In a recent report by Radio Free Asia, sources in Sinuiju, near the Chinese border, say residents have been told to expect food shortages until 2025. “Some of the residents are saying that the situation right now is so serious they don’t know if they can even survive the coming winter,” said the source, according to RFA. “They say that telling us to endure hardship until 2025 is the same as telling us to starve to death.” Despite the urgent need, experts caution that that there are several obstacles to getting humanitarian aid to people in North Korea.
The Biden administration has said that it is interested in ways to provide humanitarian aid to North Korea in this desperate situation. “We have made specific proposals for discussions with the DPRK in our messages to them, and we hope that they respond positively to our outreach,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price at a press briefing in the beginning of October. His remarks come after North Korea has repeatedly turned down offers of humanitarian aid from the international community. In August, the Voice of America reported that Pyongyang declined a shipment of 3 million COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by the Chinese Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Previously, Reuters reported that a researcher affiliated with a state-backed organization said American offers of humanitarian aid were methods to advance their “sinister political scheme.”
Political calculations have influenced discussions over humanitarian aid shipments to North Korea before. “Humanitarian aid is supposed to be non-political or apolitical,” said Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at The Fletcher School of Tufts University. “But in reality, of course, there is a quid-pro-quo dynamic.” He says an example of this is the Leap Day Agreement of 2012, when North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing in exchange for nutritional assistance from the United States. This agreement would eventually collapse after the North attempted to launch a satellite to commemorate the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birthday. “The stated position is always that one does not link humanitarian aid to politics, but in reality it happens all the time,” said Dr. Lee.
Experts also say that the politicization of humanitarian aid is also a reflection of the North Korean government. “Everything is politicized in North Korea,” said Greg Scarlatiou, executive director of the National Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. “The way that North Korea operates is that the regime concentrates all available resources on its own survival,” he said.
Dr. Jieun Baek, a fellow with the Korea Project at the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, says that North Korea is not unique in this regard. She points to scholarship by Burmese researchers that focused on the military regime that controlled the country from 1962 to 2011. Withholding food from the population was a method for exerting control. “You don’t have any time or bandwidth or calories to think about anything political: organizing, dissenting, any collective action activities,” Dr. Baek added. “They literally cannot do that because they’re hungry.”
In its most recent Voluntary National Review to the UN, Pyongyang claimed that sanctions, natural disasters, and the coronavirus pandemic are the main hurdles to sustainable development, one of which being food security. But experts say the Pyongyang government’s desire to maintain strict control over the distribution of aid specifically, and resources generally, is a more influential factor. “North Korea is the world’s only industrialized, urbanized, literate society, to have suffered a famine,” said Dr. Lee. While such events have been common in human history, he said that they are usually in places of conflict or developing economies. “This food insecurity problem that’s been going on for the past 30 years is entirely curable,” said Dr. Lee. “North Korea, the state, chooses not to because of its perverse priorities.”
If Pyongyang is serious about receiving humanitarian aid, experts say it will need to address concerns about its distribution to the populace. Dr. Baek recalled conversations with North Korean escapees who were harshly critical of proposals of humanitarian aid. “They’ve experienced firsthand how aid is redirected to the elites [and] to the military, and it doesn’t get to the people that it really needs to,” she said.
“Transparency and access should be the two pillars of responsible humanitarian aid in North Korea,” said Director Scarlatoiu. He identified women, children, and political prisoners as the most vulnerable groups of people that often do not receive the designated humanitarian aid. “The only way to disburse effective and responsible humanitarian aid to North Korea is through transparency, through access,” he added.
There are also actions that the U.S. can take to make it easier to deliver humanitarian aid. Although there are exemptions for such shipments to North Korea, applying for sanction waivers is a complicated process. “Many of these organizations are small…and don’t have the funds to hire an attorney to file papers with the Treasury Department for exemptions,” said Dr. Lee.
Another area for reform is lifting the ban on travel to North Korea. Although Pyongyang has sealed its borders over COVID-19 concerns, Americans have not been able to travel to the North since 2017. During a webinar for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ambassador Robert King said: “It seems to me that one of the things the U.S. government ought to do is encourage private efforts.” The former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights added: “NGOs that are engaged in medical and educational and other kind of projects in North Korea – we ought to do everything we can to encourage it.”
Some experts have suggested that humanitarian aid could restart U.S.-North Korea negotiations, which have stalled in recent years. “The United States and its allies could consider negotiating some form of humanitarian assistance for North Korea to address its declining domestic situation,” wrote Dr. Victor Cha of CSIS in an opinion piece for The Washington Post in September.
But other experts are skeptical that such a proposal would be enticing to Pyongyang. “It might be something of a sweetener, as part of a larger incentive package,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. But he said that North Korean obstinacy in the 1990’s and its self-imposed border closures now suggest Chairman Kim Jong-un “doesn’t seem overly concerned about the food situation, certainly not to the point of a sincere effort at denuclearization.” Mr. Manning added: “They’re seeking to set the diplomatic agenda, with upfront concessions, like sanctions relief, as the price of a meeting, and to shift the objective from denuclearization to arms control,” he said.
Despite these difficulties, American policymakers and their international counterparts should continue to look for ways to deliver humanitarian aid to North Korea. “I recognize there are many domestic and international politics involved, and political calculations that different parties are making,” said Dr. Baek. “But feeding people does not have to be hard.” Even if aid was delivered quietly and the Pyongyang government took the credit, she said it would be worth it. “All the security negotiations are going to be there tomorrow,” said Dr. Baek. “Feeding North Koreans does not need to be hard, so let’s not make it hard.”
Terrence Matsuo is a Contributing Author at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Image from USAID’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.