Famine & Food Aid Interviews

Interview: Marcus Prior of the World Food Program, on Food Aid to North Korea

wfp-logo.pngThis week, the Christian Science Monitor’s veteran Korea correspondent, Don Kirk, reported that U.S. and South Korean officials disagree with the World Food Program’s assessment that North Korea is on the verge of a food crisis:

“There’s a need, but we don’t know how great it is,” says a knowledgeable western observer. “My hunch is it’s less about a shortage of food and more about unequal distribution. You can buy rice in the markets if you have the means. He strongly questions the “emergency assessment” issued by the World Food Program last winter that indicated more than six million people would need food assistance this year. “How do you generalize?” he asks. “Six million people is a quarter of the country… It’s overstated.”

Marcus Prior, the WFP’s Asia spokesman, says “the situation is not at the level of the mid-1990s” when as many as two million people are believed to have died of starvation and disease. But he notes that “bilateral and humanitarian assistance has declined dramatically in recent years.

The report is a timely one for purposes of this blog, because it came out the same day Mr. Prior responded to a detailed set of interview questions I posed to him about the WFP’s North Korea needs assessment and feeding operation. I’ve posted the questions and answers in full — no edits except formatting to better distinguish questions from answers. Read it below the fold.

I can’t say that Mr. Prior talked me out of my doubts about the WFP’s appeal. In fact, they reinforced my skepticism that the WFP has adequately assessed the needs of the people it would feed, that it has extracted sufficient concessions from the North Korean regime on monitoring, or that it has the principled determination to enforce even the concessions it did extract. As you read his answers, ask yourself if the WFP is more concerned about addressing that skepticism, or about how the North Koreans might react if they ever read them. The WFP’s intentions are noble, so I’m not completely unsympathetic to its prisoner’s dilemma, but its methods are flawed and its principles are malleable. I’m not convinced that the standards of the civilized world must yield — again — to North Korea’s megalomanocracy, not vice versa.

That said, I thank Mr. Prior for taking to the time to respond to my questions, despite knowing full well that I’ve been critical of the WFP’s food aid operations in the past.

marcus-prior.jpg1) The WFP’s North Korea fact sheet states that “the DPRK government can meet less than half of the daily calorific needs for the 68% of the population receiving public food rations.”  I want to draw your attention to the WFP’s use of the word “can,” and then ask you about recent press reports indicating that the government of North Korea has chosen to expend its foreign exchange on luxury cars, yachts, renovations for its palaces, glass to cover the Ryugyong Hotel, expensive alcohol, new construction for its nuclear facilities, and even tap shoes.  My question is, if the government of North Korea is this determined to restrict the WFP’s access and squander its resources while its people starve, why should we believe that you can succeed in getting food to North Korea’s expendable population?”¨”¨

WFP’s assessment of needs is based on the most in-depth assessment ever performed in DPRK and our ability to deliver is now reinforced by the most stringent monitoring conditions that have ever been agreed upon. WFP is concerned only to ensure the most vulnerable children, women and the elderly receive the support they need to get them through this difficult period.

Ҭ2) Does the WFP consider itself bound by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Code of Conduct?

WFP has three main humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality.
See link for more information http://www.wfp.org/content/humanitarian-principles

3) Please describe in detail the methodology to be used in the needs assessment, including:

– Number of staff participating inside North Korea itself?

For the Emergency Needs Assessment, a total of nine WFP international staff participated. There was also international representation from UNICEF and FAO.

– The approximate size of teams conducting the needs assessment in each geographical area,

For the Emergency Needs Assessment, an average a team was composed of 4 international staff. Some mission members changed teams during the mission. Other teams included donor representatives from Australia and ECHO. These teams were therefore larger.  The report can be found at – http://www.wfp.org/content/democratic-people-s-republic-korea-wfpfaounicef-rapid-food-security-assessment-march-2011

– Whether the teams will include North Korean personnel, how many, and from what government ministries?

The Government provides the UN with seconded staff who work for the UN agencies. They also participated in the needs assessment. The staff are seconded from the National Coordination Committee.

– The approximate number of people (including potential recipients) to be interviewed, and their status/occupation?

During the RFSA 122 households were visited.  The households were composed of elderly people, pregnant and breast-feeding women.  The assessment took place in 40 counties of which half of the counties were receiving WFP food assistance. The joint UN mission also visited hospitals, pediatric wards, sanatoriums for TB patients, disabled people institutions and child institutions.

4) Whether each WFP assessment team will include Korean speakers?

At the time of the assessment there was one Korean speaker in the assessment team.

