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.


  1. Political discussions within the USA these days center on cutting government spending. Most of the federal budget is ‘entitlements’ — social security, medicare, medicaid. Next comes the military. So, if we’re cutting our own entitlements and national defense, how can we aid the citizens of a very unfriendly country?

    In several comments, kushibo has demonstrated that China does not support the Glans Plan for Korea. Perhaps, as an alternative, China would support a Nutrition Plan for North Korea.

    As an unrelated aside, Dorothy’s last name is Stuehmke, not Steuhmke. Ue is one vowel, a combination of oo and ee. Eu is a diphthong, like oy.

    [Thanks, fixed it. – Joshua]


  2. Is there a report somewhere about the 2009 USAID agreement with North Korea? I’d like to know the specifics of the agreement. I poked around on the USAID webpage, but didn’t find anything.


  3. Preceding King’s testimony, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s opening statement is well worth a read. I don’t recall any previous Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee (since we reestablished ties with China 1979, anyway) going quite this far, but I could be wrong:

    “There is a common thread that leads to a massive spider web of human rights and religious freedom violations. At the core sits China. As we commemorate the twenty-second anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on Saturday, we must never forget those who fell as the tanks crushed the democratic aspirations of the Chinese people. We must never forget that the heirs to this shameful Tiananmen legacy, and their comrades in bloodlust, continue to subjugate by the sword not only the Chinese people, but also the peoples of Tibet, Burma and North Korea. Whatever the motive, a rising China is at the center of this trio of tyranny which casts a dark shadow over the otherwise optimistic projections for Asia’s future.”

    Familiar sentiments to readers of OFK, but wow! She then goes on to demand a U.S. Consulate in Tibet. China is not in for a good summer in Congress, obviously.

    Full text of her opening statement:

    Ros-Lehtinen’s staff hoists up a photo gallery featuring Richard Gere with the Chair: This brings to mind a question: Do North Korean refugees have a single ally in Hollywood, some equivalent to Richard Gere? I’m not aware of any…

    In the meantime, speculation on how the new US Ambassador to the ROK will play into the human rights calculus, if at all, is also welcome!

    Thanks for all the recent posts and good information.

    [Adam – I’m wondering what part of Ros-Lehtinen’s comment you think (a) isn’t true or (b) didn’t need to be said, especially given the most recent revelations that China has been turning a blind eye to NK proliferation at best, or actively enabling it at worst. What would the Chinese leaders be entitled to conclude if no one in Congress reacted strongly to the way it has been behaving with respect to North Korea? Frankly, I’d make the case that in a just world, they should be expelled from the Security Council. In the real world, a more practical option would be to gradually marginalize and replace the Security Council with functioning institutions. – Joshua]


  4. Adam,

    The lack of a celebrity spokesman or woman has been a source of consternation. Angelina Jolie spoke about the issue for a good minute-plus (after having been briefed earlier in the day) at a press conference for a movie last year in Seoul. LiNK has probably made more headway in this area than other groups, but no big-time Hollywood or performer types have taken up the cause to my knowledge.


  5. Food aid is the liberal’s dilemma: does one feed starving children so they can grow up stunted and have yet more children in good times so they too can grow up stunted when times inevitably turn against them again, or does one let the most deprived, the least guilty, the meek, the weak, starve to death, trusting in Darwin’s imperative that the fittest will survive. The Stuemke essay clearly states the liberal view: that some good must surely come of her actions in trying to keep the meek alive. But, as with all such reports, there is a stunning lack of evidence that it actually does any good. Has all the food aid given to the Horn of Africa over the past forty years created anything except a generation of pirates?

    Surely, the fundamental tests of a government are whether it can, or will, feed all its population? The DPRK clearly will not: even though we have every reason to believe it still has financial resources to buy food (or Lexuses or brandy,) it does not appear to be purchasing food in great quantity, but relying on the whines of beggary. We believe it still has strategic military food bank reserves that it is refusing to release. That is “will not” feed. It appears that it cannot (rather than will not) feed its population regularly because its commerce and farming situation is so dire: yet the very principles of its existence state that government control and direction of farming and commerce will cause them to work better than any other way.

    The Solomonic “let’s try to cut the baby in half and put both halves on life support” idea of feeding the poor with corn gruel — so that the rich can monopolize even further their monopoly of rice — is just a subsidy for a dying political structure, and repugnant.

    Let China feed the DPRK if the DPRK won’t feed its own. That may produce a revolution from above, for there surely will never be one from below with a destitute, starving, apathetic population fed to the point of just-living, under the auspices of the UN FAO.