Don’t Let North Korean Softening Obscure Persistent Hunger

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

September 6, 2000

There’s been encouraging news of late from the Korean Peninsula. Leaders of the North and South held a first summit in June, and family reunions and cultural programs are under way. North Korea is establishing diplomatic relations with other Asian and Western countries and is negotiating with the U.S. about freezing its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs.

Despite the fact that the U.S. has provided North Korea with more than $400 million in food and other commodities since 1995, there are still no firm assurances the food is reaching those who need it most. Congressional and nongovernmental-organization (NGO) estimates suggest upward of 2 million North Koreans died from starvation and related diseases between 1994 and 1998. A major reason is that the food aid goes directly to North Korean authorities, with no controls to prevent their handing it out to party officials and their families, the military, people considered loyal, and workers deemed essential, to the detriment of others.

To survive, tens of thousands have illegally crossed into China in search of food and shelter from China’s Korean communities. But the majority don’t make it across the border. New, unpublished reports from aid organizations and researchers working on the border suggest many become internally displaced within North Korea, moving from village to village, or from urban to rural areas, foraging for food. Growing numbers of malnourished children separated from their families roam city marketplaces and train stations, scavenging. Since the North Koreans restrict internal travel, those caught outside home areas without permits are subject to beatings, arrest, and confinement in centers specifically created for people who “wander” in search of food. Border groups describe conditions in these centers as “grim at best, with limited food, heating, and medical care.” Although the government claims to feed people in these camps, disease and death rates are reportedly high, and international monitors aren’t allowed inside.

The worst period of the famine appears to have peaked, but large pockets of hunger and starvation remain. Some international aid officials insist the bulk of the food they provide is reaching those in need.

But the U.S. General Accounting Office reports that the North Korean government doesn’t allow the World Food Program (the main conduit for U.S. aid) sufficient access to ensure food is “shipped, stored or used as planned.” Leading NGOs, including Action Against Hunger, Oxfam, and Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), have left North Korea in protest of government restrictions.

North Korea is not able to produce the 4.7 million tons of food it needs each year to feed its people. Only 20 percent of its land is arable, it lacks the machinery, fertilizer, and infrastructure to improve its agricultural output, and it is shackled with a Stalinist agricultural system. This means that the U.S. and others will very likely have to continue providing food aid for some years to come. If that’s the case, it’s time to make sure U.S. aid actually reaches the people who need it most.

Right now the World Food Program is negotiating its latest food-aid agreement with North Korea. The U.S. should insist upon:

  • an accurate survey of food needs throughout North Korea.
  • an independent monitoring system for food distribution with uncontrolled, random access to all vulnerable groups—internally displaced persons, those in camps, and children suffering malnutrition and related diseases in hospitals and orphanages.
  • the provision by North Korea of lists of the actual institutions to which food and medical aid is going;
  • permission for NGOs to set up feeding stations accessible to hungry North Koreans.
  • an expanded presence for relief workers in the country.
  • and agricultural reforms to address the famine—such as increasing the number of individual plots of land on which people can grow their own food.

Persuading the North Koreans to allow these steps won’t be easy.

Chances of success will be far better if the U.S. mobilizes other donors, and other democratically based countries with which North Korea now has ties, to join in insisting that food go to the truly needy.