– Whether North Korean government personnel will be present during the interviews,

The government seconded staff to the 3 UN agencies participating on the mission were present during the interviews. Also county officials were present but not actively engaged in the interviews with households.  The mission was able to request government officials to leave interviews to prevent coercion or other pressure.

5) What if any geographic areas will be excluded from the survey, either by the WFP or the North Korean government?

The areas to be visited were selected on the basis of food insecurity.

6) With respect to the food distribution operations —

How many WFP staff will be permitted to work in North Korea, and for what duration?

The current emergency operation of 12 months duration enables 59 international staff to work in DPRK.

Where will the workers be based?

Staff deployments outside Pyongyang will only take place at large scale if sufficient financial support is provided to the operation.

How many will be Korean speakers?

WFP can only deploy Korean speakers or other additional staff if funding allows. 60 percent of the international staff will be involved in field monitoring. Two Korean speakers are already deployed into DPRK for WFP

7) What form will the aid take?  Rice?  Corn?  High-energy biscuits?

WFP does not provide rice. WFP has four kinds of specialized nutritious foods for children and pregnant women: blended foods – Rice milk blend (RMB), Cereal Milk Blend (CMB) Corn Soy Milk Blend (CSM) (Super cereals) and fortified biscuits. These are all manufactured locally in DPRK with food supplies provided by WFP. A supplementary ration for large families and elderly will also be provided in 65 most food insecure counties during the lean season.

8) To what extent will raw food material be further processed inside North Korea?  Can you please elaborate?

The blended foods are processed in 14 local food facilities/ factories. The Government pays for the running and fixed cost of the local food production (salaries, electricity etc.). WFP provides the raw materials (food commodities), spare parts for the machines and technical expertise. 

9) What countries have contributed to your appeal?  What amounts, and in what form?

Brazil has contributed with Maize, Russia with wheat flour, India with US $ 1 million, CERF has contributed   more than US $ 10 million. 
Funding and donors can be found on

10) To the extent you have sufficient assessment data to respond, can you please elaborate on —

– What percentage of the aid recipients will be in Pyongyang?

WFP gives no food assistance in Pyongyang. Assistance is provided to 107 counties in 8 provinces.  (attached is the Emergency Operation   http://www.wfp.org/countries/Korea–Democratic-People-s-Republic–DPRK-/Operations/Emergency-Food-Assistance-to-Vulnerable-Groups-in-the-Democratic)

– How many recipients the WFP intends to feed across North Korea?

WFP plans to assist 3.5 million  of the most vulnerable people through the emergency operation, mainly   children, the mothers and the elderly.

– How much notice must the WFP provide before conducting monitoring visits?

WFP gives 24h notice for monitoring visits.

Ҭ13) What agreements have been reached on conducting long-term nutritional surveys of recipients?

WFP will on a regular basis take Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) of children  which is one of the indicators used for assessing malnutrition worldwide. A joint FAO/WFP  Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission will take place in the autumn. Also a nutritional assessment is scheduled to take place this year.

14) In 2003, the WFP published this map, indicating that the WFP was given no access to the counties in red at that time.  Other scholars have since published other access maps indicating that the North Korean government had excluded the WFP from similarly large areas of North Korea.  Can you comment on how the North Korean government’s restrictions on WFP access have since changed?  Is there an updated map you can provide?

[No response.]

“¨”¨15) Again, with respect to the 2003 map, it actually suggests that most of North Korea’s largest political prison camps were open to the WFP.  That can’t be accurate, can it?  Was the WFP actually allowed access into political prison camps?

[No response.]

“¨”¨16) What if any efforts has WFP made to ensure that prisoners, including political prisoners and their incarcerated children, are included in the needs assessment and food aid distribution program?  “¨”¨

[No response.]

17) If political prisoners are excluded from the WFP feeding program, how can you reconcile this with the IFRC standard that “[a]id is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind,” and that “[a]id priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone?”

[No response.]

“¨”¨18) Multiple reports indicate that members of the North Korean military are also in a state of food crisis.  Will the WFP make some effort to conduct a needs assessment that reaches members of the military who rely on the North Korean commissary system?

[No response.]

“¨”¨19) The consensus among North Korea watchers is that North Korea has historically exiled politically disfavored people to politically disfavored geographic areas, particularly in Ryanggang and North Hamgyeong provinces.  Has the WFP considered this correlation in the design of its aid program?

WFP has no knowledge of prison camps beyond what may have been reported in the international media. Our work in DPRK is entirely humanitarian. Although we are often concerned for the fate of prisoners in many parts of the world, our mandate does not extend to those held in prisons, who fall under the mandate of the ICRC.

Now let’s peel back these responses, starting with the last one.

