Robert King on Food Aid

Robert King went to Congress the other day to talk about food aid, and I don’t find much in his statement to take issue with. King stressed the importance of monitoring and the prevention of diversion, and proposed two measures to help avoid that: (1) delivering the aid in small allotments, and (2) giving corn or other forms of aid less desirable to the elites, as opposed to rice, which I’ll note is precisely the form of aid the leftist opposition Democratic Party wants to send to North Korea.

Some friendly advice for the DP: If you keep saying things like that, people might get the idea that none of this is really about feeding starving kids; it’s about filling the rice bowls of the commissars in Pyongyang who give some of you your instructions. I realize that the Korean word for “rice” often translates to something more like “food,” so try to make that distinction clearer next time.

One thing that I have to concede it that the very fact that the North Koreans let King in at all is a rare, if modest, diplomatic coup for the State Department. First, it supports the position that food security is a human rights issue, particularly in a state that controls the allocation (or, more often, misallocation) of all state resources, including food. Second, it allowed King to raise other human rights issues, including the way China treats (or more often, mistreats) North Korean refugees. By making this trip, King has put himself and the issues within his portfolio in the middle of our North Korea policy. And if you hate peace as much as I do, that can only be good. Given the North Koreans’ usual hypersensitivity to such matters, you have to believe they’re awfully desperate for some reason.

Also on the topic of food aid, this thoughtful essay by former USAID worker Dorothy Stuehmke contains a lot of good arguments for the skeptics, of which I consider myself one, to think about. Stuehmke thinks that the monitoring measures USAID got the North Koreans to agree to in 2009 were working, at least until the North Koreans threw out the aid workers and kept all the food. She also argues that food aid is an effective way to get through to ordinary North Koreans, which is one of the few occasions when I’ve seen any merit in an argument for using aid as a tool for engagement (oh, how that hackneyed and awkward word grates on me). Well worth reading.

Also worth reading, in case you missed it, is this discussion by Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard.