North Korea: The Politics of Food Aid

by Jon BennettMarch 1999

The uniquely difficult political climate for international assistance to North Korea has sometimes distracted from the fact that people in the country are suffering for lack of basic essentials, not least food. The government has reluctantly admitted to the crisis, entering into an uneasy pact with humanitarian agencies for the first time in modern history. Evidence suggests that humanitarian assistance over the past three years – notably the WFP’s largest emergency programme in its history – has been of positive benefit to those most vulnerable. Nevertheless, North Korea presents an acute dilemma for humanitarians determined to uphold minimum standards of accountability. The government has consistently failed to provide adequate information about, and access to, the populations of concern. The clash of cultural norms and the deep distrust of foreign intervention does not facilitate the requirements for transparency and donor accountability.

North Korea is technically still at war with the South. The country also faces rapid economic decline. Responses to the humanitarian crisis are therefore mixed with a strategic interest in ‘soft-landing’ reform of the last of the great Stalinist states. Humanitarians face a familiar paradox: how to import huge quantities of food and other commodities to stabilise a volatile region while ensuring internationally acceptable levels of accountability.

In advocating minimum humanitarian principles, what kind of leverage do aid agencies have in countries where such principles are either misunderstood or simply not high priority? The implicit assumption behind such principles is that they will be universally promoted across the whole spectrum of international organisations as well as being backed by sanctions (witholding assistance, for instance). That this has not yet been the case in North Korea points not only to a weakness in coordination but also to a relativist position which sees these principles as being either culturally inappropriate or too hastily advanced. For some, the remarkable accommodation of foreign aid agencies in the past three years should not be threatened by seemingly intractable debates over transparency – the preoccupation of the givers rather than the receivers. For others, it is time to impose stricter measures of accountability, lest our hitherto lenient position with the North Korean authorities becomes an institutional standard in the country. One thing is certain: by 1999 – 1 million tonnes of food aid later – the acute phase of the North Korean emergency was already over. Are we, once again, worrying about standards in retrospect, locking the stable door after the horse has bolted?

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