Should the World Be Funding Food Aid to North Korea?

Millions of North Koreans remain under-nourished while Pyongyang continues its nuclear programme and startling array of status projects. But is foreign food aid the most valuable response?

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Sep 12 2014, 3:13pm

School bullies derive their power from the threat of violence. This idea is so common it's impossible to extort someone without receiving a tired sigh from the one-time-victim and an invitation to go fuck yourself. The mask of bullying culture has since slipped; films like Napoleon Dynamite and Happy Gilmore have taught us that behind a bully's verbosity is an inert coward, that the potential of aggression is a dangerous commodity that eventually runs out. In the 21st century, the meek have inherited the earth.

This is very much North Korea's problem. Much like everything under the regime, their diplomacy is a throwback to Cold War amassment, where the language of warfare is utilised to trade for something they need. Right now they need food. And just as the school bully would threaten to plunge your head into the freshly-fouled maw of a toilet if you didn't give them your lunch money, the regime in Pyongyang sends up a mass of missiles into the sky whenever they need more to eat.

It is no coincidence that, since Kim Jong-un's succession in 2011, North Korea has been a bit more ornery than usual. Superficially, it's a brazen show of strength to his internal opposition. Fundamentally, it's a cry for help. Since 2008, South Korea and the United States have slowly been curtailing food support, while, in little over 12 years, the amount of food the World Food Programme has delivered into North Korea dropped 94.8%, from 900,000 metric tons to 46,000. A decrease of startling proportions.

The WFP is funded by UN member states and private donations. This year, the majority of $5.7 million given for North Korea only came from three countries, meaning 190 members sat idly by as they watched the WFP come under its desired financial target this year by a factor of ten. They need to come up with another $50 million by November. It is very unlikely they will get it.

Nations and donators around the world have grown tired with North Korea. The problem—and the state's inherent strength—is that North Korea is very much a mirage, a sandbox state built behind a great moat of rhetoric and statesmanship. Unlike in Home Alone, where Kevin can construct a symposium of comic traps for Harry and Marv to blindly prance into, however, it is impossible for us, the outsiders, to kill the idea of the Dear Leader's Democratic People's Republic of North Korea with nothing but a support package.

As the food crisis worsens, the regime picks up the rate of showmanship. Just look Kim Jong-un's face as he watches the launch of one of their new high-precision missiles. He seems to have invested in a flat screen monitor, which is some improvement from the Bond villain tech of his father. Easy as it is to laugh from a distance, though, there are many people who fear that North Korea is on the cusp of enacting another classic diplomatic cliché—that of the cornered wounded animal.

It's assumed that these missiles, if they were ever to be used, will be heading to either Japan or South Korea. In 2010, missiles fired from the North killed four in Yeonpyeong Island, while Japan have had rocky relations with Pyongyang since they imposed heavy sanctions over a series of kidnappings of Japanese residents by North Korean vessels during the Cold War.

The missile shows may grab headlines and covert espionage may be the things that make the press, but it is the problematic nature of the DPRK's food policy that is the major killer. The lack of funding for the WFP has dragged up important questions concerning the validity of food donations as a sustainable method to assist those under the regime. The debate is no longer simply how much food we should donate, but whether we should do so at all.

There are compelling arguments from defectors that suggest it's time to cut loose, no matter how Machiavellian that may seem. The growing suspicion is that food aid inhibits the population's ability for self-determinism and profligates the regime's control. In other words, while we pump $200,000,000 of food aid into the country, Kim Jong-un can spend the national budget on 4-D cinemas, water parks and, you guessed it, nuclear armament (though, that, too, is unfounded hearsay—the kind of scaremongering required to get people to take notice).

The detractors of aid argue that North Korea does not suffer from a lack of food because it can't afford to import enough, rather, that it does so due to a systematic governmental plan of expenditure that excludes food. The government needs to adjust its own budgets before aid will be invigorated. This is almost certainly correct.

Worse still, the population suffers from dual mismanagement, first from the government and second by the WFP, whose hands are tied by the latter. There isn't compelling evidence to suggest the aid even breaks the surface of the population. Due to the lack of transparency by the North Korean government, the vast majority of the money donated, for all we know, may have been thrown into a gigantic suitcase under Kim Jong-un's bed.

"The WFP has limited funds and limited access," James Hoare, Research Associate at SOAS and Britain's first diplomat to North Korea, told me. "It cannot go into military areas or where there are detention camps. So it has to decide whom to help." This is often pregnant women, children and the elderly—the most vulnerable sections of the Democratic Republic's society. It should come as no surprise that a state founded on the principals of equal distribution fails so spectacularly to abide by them. All societies eventually slide to the right, even if they won't admit it.

