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Donors lose appetite for North Korean food aid

Escalating tensions bring the ethical quandaries of dealing with Pyongyang to the fore

A cooperative farm storage filled with corn from an early harvest in Hamhung, North Korea
A cooperative farm storage filled with corn from an early harvest in Hamhung, North Korea (Swithun Goodbody/FAO)

After a year of nuclear threats, fiery brinksmanship, and retaliatory sanctions, the global aid sector is at a crossroads with North Korea.


There’s a question mark hovering over the immediate future of aid delivery as food assistance – once a symbolic thread of engagement with North Korea – has become wrapped up in red tape and is starting to weigh heavily on weary donors.


Dwindling funds forced the World Food Programme to claw back nutrition programmes for some 190,000 children in November. And this came after the UN organisation had already shrunk its food rations to the bare minimum required to have any nutritional impact whatsoever.


The WFP says it desperately needs $14.25 million to restock its shelves and deliver aid through the winter. But a turbulent year filled with nuclear bluster may have exhausted any lingering goodwill among most international donors. Both donors and aid groups now face a mounting ethical debate – and a potential public relations catastrophe – when engaging with volatile North Korea.  


Balancing act


Delivering aid to North Korea has always been an ethical conundrum for donor governments and aid organisations. 


Over the years, aid has helped to feed millions in a country where crippling drought, floods, and harsh winters exacerbate already precarious conditions. But North Korea’s own policies and economic mismanagement have also fuelled its shortages and starved its own population.

Today, access to food in North Korea remains haphazard and glaringly unequal. Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN’s special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, told the UN General Assembly that the country’s public food distribution system still amounts to “discriminatory and unequal access to food, with many people either left out of the system or given irregular rations”.


Aid groups face heavy restrictions – a major problem in a country that has in the past been accused of diverting food aid. In 2006, North Korea’s government forced the WFP to slash its programmes. The number of international staff was reduced to 10 people based in Pyongyang, and the government reportedly refused to allow the WFP to employ Korean speakers, hampering the organisation’s ability to monitor aid.


“We have negotiated the best possible terms under the circumstances,” Anthony Banbury, then a WFP regional director, said at the time.


And while large parts of the population go undernourished, Pyongyang continues to pour money into its nuclear arsenal. Marcus Noland, director of studies at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics, points out that the money Pyongyang would need to close its food gap is “a pretty trivial sum” compared to its defence budget.


Years of these contradictions have left donor governments wary – and aid groups like the WFP with gaping shortfalls.


“It's a pretty complicated and discouraging story of provision of aid over a long period of time: less than completely sincere behaviour on both sides of the equation, questionable results, and now a situation where everybody is just sort of fed up,” Noland told IRIN. “And so there's not a lot of goodwill left.”


Aid’s ebb and flow


But for more than two decades, WFP food aid has been a rare avenue for the global community to engage with North Korea. The WFP began working in the country in 1995, as a devastating famine was taking hold. Hundreds of thousands of people – and possibly more – likely starved to death.


In the ensuing years, the international community has sent a wavering but sizeable stream of humanitarian aid flowing in as North Korea lurched between belligerence and more food shortages. 



But these funds have ebbed as donor fatigue set in. The United States, which had forked out more than $1.3 billion in aid for North Korea since 1995, effectively stopped assistance in 2009 (though the administration of then-US president Barack Obama quietly earmarked a modest $1 million contribution to UNICEF in January 2017, two days before Donald Trump took office).


Today, UN-wide appeals for North Korea are chronically underfunded. Only seven individual governments, led by Russia and Switzerland, have contributed to the UN’s $113.5-million ask for 2017; together, these seven countries have pledged less than $13 million.


And new rounds of sanctions that inevitably follow North Korea’s escalating missile tests have made delivering humanitarian aid even more uncertain.


Sanctions have disrupted the banking channels aid groups rely on to access funds, forcing long delays or cancellations of key projects. Quintana said sanctions have prevented the import of chemotherapy medication and equipment for people with disabilities. While the restrictions weren’t intended to block humanitarian aid – the Security Council took the unusual step of issuing a press release to “clarify” the matter in December – they have magnified the hurdles for aid groups.


The WFP says more than 10 million North Koreans – 40 percent of the country – are likely undernourished. But after another year of cuts, the WFP’s cupboards are quickly emptying.


“Any further decrease in funding due to the current political situation will significantly affect WFP’s ability to continue… lifesaving interventions,” the organisation stated in August.


2018 is likely to prove to be another tough year, for groups like the WFP but especially for the children and pregnant women who make up the majority of its beneficiaries.


As political pressure builds and the cavernous funding gap swells, Noland says aid groups could be debating whether the risks of operating in North Korea are worth it.

“I think it's going to be very tough sledding for them,” he said.

(TOP PHOTO: A cooperative farm storage filled with corn in Hamhung, North Korea. CREDIT: Swithun Goodbody/FAO)


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