Busted: S. Korean Monitoring of Food Aid Exposed as a Sham

[Updates: English version here, and a small correction below.]

“At least since 2000 when we began providing assistance to the North, no one there has been starving to death.”

““ UniFiction Minister Lee Jong-Seok, May 2, 2006

You may recall that just over a year ago, Marcus Noland and Stephen Haggard provoked controversy when they published a report called “Hunger and Human Rights.” In that report, the authors concluded that up to half of food aid deliveries to North Korea had never reached their intended recipients. It singled out aid from the Chinese and South Korean governments for criticism for lack of effective monitoring, which made those shipments more susceptible to diversion. Professor Moon Chung-In, attempting to defend his government’s policies in an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune, admitted that last year, its goal was to conduct just 20 inspection visits to monitor its 400,000 tons of direct food aid (which is one visit, and a pre-arranged one at that, per 20,000 tons). This is significantly fewer inspections than even the World Food Program managed, for all of its faults. Moon also contradicted Minister Lee’s preposterous claim to have ended starvation in North Korea:

And though the South’s bilateral food assistance is relatively large, it is still far short of resolving North Korea’s food problem.

Noland and Haggard’s report was also critical of the WFP’s monitoring regime. Its well-meaning but rather hapless former director, Richard Ragan, defended the WFP’s monitoring in a letter to the Washington Post, comparing it to favorably to “food aid that is delivered bilaterally and to which few or no monitoring requirements are attached.”

Today, compelling new evidence has undermined the Korean government’s claims. The Donga Ilbo (Korean edition) reports that a North Korean defector reentered his homeland and last May 24th, captured video images of South Korean government food aid, clearly marked “dae han min guk” in the possession of North Korean border guard forces at Tancheon Station, in South Hamgyeong Province. The Donga also reports that a South Korean monitoring team, had already certified that the food had been received by the intended recipients. The defector — nonviolent resistance fighter may be a more accurate term — feared that the South Korean government would pressure Korean media not to broadcast the tape and offered it to Japanese broadcasters instead (Korean media will air it later this week).

[Correction: Yesterday, I stated that the South Korean monitors left North Korea on May 5th, which was an error on my part. Blame my poor language skills — when I rechecked the Korean version, I confused “5ì›”” with “5일.” The article does report that the South Korean monitors left North Korea before the food was filmed in military custody, so my error does no violence to the greater point. From the English version, I also caught that the amount of food filmed was 400,000-500,000 tons, which makes that equal to or greater than the total amount of food the South Korean government provides the North every year. This was a hole in the case I noted below yesterday, and it’s an added fact that makes the case that this was outright diversion much stronger.]

Tancheon is located along the northeastern coast, just a few miles away from the border with North Hamgyeong. The Northeast is notorious for its forced labor camps, and according to the map on this post, many of the surrounding areas are “closed” counties, where the North Korean regime has never permitted any foreign (including WFP) monitoring of food aid distribution. Tancheon has a small port, which is where any significant quantity of aid should logically have arrived, considering the poor quality of North Korea’s overland infrastructure.

Although this report does not conclusively prove that food aid was misappropriated or diverted, one can’t conclusively prove much of anything in North Korea. The army’s guarding of the food by itself means nothing. In a starving nation such as North Korea, it would be irresponsible for the authorities not to guard food shipments. Furthermore, the use of the North Korean military to move the food is inconclusive by itself; there is no other entity in North Korea today that still has the trucks and fuel to move food supplies to distribution centers.

What is more troubling about this new report is that South Korean monitors supposedly watched this food being parceled out to local distribution centers. Why, then, were tons of this food later piled up in trucks and railroad cars under military guard three weeks later? One obvious possibility is that the food that may have been distributed, and then confiscated by the military again. Another is that the South Korean’s certification that the food had been distributed in the first place was wrong. One fact we don’t know is how much food this courageous man was able to film at the risk of his life, and how that amount compares to the amount South Korea delivered. [Again, now we know. Apparently an estimate, but 400,000-500,000 tons. That’s hard to reconcile with what the monitors would have reported, unless they reported that the military was stealing the food.]

The Unification Ministry owes the Korean people answers to the questions this film raises about its shoddy monitoring and the North’s malicious abuse of food aid. It also reinforces why other donor nations are right to demand strict monitoring of any food aid they give. We have no idea who will ultimately eat this food, although what we do know suggests it will primarily help feed the greatest threat to South Korea’s security. Barring a good explanation, we can infer that South Korea’s monitoring is meaningless, and dismiss South Korea’s assertions that its food aid is distributed to those who need it most.

The final word on this entire discussion may be this: North Korea would have more than ample funds to feed all of its people itself, but for its warped sense of priorities.


Do you recall, incidentally, when Minister Lee threatened to cut off this food aid — the aid that allegedly goes to ordinary North Koreans — if their tyrant tested any of his missiles? Shortly after Kim Jong Il demonstrated his grave concern and tested them anyway, Lee announced a cutoff. Shortly thereafter, Lee’s government reversed itself over what press reports described as a large flood. Now, this has been a wet year in both Koreas, and Seoul was also flooded, but we know little else. The reason we know so little about damage and loss of lives (and crops, which will mean the loss of even more lives) is the regime’s own determined opacity. No competent relief effort can exist without an accurate assessment of need, and the regime’s behavior assures that there won’t be one.

And yet, here we are, trying to decide whose figures to accept — the pro-North Korean media, which puts the death toll in the hundreds, or those of the NGO Good Friends, which puts them in the tens of thousands.

By some accounts, it was a disaster of biblical proportions that afflicted North Korea in July.

Massive mudslides cascaded into apartment buildings, rising to the third floor and entombing occupants like the victims of Vesuvius before they could think about fleeing. Torrential rains elsewhere in North Korea were said to have swept away cottages without a trace, and large buildings were left with only the supporting pillars still standing.

The cataclysmic descriptions come from Good Friends, a Buddhist charity that has published several detailed reports since the rains. The Seoul-based organization has put the death toll at 54,700, which would make it the largest natural disaster in North Korea’s history.

You may question the basis of Good Friends’s knowledge. I do. But remember Good Friends’s courageous performance during the worst of the famine years; this is not just another lefty South Korean NGO that shills for the regime or doles out cash whenever its heartstrings are tugged. My gut tells me that North Korea wouldn’t have called off “Arirang” without some very good reason. The regime cites the floods as the reason, but there’s also another equally plausible explanation: most of North Korea’s overseas accounts are blocked or closed, and it can’t use most of the proceeds it rakes in from tourists who want to go slumming in this prison state.


  1. wow.

    thanks for this report joshua.

    i wish someone would use technology unannouned (i.e. RFIDs or some sort of tracking device.) in these bags to definitely track where they are going for sure.

    somehow make it tamperproof as well.

    just a free human being bouncing around ideas, something NKoreans can never do unless it’s some sort of sacrifice for the great KJI or KIS.


  2. Something of a side note here: Drs. Moon and Haggard are friends and colleagues and have worked together on academic books and research papers in the past, most notably on the topic of economic development strategies (Haggard wrote the seminal work ‘Pathways from the Periphery’, which highlighted S.K.’s rapid rise to advanced industrialized country). I think it’s interesting that now they find themselves on different sides of this issue. Would love to know what the two of them are saying to each other about this.


  3. I read thsoe claims from “Good Frieds” a few months back… and still doubt them. Why no proof? Why not take pictures? If they really wanted aid, why not appeal to the sympathy of the South with images?