Originally, North Korean worked on the principal of state-provided food rations, but the famine of the 90s put an end to that. Theoretically, rationing itself is broken down into nine categories of worth, with workers receiving the most while women, children and the elderly the least. Workers are then broken down into three subsequent groups, with those who pursue the toughest labour receiving the most. It hardly works like that.

Local Boys

North Korean children. Photo via Flickr user John Pavelka.

While rice should be given out twice a month on 15 day cycles, it rarely is, and each state coupon that a person trades for food comes at a financial cost. Unsurprisingly, the people who are not included in the rationing system are the politicians and the generals, who go around suggesting that their leader created the hamburger. Some defectors say that the rice they are given on Chuseok (the harvest festival) is over 10-years-old and inedible, while government officials dine out on beef seasoned with crystal meth.

The main issue with the WFP is that food aid is a passive form of assistance. It assumes a multitude of things, but primarily that the food that is donated is then supplied equally and fairly amongst the population. This does not occur and the monitoring systems implemented by the charity can only stretch as far as Pyongyang feels like allowing them to.

In excess of 80% North Koreans do not eat enough. That's 20 million people, or, to pick at random the major cities of countries that have provided very little food donations this past year, the populations of New York, London, Paris and Berlin combined.

The WFP tries its best to ensure the food is given to the correct people, Hoare explains. "It has a system for monitoring to make sure that what it distributes goes to those intended. It is not perfect but it is a form of check. When I was in North Korea, WFP's products were mainly fortified biscuits—they were pretty nasty to eat but packed with goodness. They did not appeal much to those who might have wanted to divert food supplies. Another way to control was to insist that the children eat the biscuits on the spot and did not take them home. Simple but effective when it could be used."

The UN, with its current level of funding, can only reach out to roughly one million North Koreans a year. It wants funding for at least twice of that, or roughly a tenth of the population.

By these numbers, donations would have to rise to unforeseen levels, which is, in fact, another option: by flooding the country with food, it would be possible to help the population to thrive, a point argued by UC Berkley's political science professor, Steven Weber. Another path would be to stop entirely, and starve the regime out. Both are extreme solutions to a problem that will not go away.

There is a tendency to portray the North Korean government as a bunch of comical fools, over-fed old men chortling at their new toys, and while the country is certainly no laughing matter, the regime itself does little to help its international image.

In recent times, there have been a plethora of mixed messages. Just last weekend, Pyongyang hosted the first international wrestling tournament in 19 years. Antonio Inoki, the Japanese politician/wrestler/renaissance man most famous for holding Muhammad Ali to a 15-round draw in boxing, organised the event with the explicit desire to open "the door to relations between Japan and North Korea". Back in April, there was the marathon, which has gone straight to the top of my personal bucket-list. They've even come out in support of the Yes movement in Scotland, which may or may not be the crucial boost Alex Salmond needs in the run up to the referendum.

Niche sporting events, often run by foreigners, can only go so far, however, when the regime continues to gleefully parades US detainees in front of the media, call South Korean president Park Geun-hye a "crafty prostitute" and make Dennis Rodman cry. It feels, at times, like Kim asked for The Communist Manifesto and got given Tom Brown's School Days.

By far the most compelling solution to the food crisis, however, is the most difficult to implement. That of supporting the jangmadang (the black market) by assisting in the funding and smuggling of food across the South Korean and Chinese borders. Cutting off funding through official channels and assisting the illegal transportation of food across the border may seem morally fraudulent, but defectors such as Seongmin view it as the only way to insert power directly into the hands of North Koreans. Residents sell goods that are traded in the market at inflated prices to other residents.

The regime is then placed in stark contrast to the market, with residents not having to arm themselves to destabilise the government—jangmadang's presence, like a cancerous mole on the corner of Kim's fleshy clavicle, is enough to inflame. Sometimes it is best to fight on the same terms as your opponent.

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Political pie. Photo via Flickr user Vera Yu and David Li.

Last year, the choco-pie made international news, as it symbolised the market economy that was growing beneath the shadow of the Ryugyong Hotel. In a slightly patronising way, the Western world blushed and patted itself on the back, as if to say, "Look, even North Koreans like our beloved capitalism and sweet cocoa candy," but for the residents of the country, it has come to represent the serious possibility of a new world, where a bag of rice is not just a bag of rice doled out from a funnel fortnightly, a place where a simple South Korean chocolate cake can be a symbol of anarchy, an edible revolution.