as the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. As a State Party to the ICCPR the North Korean government is obliged to uphold Article 6(2) which states: “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes…”(75) Other UN safeguards stipulate this should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.”(76) The Human Rights Committee has also determined that public executions are “incompatible with human dignity”.(77)

The United States, Australia and the European Union have all agreed to send more aid to North Korea, though as the WFP notes that can take up to three months to arrive in North Korea. Those countries should follow the lead of MSF, Oxfam and others and withdraw aid from North Korea until it corrects the problems that Amnesty International outlines. Continuing to feed and clothe the North Korean dictatorship is simply prolonging the pain of the North Korean people.


Donor shortfall forces WFP to cut North Korea’s food aid. UNWire, January 20, 2004.

Group says North Korea Used Food as Political Weapon. UNWire, January 21, 2004.

Starved of Rights: Human Rights and the Food Crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Amnesty International, January 20, 2004.

One thought on “Food Aid to North Korea Begins to Dry Up — Should the World Give Food to States like North Korea?”

  1. Data on global food aid deliveries in metric tons are from the database of the International Food Aid Information System (INTERFAIS), which was developed by WFP as a contribution to a coordinated international response to food aid shortages. INTERFAIS is a dynamic system, which involves the interaction of all users, represented by donor governments, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, recipient countries and WFP field offices. They are sharing information and data on food aid transactions.^;

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