It’s appalling.

Here is a spokesman for the U.N., an organization founded eight months after the liberation of Auschwitz “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person,” who when confronted with a question about the humanitarian aid needs of concentration camp prisoners, feigns agnosticism — and it’s really willful blindness. Mr. Prior can’t even manage to deflect the question to another U.N. agency, implicitly recognizing how completely the U.N. — an organization nominally headed by a Korean — has failed to address the humanitarian needs of North Korea’s very most vulnerable. If the WFP thinks that question isn’t related to food aid, it’s mistaken. If the regime steals international aid and repurposes it toward feeding the people who keep it in power, the aid isn’t just failing to accomplish its humanitarian purpose, it’s prolonging the duration of atrocities like the ones that go on in those camps. That is why some of us are so demanding about monitoring and diversion in the context of North Korea.

Adherence to Humanitarian Principles

The WFP’s Humanitarian Principles require that food be distributed based on need alone, without political discrimination:

WFP’s assistance will be guided solely by need and will not discriminate in terms of ethnic origin, nationality, political opinion, gender, race or religion. In a country, assistance will be targeted to those most at risk from the consequences of food shortages, following a sound assessment that considers the different needs and vulnerabilities of women, men and children. [Page 22]

Prior didn’t give a direct answer to the question of closed counties, but I’ll helpfully note that the map on Page 26 of this document at least claims to show what counties will be open. But then, the areas of the map shown as “covered by [the] WFP operation” also include most of North Korea’s largest political prison camps. Maybe that’s why Prior didn’t direct our attention to it.

And why can’t the North Korean regime can’t feed its own people? After all —

Each state has the responsibility first and foremost to take care of the victims of natural disasters and other emergencies occurring on its territory. Hence, the affected state has the primary role in the initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance within its territory. [Page 7]

In fact, it’s questionable that any humanitarian aid program can be effective without the government as a fully cooperating partner. But Prior dodged that question, too, and gave a stock answer about the thoroughness of the WFP’s needs assessment instead. So let’s look at that more closely.

WFP’s Sampling Methodology

The WFP seeks to target 3.5 million North Koreans out of a total population of around 23 million, with most of the recipients presumably distributed in the northern and eastern provinces. That’s about half as large a recipient base as the WFP was feeding in 2005, just before the North Koreans unilaterally terminated that program. In response to my detailed questions about the sampling methodology the WFP used in its 2011 North Korea assessment, Prior linked to this report. Search the report for a description of the WFP’s sampling, and this is about all you’ll find:

The mission interviewed one hundred twenty-two (122) households in both rural (Ri) and urban (Up and Dong) areas. Due to constraints of time typical of a rapid assessment, the selection of households for interview was not based upon a statistically random sample. While the results can be considered as indicative of conditions found in households within DPRK, they are not statistically representative of the entire population. [Page 22]

The WFP certainly doesn’t sound confident about its methodology, and it’s not hard to see why if you compare it to the much more rigorous sampling methodology employed for this 2006 WFP needs survey of a population of 3.2 million internally displaced Sudanese in Darfur, where the WFP collected data “from 2,090 households containing 13,396 individuals, and 1943 children ….” By contrast, the North Korean sample size was just 122 households for a targeted population of about the same size, and a wider geographic distribution. The report doesn’t say who selected those few who were sampled, though I suppose this was left up to the North Koreans. Throughout the assessment, the phrase, “[g]overnment authorities informed the mission,” is repeated. In fact, the survey relied on the North Korean government for data on “crop production, demographic groups, bilateral food assistance, cereal imports, PDS food transfers, PDS ration levels, meteorological records, and other relevant information.”

There are other concerns about how the WFP conducted its interviews. For example, Prior says that the WFP survey teams could “request government officials to leave interviews to prevent coercion or other pressure,” but doesn’t say whether that ever happened. It obviously didn’t happen very often, since there were four survey teams and just one Korean speaker between them. In fact, the reports scarcely betray any hint of North Korea’s history of going to extreme lengths to deceive foreign aid workers. An anecdote from Marcus Noland is useful here:

I had more than one conversation, independent conversations, with NGO workers, some official, some from private NGOs, who told the same story. Remember North Korea is a mountainous country. These people don’t speak Korean. They asked to be taken to a particular school or they asked to be taken to a particular public distribution center. The North Korean government gives them a car and a driver and an interpreter. They drive them around the mountains and they take them to this place. The next day they are supposed to go to another school or another public distribution center or another orphanage. They drive around in the same car. They drive around in the mountains and they take them to the place. I had more than one of these workers swear to me it was the same place they had been taken the day before, but were told that it was a different location. We laugh, but this is serious.

