North Korea (November 1997)
by Anna McCord, SCF-UK November 1997

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is currently experiencing serious food shortages as a consequence of chronic infrastructural collapse, compounded by a series of natural disasters over the last three years. Following the floods in 1995 this isolated state issued its first ever international appeal for humanitarian assistance (see issue 6, November 1996). The resultant flow of aid increased massively during the past year as the impact of the food shortages became more visible to outsiders, largely through media coverage. The extent of this flow of humanitarian aid to the DPRK over the last two years raises questions about both the politicisation of humanitarian aid, and also the international community’s commitment to fundamental operational principles such as effectiveness and accountability.


The DPRK has never been self sufficient in food. Since the state was established in 1948, it has been dependent on food imports attained on preferential terms from China and the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and economic liberalisation of China, both have limited or ended their subsidies to the DPRK. In addition, they have required payment at world market rates in hard currency for their exports, rather than the previous barter exchange, soft currency options and grant schemes. This has also had a major impact on the industrial and agricultural sectors. From 1990 onwards agricultural production experienced negative growth, largely a consequence of the high dependence on agrochemical imports which the country can no longer afford. This situation has been exacerbated by the increased use of marginal land in an attempt to raise production levels, rendering the sector increasingly vulnerable to climatic shocks, and heightening the impact of the recent floods and drought. This negative growth in the agriculture sector, coupled with serious industrial decline has led to a 30% shrinkage in the economy between 1990 and 1996, and the current food security problem.

The Government’s response to the floods in 1995 was to launch an international appeal for assistance. The WFP and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, were among the first to respond. Since this time, there has been a steady increase in humanitarian interest in the country which accelerated rapidly after the Government permitted increased access within the country earlier this year. Agencies rushed to intervene in this latest ‘humanitarian disaster’ which was readily characterised as a ‘famine’ which some agencies claimed had led to two million deaths by September. Malnourished children were paraded in front of visiting humanitarian personnel and journalists, and more aid ensued.

So what is the reality of the situation in the DPRK? What is known about the situation beyond the crude food deficit figures? What is the impact of the food deficit on the population within this highly centralised, isolated state where access and information are strictly controlled and highly sensitive? What information is there to corroborate the stories of famine, and what are the real dimensions of the crisis?

In truth little is known. It is impossible to say whether there is a famine in the country. The scale and extent of the crisis are unknown, and indicators of its impact on household food security remain elusive, as does information suggesting which groups within the population are worst affected. No information is available about the large parts of the country which have not been visited by humanitarian personnel, and those which have been visited have been accessed only superficially. Only extremely limited and fragmented information has been gathered regarding the food security situation and its impact, and agencies have been attempting to complete the picture using extrapolations from anecdotal information. Nationally the pattern of impact is not known, and the limited data which is available suggests that even within a given county malnutrition levels may vary considerably. Agencies can only guess at the socio-economic and political factors underlying these variations, and questions regarding entitlement and the state’s distribution priorities for relief food remain unanswered. Data to corroborate agencies’ claims of widespread famine remain elusive, and the credibility of the humanitarian community is rendered open to question.

Despite the lack of data, there is anxiety that the food deficit may be causing an appalling hidden famine along the lines of the famines in the Ukraine in the 1930s, or China between 1958 and 1962, when an estimated 30 million died without the knowledge of the outside world. This concern partly explains the current response to the crisis in the DPRK. However, there are two important additional factors; the institutional imperative to identify and mobilise resources in response to the next ‘big emergency’, and the DPRK’s status as a country of great strategic and geo-political significance. These factors combine to produce a strong interest, over and above humanitarian considerations, in the implementation of a massive food aid programme in the DPRK. This response serves to benefit many interest groups, meeting the political objectives of major donors, as well as the financial needs of both implementing agencies and the recipient government, but its impact on those in need in the DPRK remains uncertain. This analysis suggests that the DPRK is an example of the continuing politicisation of humanitarian aid, with a blurring of the distinction between the political and humanitarian spheres.

Setting aside this question of politicisation and the confusion of humanitarian and political roles, the fundamental question becomes one of needs, and whether the massive amount of food aid sent to the DPRK is having a positive impact on the vulnerable. To this the humanitarian community can only answer that it does not know. As needs cannot be established and access is severely limited it is impossible to identify vulnerable groups or assess the impact of the aid delivered on these groups. It has been argued that although needs cannot be determined, the crude food deficit figures offer sufficient justification for the large scale mobilisation of food aid. However, given that food aid is distributed almost exclusively by the government, and only minimal monitoring is permitted, the final distribution of aid within the country is not known, and the effectiveness of this approach in humanitarian terms is open to question. The delivery of large scale material resources meets many objectives, but the international community cannot be sure that it is also meeting the needs of vulnerable children.

The scenario outlined above represents a challenge to the humanitarian community in terms of the principles of needs-based aid delivery, the targeting of resources, effectiveness and accountability, to both beneficiaries and donors. While some agencies are attempting to negotiate a measure of conditionality in terms of minimum standards of access and monitoring, others have elected to follow the humanitarian argument that food aid must be delivered regardless. This approach questions the commitment of the humanitarian sector to the use of a shared set of operational principles and raises concerns for the future prospects of the NGO Red Cross Code of Conduct and other initiatives such as the SPHERE project.

Without large-scale external investment and economic restructuring, the situation in the DPRK will continue to decline and the household food security situation will worsen year on year, leading to an ongoing need for international assistance. The only way to ensure effective and accountable use of the aid dollar in the DPRK in the medium term is for humanitarian agencies to develop a coordinated strategy to address the country’s humanitarian needs, and a shared negotiating position setting out minimum conditions for intervention, including access. The humanitarian community needs to engage with the DPRK to develop appropriate and accountable responses which address the range of factors impacting on malnutrition and food security, moving beyond the simple delivery of large quantities of food aid.

Until a modus operandi is developed by the humanitarian community in which the needs of the vulnerable are met without abandoning the principles of effectiveness and accountability, the credibility and integrity of the humanitarian sector remains at risk.

Further Reading

WFP Food and Nutrition Assessment Report, 1996
The Koreans: Contemporary Politics and Society, 1996, Donald Stone Macdonald
Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, IDE Spot Survey, March 1997
The Famine in North Korea: Humanitarian Responses in Communist Nations, 1997, Sue Lautze
North Korea: Peace, War or Implosion, June 1997, Aidan Foster-Carter
North Korea in the New World Order, October 1996, ed. Hazel Smith
SCF Situation Analysis, October 1997