North Korea Begging The World For Food

After spending much of 2010 on a confrontational posture, North Korea has gotten quiet lately and has started asking the world for food again:

TOKYO – North Korea recently took the unusual step of begging for food handouts from the foreign governments it usually threatens.

Plagued by floods, an outbreak of a livestock disease and a brutal winter, the government ordered its embassies and diplomatic offices around the world to seek help.

The request has put the United States and other Western countries in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to ignore the pleas of a starving country or pump food into a corrupt distribution system that often gives food to those who need it least.

The United States, which suspended its food aid to North Korea two years ago amid concerns about transparency, “has no plans for any contributions at this time,” said Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s top East Asia official.

Meanwhile, the U.N. World Food Program, responsible for much of the food aid in North Korea, said its current food supply could sustain operations in the communist country for only another month.

“We’re certainly hopeful that new donations will be coming in the upcoming weeks,” said Marcus Prior, the WFP’s spokesman in Asia.

Next month, the WFP plans to complete an assessment of North Korea’s food situation – a report that could influence how foreign governments respond. But few doubt that North Korea’s 24 million people need food.

For two decades, since the collapse of a public distribution system that supplied food rations, Kim Jong Il’s government has neglected to care for its people. In the early and mid-1990s, an estimated 1 million died in a famine.

North Korea has since developed a grass-roots network of private markets – a stand-in for government programs but also the target of occasional crackdowns from a leadership that views free-market activity as a threat.

Amid the food shortages, though, humanitarian experts describe another failure: the international aid effort. Outsiders have yet to devise a formula that reaches basic standards for monitoring or effectiveness. After 15 years and about $2 billion of aid efforts, one in four pregnant women is malnourished and one in three children is stunted.

The government places obstacles at every step of the distribution process – the top complaint from U.S. officials, who demand better transparency before aid resumes.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement this week calling it “essential” that U.S. assistance is “actually received by hungry North Korean children and their families, rather than reinforcing the North Korean military whose care is already a priority over the rest of the population.”

Researchers and nongovernmental organizations disagree on the proportion of food aid the North Korean government diverts, with estimates ranging from 10 to 50 percent. Diverted food aid, according to experts, is given to the military, redistributed as gifts for elites or resold – at a steep profit – to vendors in markets. John Everard, the British ambassador in Pyongyang from 2006 to 2008, said he saw rice bags labeled “World Food Program” in market halls.

In recent years, North Korea has often banned food aid monitors from traveling to the most vulnerable provinces. It also demands that monitors do not know Korean. Though North Korea makes exceptions, Prior said, it generally demands seven days’ notice before monitors can visit an area.

That’s the worst part about this situation. These people desperately need food, and it’s only human for the world to respond to that need. When we do, though, the Pyongyang government ends up messing up the process and diverting the aid to its favored elites. And people die. What North Korea needs is a little dose of the uprisings pulsating through the Arab world, but I’m afraid that’s not likely to happen.

FILED UNDER: Asia, World Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. TG Chicago says:

    I’d hope we’d make an offer — with strict monitoring conditions attached — rather than just ignore them. Presumably they’d refuse the offer, but at least then it would be on their heads. And who knows? If things are bad enough, maybe they’d agree.

  2. We should just fly over the country each night randomly airdropping crates of rifles and ammo.

  3. matt says:

    Believe it or not NK actually has quite a bit of anti-air weaponry..

  4. Well okay, make airdropping cruise missiles or something.

  5. matt says:

    I’m curious if they are willing to drop the hammer on Seoul or not. Last I knew there was a rather large number of artillery ready to effectively nuke the capital..

  6. Ernieyeball says:

    Let’s Nuke North Korea…China’s gonna love US for that!!! Or will the radiation cloud drift the other way?