One of these people told me about just being horrified, realizing how effectively powerless she was to do any sort of real assessment or monitoring of her organization’s activities. When she left North Korea and went back to her home country, she literally got one of those “how to speak Korean” books and simply concentrated on learning written Korean so that she could at least read the road signs when she was taken out the next time she was sent into the country. She said they literally had no idea what county they were in, they had no idea what province they were in. They just had been driven all around the mountains. Especially if it’s overcast, you can’t see the sun, you don’t even really know what direction you’re going, and then being taken to what they thought were sort of “Potemkin village”-type setups and really being taken to the same one. It’s like Groundhog Day–“No, really, this is a different school. You weren’t here yesterday, believe me.” [Marcus Noland]

Monitoring and Safeguards Against Diversion

The WFP has managed to set some useful precautions against diversion. I hope it can to stick to them. For example, the WFP says it won’t provide rice that would be easily diverted to the elite and the army; instead, it will provide specialized foods like rice-milk blend and fortified biscuits that are either unattractive or unhealthy to better-fed North Koreans. The donation or diversion of these foods is unlikely to free up hard currency for yachts or centrifuges, since Kim Jong Il wouldn’t spend good money on food that only hungry people would want anyway. North Korea itself is supposed provide the labor at the WFP’s food-producing facilities, which I take to mean that there won’t be a Kaesong scam where the WFP pays “salaries” for local workers that will go straight into the centrifuge fund. Finally, the WFP says it plans to conduct long-term nutritional surveys of the recipients by measuring the circumference of their emaciated little arms.

Again, if the WFP manages to hold North Korea to those terms, it will reduce the risk that the program will be misused. The risk is further mitigated by the fact that donors have contributed less than 18% of what the WFP has requested (you can assume that China will continue to give aid unilaterally, further undermining the WFP’s negotiating leverage). If it were up to me, the program would focus exclusively on people in state institutions who can’t access the marketplace — people in prisons, orphanages, hospitals, and kindergartens. A more focused program would be easier to monitor and harder to manipulate.

This isn’t to deny that there are serious problems with the WFP’s monitoring agreement. The WFP will have to give the regime 24 hours’ notice before carrying out inspections, using staff based in Pyongyang, and with North Korean minders present.

There are also sound historical reasons to doubt that the WFP will hold North Korea to the agreed terms. It seems that every U.N. agency makes a global laughingstock (or disgrace) of itself on contact with North Korea. This is the U.N. whose Security Council underperformed parody when its “very angry letter” to Kim Jong Il couldn’t even assign him clear responsibility for sinking a South Korean naval vessel. This is the U.N. that includes the World Health Organization, whose head praises the quality of North Korea’s health care system for eliminating obesity (well, almost). This is the U.N. that has China sitting on the Human Rights Council, Iran on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, and which last week, let North Korea assume the chairmanship of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament.

Maybe the WFP can keep a few kids alive without inadvertently prolonging the suffering many others. If so, good. But I have my doubts. When it comes to humanitarian aid programs, the North Koreans have a lot of experience at making small concessions one day and chiseling away at them though corruption, unexplained irregularities, or brazenly malicious obstinacy. That’s why I don’t believe this program can prevent another North Korean famine. Maybe only the recovery of the markets can do that now.


  1. Too many questions were left with no response. There were too few Korean speakers, and I don’t suppose any of them were fluent in the rural dialects of the far north. If aid workers do go to North Korea, they should bring GPS devices, so they’ll know just where they are.

    I share Joshua’s skepticism.


  2. If only mankind had some techno 21st centrury means of actually tracking delivery to the people of North Korea… The WFP will be in audit soon if it cannot account for food distribution to the DPRK. It has been over 15 years. The DPRK ought only recieve further food assistance if cities besides Pyongyang/Kaesong gets it. This time it should be strictly monitored by minders of another kind. If the DPRK rejects, then no more food assistance to the DPRK, bombard north korea with food, focus on the countryside and fill the stomachs of the most downtrotten. Force their ruling family to eat cake while arming the people with rice. There will be no need for north Koreans to flee their homeland if we arm the people with the oppurtunity to live without him.


  3. It’s like Groundhog Day—”No, really, this is a different school. You weren’t here yesterday, believe me.” [Marcus Noland]



  4. There really is only one solution — package the rice in 2 kilo bags marked “Provided by the UN,”
    distribute in local trucks driven by UN personnel that are themselves marked “Rice for Sale” on the side, with the delivery point the non-military urban or rural workplace, and then allow only UN personnel to sell it at those workplaces at a fixed price in NK won below the effective jangmajang price, one bag per customer per day. No delivery in Pyongyang at all.

