Food aid to North Korea saves lives — it doesn’t change minds

Author: Karin J. Lee, Committee on North Korea

Well-implemented humanitarian aid can save lives and build relationships between the giver and the receiver.

But there are limits. Food aid will not permanently change the security environment on the Korean peninsula, and humanitarian relief should not have security objectives.

US aid to North Korea has been linked at some level to security issues for nearly 20 years. As Andrew Natsisos relates, although the US government responded negatively to a DPRK request for assistance in 1994, the privately funded provision of medicines following a subsequent cholera outbreak ‘had a salutary effect during the negotiations, (of) building goodwill among … normally suspicious North Korean interlocutors’.

This made sense back in 1994: the United States and the DPRK were beginning a process with the potential to lead to normalised relations and an end to hostility. At that time the humanitarian gesture of providing food aid could have a positive ripple effect and help build trust. There’s nothing wrong with that additional political purpose.

Nothing, that is, unless security objectives supplant the primary goal of meeting humanitarian needs. The Congressional Research Service asserts that food aid was linked to North Korea’s participation in talks during the 1990s. While former Clinton administration officials maintain that ‘there was no policy, virtual or otherwise, of “food for meetings”’, Republican critics of that administration’s engagement approach found fault with both the way it linked aid to security objectives and the way the aid was monitored.

When President Bush took office, the amount of US government assistance gradually declined, hitting zero in 2006. Food aid did not resume until 2008, when the United States and the DPRK negotiated improved monitoring mechanisms. The United States demonstrated the emphasis on humanitarian standards rather than security goals by suspending shipments to the World Food Programme when the monitoring agreement wasn’t fully implemented. In contrast, shipments distributed by US NGOs under the agreement were continued.

Under the Obama administration, the link to security issues returned with a vengeance. In January 2011, the DPRK asked for food aid. In the following months US NGOs, the US government, the EU, and UNICEF and the World Food Programme conducted separate need assessments that reportedly found the same thing: no signs of famine but widespread chronic malnutrition and pockets of acute malnutrition, with concern that fragile conditions could easily worsen. Yet the Obama administration didn’t act at any time in 2011.

Then, on 29 February 2012, having received no new assessments or indications of increasing need, the United States announced a nutrition program together with a number of understandings regarding security concerns. But when shortly thereafter the DPRK announced its intent to launch a satellite in contravention of UN Security Council Resolutions, the nutrition program was held in abeyance and then cancelled after the DPRK’s failed rocket launch.

Initially the US government denied linking food aid to security issues. In cancelling the program, the United States argued that if the North Koreans couldn’t be trusted to stick to the February 2012 ‘Leap Day Understanding’ they also couldn’t be trusted to implement a monitoring regime. It took nearly a year for Ambassador Glyn Davies, Special Representative for North Korea Policy, to acknowledge what was obvious: a link existed. However, he explained at a Senate Hearing that North Korea ‘had forced that link from their side’.

To outside observers, it appears that the United States could have provided aid earlier in the process without aid provision affecting security issues — for example after the US assessment team trip to the DPRK in May 2011. But Ambassador Davies’ testimony, echoing the 1994 connection of the provision of aid with security goals, demonstrates that the linkage is a perennial US–DPRK issue and therefore needs to be approached with caution.

One of the biggest problems with linking the two issues in this way is whether it actually works. As Senator Christopher Murphy asked Ambassador Davies: ‘To what extent is food aid an actual tool to recalibrate [North Korea’s] strategic interests? We have certainly had success in these temporary agreements by exchanging food aid for concessions on their nuclear program. Of course, as we saw with the Leap Day Agreement, it can blow up within months’.

Murphy is asking the right question. Well-distributed food aid matters on the ground.  During famines, it saves lives and during shortages it ameliorates the tragic effects of chronic malnutrition especially up to the age of two. From a humanitarian perspective, the conversation should end there. Food aid should be given purely for humanitarian, not political, reasons.

But such an idealistic approach may be out of reach. Some link between food and security, whether implicit as an ‘environment changer’ or explicit as a quid-pro-quo, might be inescapable. If officials are to use food aid in this way, however, they need to understand its limits. At the level of government-to-government relations, it can contribute temporarily to an improved environment, perhaps smoothing the way to more productive negotiations. But just as food aid cannot permanently improve food security, neither can food aid permanently alter security calculations.

Karin J. Lee is the Executive Director of the Committee on North Korea, Washington DC.