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Everywhere, Inc. (CARE),(62) the U.S. Private Voluntary Organization Consortium (PVOC) and Médicins Du Monde (MDM) have withdrawn from North Korea, citing inadequate access and their consequent inability to account for the eventual use of their aid supplies.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.

UNICEF Appeals for Aid for North Korea

Mehr Khan, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Director, has issued an appeal for international aid to provide help to millions of women and children in North Korea.

Kahn noted that conditions in North Korea had improved somewhat thanks to previous international aid efforts. But, she continued,

However, there are still some 15 million vulnerable women and children who continue to need external assistance to survive and grow. For example, there are 70,000 children under 7 years old who need hospital-based treatment for malnutrition. The survey also showed that one-third of mothers are malnourished and anaemic.

. . .

The two major causes of child deaths in DPRK are diarrhea and pneumonia. DPRK is a highly urbanized country and, in the early 1990s, people had good access to clean drinking water and sanitation. These facilities are now rapidly breaking down and are in desperate need of overhaul and repair. This gives rise to considerable concern for children’s health.

Since early this year, there has been a dramatic drop in levels of funding available for humanitarian assistance to DPRK. The WFP is in urgent need of funding to meet its food requirements. Some contributions have been authorized recently. But there is still a likely shortfall of 250,000 tonnes of food, which will occur mid-year, and for which there is nothing in the pipeline.

Of course, some nations who came through with aid during previous requests may be rethinking their decisions since North Korea seems to place more importance on restarting its nuclear weapons program that providing food and medicine to its people. Certainly North Korea has been a humanitarian nightmare for years and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. But what possible incentive do donor nations have to underwrite North Korea’s aggressive military posture by taking over the nation’s responsibility to feed its people?


Lack of funding for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea endangering children. UNICEF, Press Release, March 11, 2003.

Dictators, Development and Malaria

North and South Korea offer a nice look at the real sources of underdevelopment in Third World countries. That distinction was recently highlighted with word from the World Health Organization that North Korea has been experiencing a malaria epidemic over the past few years.

During the 1970s, malaria was eradicated from both countries. In 1997, however, malaria made a comeback in North Korea. The main reason is that although North Korea has a well–funded army, it does not have a well-funded water and sanitation system.

As a result, WHO estimates that last year there were as many as 300,000 cases of malaria in North Korea. WHO recently released an appeal for aid, noting that although much aid has been given to North Korea to avert famine, it also needs money to combat malaria and other problems.

South Korea, on the other hand, is prosperous to the point that it donated almost $700,000 of equipment to help its neighbor to the north fight malaria.

Both North and South Korea emerged from World War II as dictatorial societies. The North’s political system became ever more rigid and totalitarian, whereas the South’s political system gradually was forced to accept liberal democracy, both from internal and external forces.

The main problem still facing the developing world is too many regimes that have more in common with North Korea than with South Korea. A lack of democracy and political rights is a deadly combination.


WHO battles malaria in North Korea. Caroline Gluck, The BBC, April 1, 2002.

Will North Korea Ever Be Food Self-Sufficient?

As North Korea enters its sixth straight year of serious food shortages, it is becoming apparent that the isolated Communist country is going to require substantial food aid for many years to come.

The irony is that the policies that led to North Korea’s food disasters were designed by North Korea’s leaders to make the country independent of the rest of the world. Pushing an extremely xenophobic ideology, beginning in the mid-1970s North Korea’s leaders sought to limit all contact, including economic, between that country and the rest of the world.

The upshot of North Korea’s totalitarian policies, however, have required not only increasing contacts but about eight million North Koreans who are totally dependent on the World Food Program to provide the food for their survival.

WFP executive director Catherine Bertini recently returned from North Korea and told the BBC that even if that country experiences several years of excellent weather and good harvests, it will still require extensive food aid for the foreseeable future. According to Bertini,

…for the foreseeable future — at least for the next few years — even with improved harvests, even with good weather, there will be a need for food aid.

One point where Bertini was clearly incorrect, however, was in her assertion to the BBC that it was “no crime” for North Korea not to be self-sufficient. In fact, when a totalitarian government abuses human rights to such a degree that it results in the outright starvation of millions of people (as many as two million people have starved to death in North Korea), that most certainly is a crime.


N Korea faces desperate future. The BBC, August 21, 2001.