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In a December 2015 Working Paper published by the ODI, Dr Emma Campbell writes about the famine in North Korea during the late 1990s and the impact the aid response had on more recent humanitarian engagement with that country.
The North Korean Famine and the general economic crisis that accompanied it is known as the Arduous March in North Korea. It resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 people, with others putting the number of dead as high as 3.5 million.
The crisis led North Korea to issue an unprecedented request to the international community for humanitarian assistance. Aid providers were caught in a dilemma, with a strong desire to provide assistance to those in desperate need, while ensuring that aid did not prop up a regime that was causing the suffering in the first place.
Aid organisations were divided, with some ultimately deciding to withdraw from the country, citing lack of access, inability to evaluate programmes and diversion of aid by North Korean authorities.
This Working Paper [PDF] reviews the history of aid to North Korea, the dilemmas faced by those responding to the famine, and the impact the aid response had on more recent humanitarian engagement in North Korea.
 The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. It publishes regular working papers.
North Korean food imports from neighbouring China dropped again in November, according to recent figures from Chinese customs, reports NK News.
This suggests “that the cereal production is enough at least for the minimum needs of North Koreans, so they do not need to import much food.”
However the NK News report adds that “[t]he low levels of food imports come despite a long running drought earlier in the year which saw numerous countries and international aid agencies increase donations. Some experts have warned that North Korea could face food shortages next year, and the UN’s FAO has claimed a large shortfall still exists.”
This mixed picture of food availability in North Korea during 2015 comes at a time when China’s grain production is at or near record levels as government policy aims to encourage production to feed the world’s largest population.
In a recent article in the Guardian, five commentators were invited to give their opinion on whether the world should fund food aid to North Korea. The well-rehearsed arguments were advanced by both sides. Those against aid argue that by giving aid we allow North Korea to spend money on bad things; North Korean aid is at times diverted; aid will ruin the nascent market economy that has arisen; and cut off food aid and it will force the hand of the population and the DPRK regime. Those who support the provision of food aid point to the fact that people should not be punished for the wrongs of the regime and humanitarian actions present opportunity for exchange and opening. At the end of the article a readers’ poll was taken to and the majority were persuaded by the isolationist camp that support the withdrawal of humanitarian aid. Admittedly, this was an unscientific poll, but still surprising given the Guardian readership’s traditional liberal bent.
The power of the anti-aid argument is two-fold. First, some of their arguments are factually true – on occasion aid is diverted and by giving aid you allow the government to escape their responsibilities. But these are arguments that can be made against almost every aid operation in the world, including the current Ebola crisis (for example, if the Sierra Leonean, Liberian and Guinean government tackled its chronic problem of corruption and political mismanagement, its health system would be in a better state to deal with ongoing epidemic). Moreover, writers such as Haggard, Noland and Schwekendiek have persuasively challenged the validity of these anti-aid arguments (diversion of aid has been much reduced, is not always done for nefarious reasons and diversion still results in the reduction of food prices. Further, there is no evidence that stopping aid would force the DPRK regime to use its resources for feeding the population and anyway if the West stops giving aid, China will continue).
But the real power of the anti-aid camp is the oft used argument that the ending of food aid to the DPRK is overwhelmingly supported by North Koreans living in the South. In the Guardian article, for example, Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean exile and founder of New Focus International, writes that “North Korean exiles will tell you that the international community must stop funding food aid”. If it were the reality, then the anti-aid camp is hard to argue with, after all North Korean exiles still have family and friends living in the North. The problem is, however, that this statement is simply untrue. Certainly, some and possibly many North Koreans living in the South will support the position that aid to North Korea should be stopped. But a significant number do not. Indeed, there is a whole spectrum of views within the North Korean community regarding humanitarian and other types of engagement that – like many political views – are influenced by factors including personal experience, age, hometown, work background, length of time living in the South and political ideology. My own research also suggests that some North Koreans living in the South feel unable to publicly present a pro-aid position in case they are perceived to be supportive of the regime in the North by both North and South Koreans.
The discussion about the granting of aid to North Korea, as with the giving of aid in most countries, is a complex one. And there are precedents for withdrawing aid from countries deemed too oppressive to work with. Currently, Eritrea, Angola and Equatorial Guinea are examples of countries with desperately poor populations, but such brutal and corrupt governments, that many aid agencies are unwilling to operate there. But such decisions must be made on evidence, not on the misrepresentation of exiles’ views that may not, anyway, represent the opinions of the people left behind. Those in the anti-aid community, particularly North Korean refugees, must refrain from speaking ‘on behalf’ of their whole community and focus on presenting their powerful personal experience and understanding of the North to persuade those on all sides of the discussion. Moreover, we must encourage and protect those North Korean expatriates in the South who do support humanitarian engagement to speak out and make their case so that the aid community can be well informed when making decisions regarding the granting of aid to the people of the DPRK.