One of the difficulties of dealing with the North Korean regime is that we can never know if anything it says is true. The evidence that we have from two outside assessments—by the World Food Programme and Food and Agricultural Organization and by a consortium of NGOs--paints a grim picture of serious shortages by late spring. Most NGOs operating in North Korea confirm this picture.
Prices necessarily fluctuate over time, rising and falling as the government seizes grain and releases stocks, including around holidays. But the medium-term trend has been toward rising prices, as it has been globally. Households still depend heavily on the market, and as the public distribution system shrinks, households will depend on it even more. As they do, prices could get pushed higher.
But we have contrary evidence as well. At least one European NGO has questioned the extent of the distress, and reports coming out of the capital and through refugee channels are contradictory. Many South Koreans have become cynical about the regime, particularly after the military provocations of the last year.
Rather than review the evidence again, it may be useful to consider some of the arguments for and against food aid; such an exercise can at least helps us identify the underlying ethical issues at stake.
Argument #1. “The situation in North Korea is not as bad as in the mid-1990s.” This argument seems odd, because three to five percent of the population died during the great famine. Even if the food situation were not as bad as during the “arduous march,” the humanitarian community still might want to help.
Moreover, we need to keep in mind the logistic problems in delivering large amounts of food. If we wait until the situation deteriorates dramatically, it could be too late. We also need to keep in mind that death from starvation is not the only risk. Malnutrition has long-term consequences for the vulnerable, including infants and children.
Argument #2. “We should not give food aid because aid simply strengthens the regime.” This argument appears very logical, but on reflection it is not. The regime already has a stranglehold over the North Korean people, and shows no signs of collapsing soon. Withholding food will not necessarily weaken the regime, which has consistently imposed shortages on its citizenry.
And even if food aid did free up resources for other purposes—and even military ones—would it be wrong to give it if it also saved innocent civilians?
Argument #3. “The North Koreans are seeking food aid not to feed the population now, but to stockpile it for 2012, the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.” This argument makes no sense. If the regime has a political problem now, why would it continue to allow shortages in order to be benevolent next year? I am more concerned that the current shortages reflect a rebuilding of military stocks, although that program—the Army Provision Relief Project—seems to have been stopped.
But again, we have to ask about our own priorities. All North Korean shortages are ultimately created by the regime, which could easily feed the population by undertaking relatively simple reforms. But the fact that the government is responsible doesn’t solve our ethical dilemma.
Argument #4. “Food aid will simply go to the elite.” This argument is almost certainly wrong. The food problems in North Korea are not a problem of the elite; they are a problem facing the poor in a society that is becoming more and more unequal. Food aid has the effect of providing increased rations for many citizens—estimated need is nearly 6 million people—and would lower prices across the board.
Argument #5. “Food aid should not be put in place until there is appropriate monitoring.” Monitoring is crucial for food aid to be effective, and it is time to bargain hard over the terms of any food program. We have the technologies to make an effective food program if enough staff are allowed in country. Commodity tracking, including through new electronic technologies, the issue of ration cards, and distribution monitoring can all reduce diversion. But we also need to accept that no monitoring system will ever be perfect; if we hold out for a perfect system, we are really saying that we do not want to give aid at all. The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
The reason that the food aid issue is so hard is that it raises fundamental ethnical dilemmas. Isn’t the regime really responsible for the problem? If so, doesn’t food aid simply help it? And won’t aid be diverted?
These are all difficult problems, but they do not address the underlying humanitarian issue, which centers on the question of who is suffering now and the risks of being wrong. The critics of food aid could be right. The government might be exaggerating its difficulties in order to extort more. If so, then we have wasted scarce resources that could be better used in other countries facing crisis.
But it is important to remember that in the past, the North Korean authorities have underestimated as well as overestimated their problems; prior to the great famine they did not sound the alarm bells at all. If the critics of food aid are wrong, the costs are very high.
※ The writer’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Daily NK.
[Stephan M. Haggard]
Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies
Director of the Korea-Pacific Program (KPP), Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California, San Diego
Ph.D. UC Berkeley (1983; political science)
- Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, 2011
- Development, Democracy, and Welfare States, 2008
- Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform, 2007
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