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The Peninsula

Resuming Six Party Talks – The Impact of Food Aid

Published March 1, 2012
Category: North Korea

By Chad 0Carroll

With North Korea making a number of concessions related to its nuclear and long-range missile programs last week in Beijing, it now looks like a road-map back to the Six Party Talks is emerging.  For its part, the U.S. reaffirmed important positions regarding its intent and commitment to previous agreements with Pyongyang.  But to assume that this is all that motivated North Korea to accept the deal misses one fundamental issue – that Washington reached a monitoring agreement with Pyongyang that allowed it to proceed with setting up the logistics for a 240,000 ton delivery of nutritional assistance.  And while the State Department maintains that the proposed food aid remains completely separate from the deal, Marcus Noland has long shown that when it comes to North Korea, there is normally a linkage between food aid and talks.  But if there is too much food on the table, might Pyongyang become less inclined to negotiate?

Over the past year a number of voices have debated the true extent of North Korea’s food shortage. Some claimed the country faced an imminent famine that could kill up to six million people, while others suggested that things were actually improving.  As a result, there is naturally some disparity in the data available about how much food aid is actually needed in North Korea.  A recent graph by Stephan Haggard and Noland illustrates some of the discrepancies between their estimations and those calculated by the UN system. Noland’s team suggested that for 2011 / 2012, North Korea would face a shortfall of 146,000 tons of food, while UN estimates suggest a figure around the 259,000 ton mark.  While many suspect that Pyongyang could fill this gap through wiser spending, North Korea’s policy makers have instead made a habit of pleading to the international community to assist.

Following the death of Kim Jong-il, reports emerged which suggested that China had agreed to dispatch emergency aid that included 500,000 tons of food and 250,000 tons of crude oil.  A variation of that story said that China planned to deliver up to one million tons of aid, scheduled to coincide with 100th anniversary celebrations in April 2012.   All of this was said to be China’s attempt at helping Kim Jong-un stabilize the country during a sensitive time.  Beijing did not confirm either story, but human rights activist Do Hee-yoon was quoted as saying that in January thousands of lorries “laden with rice” had been seen entering North Korea, lending some credibility to the reports.

If the Chinese story was true, then some think the news could be a potential game-changer with regards to nuclear negotiations.  At the time rumors were circulating, Seoul was reported as having concerns that such a substantial amount of Chinese provision could have political implications, with one anonymous official warning that it would make Pyongyang less compelled to return to the Six Party Talks.  Indeed, 500,000 tons of aid would bring North Korea well above even the UN’s more conservative estimates of food shortage.  And when combined with the U.S. nutritional assistance (in the form of items that will be difficult to divert for military use), things might look even more rosy.

But there is more – regardless of the Chinese rumors, it is important to remember that we already know several other actors have already contributed food aid to North Korea.  Here are the top five donors and their contributions as of Q3 / Q4 2011:

  1. Russia completed the released of some 50,000 tons by the end of 2011
  2. In December 2011, the WFP reportedly released 32,000 tons of food aid
  3. In July 2011, the EU gave some 10 Million Euros in food aid
  4. In November 2011, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed 13,000 tons of rice & 43 tons of infant formula
  5. In July 2011, India sent $1million worth of soybeans

So even if Chinese rumors are false, when the above donations are combined with Washington’s confirmed donation, the DPRK currently seems more than capable of fulfilling its minimum dietary requirements for 2012. However, three factors suggest that this won’t impact on nuclear negotiations, as some currently fear.

Firstly, it is important to remember that 2012 is an important year for North Korea, being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung. Having made a promise to become a “strong and prosperous” nation this year, the Pyongyang government needs a food surplus to help prove that it has accomplished its stated goal. So while North Korea may now be capable of addressing its shortage this year, a  major boost in aid should not be confused as signaling an unwillingness to come to the table.

Secondly, Kim Jong-un is a new leader and needs to bolster his legitimacy to the people of North Korea. A significant boost in the provision of food is one way that he can achieve this.  If the state is able to resurrect its broken down food distribution service with good, new aid, Kim Jong-un will be able to bolster his credentials among many North Koreans.

Thirdly, because the U.S. is releasing its food aid in monthly increments, it will have leverage over the North Korean government throughout 2012. Even if China has given significant aid, the DPRK’s need to provide over and beyond minimum levels will necessitate its continued cooperation with the U.S. to gain its nutritional assistance. Even though it claims no linkage between nutritional assistance and nuclear talks, the U.S. will likely be able to find reason to shut off the supply should Pyongyang not cooperate. In addition, Pyongyang will probably appreciate the monthly arrival of food, lessening its burden in keeping it stored and in good condition.

Already North Korea forwent its demand of initially requiring 330,000 metric tons of food aid from the U.S and agreed to a lower amount. Some worried that because this previous demand had come under Kim Jong-il’s stewardship, Pyongyang would have been reluctant to budge on their former leaders’ request.  But perhaps it was the combined foreign assistance that facilitated North Korea’s acceptance of Washington’s nuclear proposals.  And while the DPRK may now be in a position to provide to its people at minimum levels, the new leadership of Kim Jong-un, wed with 2012 celebrations and a drip-drop provision of U.S. aid, suggest that there is little reason for Pyongyang to back away from further talks on its unclear program – for the moment at least.

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Peter Casier’s UN World Food Programme photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.


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