    That greatly limits the ability of the government to supply the food preferentially to military or cadre. It can’t prevent it, but it will limit it.

    Provide the income from the sale of rice to the destitute using residential block monitors as authenticators of right to receive funds, again physically overseen by UN personnel in charge of the money. Absorb all, repeat all, distribution costs so that all money received for sale is distributed.

    That would create the ability of the poor to buy corn or other items for themselves with the rice money, would stimulate markets and would give the DPRK government a Hobson’s Choice — civilian benefits using local currency, employing workplace and residential oversight — but accommodating market forces.

    It wouldn’t feed the prisoners nor the kkotjaebbi, nor those who are of such antisocially low status that they are not recognised — but they live off the markets already.


  5. I’m trying to find a reason for the U.S. not to quit the U.N., and here’s what I came up with: doing it too suddenly would make us a target, generate needless controversy, and give us insufficient time to establish better alternatives. Better to do it gradually. Better to negotiate reduced assessments year by year, to shift toward “in-kind” contributions to more effective NGO’s or multilateral institutions, and to cut off funding to the various U.N. components as they fail as miserably as the Conference on Disarmament and the Human Rights Council (I’d have “suspended” a portion of our U.N. assessment proportional to funding for the WHO until Margaret Chan resigned).

    Also, as long as the U.N. remains capable of attracting any attention at all, there are advantages to having it on U.S. soil. Keep your enemies closer, as they say.

    I do think the world needs institutions to do what Ban Ki Moon’s U.N. clearly cannot do, and never will. Whatever that alternative is will only be effective if it unites around some common fundamental principles. The U.N. was designed, first, to write just solutions to conflicts among competing groups of human beings, but an organization that welcomes Kim Jong Il’s minions and excludes the Dalai Lama clearly has no standards worth propagating. The problem with the U.N. is that the bottom fell out of its lowest common denominator.

    Watch carefully, and you’ll see that even Barack Obama is shifting away from reliance on the U.N., just without the de-funding. For all its faults, NATO is far more effective as a global security guarantor and far closer to being salvageable, at least for certain types of interventions. Obama is relying on NATO, not the U.N., in places like Libya and Afghanistan. Can you imagine the U.N. acting effectively in either place? At least NATO is capable of agreeing on some basic common standards. And what a great irony of history that the Proliferation Security Initiative, the brainchild of alleged unilateralist John Bolton, has since been embraced by Barack Obama as one of the world’s most effective multilateral institutions. It exists because the U.N. is a near-complete failure (I say “near”-complete in case someone can identify one small part of the U.N. that isn’t dysfunctional, but off-hand, I can’t name one).

    Now, in my vision for the U.N.’s replacement, not all of the children are above average, and not every corrupt thug with the keys to the helicopter gunships will be welcome. Fine, let them form and fund their own little blocs (ASEAN and the African Union being two examples — yes, everyone is moving beyond the U.N. for doing the what really needs to get done). I’d even wish them well if they can form effective common markets and prevent regional conflicts among member states. They won’t replace the Security Council, of course. Whatever does will only work if it has standards. This means China and Russia will be excluded, and we’ll go back to dealing with them through their ordinary diplomatic channels.


  6. Maybe North Korea can afford food. File this under Axis Paxis, with h/t to Robert Koehler – AQ Khan says he distributed North Korean bribes to Pakistani generals, and that Pakistan aided North Korea’s nuclear weapon project. R. Jeffrey Smith reports in the Washington Post.


  7. Noland’s interview was from his book in 2007. In the last U.S. government food aid program in 2008-2009, the international NGOs had Korean speakers in every monitoring visit, multiple site visits per day, effectively random access, and monitors based full time in each of the provinces they were distributing food in. If the U.S. supports the WFP request, the WFP would also be able to afford to deploy Korean-speaking monitors to offices in the provinces.

    I believe the WFP already exclusively works through institutions such as preschools, kindergartens, and hospitals, as you suggest, targeting the most vulnerable populations and their families.


  8. Yes, and here’s how that all ended. The North Koreans kicked us out and kept the food. From what I heard unofficially, the North Koreans tried to chisel away at their concessions on monitoring, we held firm, and they unilaterally terminated the program. The way the North Koreans played the 2008 program is one of the reasons why State is hesitating to contribute this year.


  9. It is worth noting that they kicked us out just prior to the 2009 nuclear test. Imagine the fallout if they had launched the test with US citizens on the ground…


  10. My point was simply that the past monitoring you mentioned in your post was not representative of the monitoring systems that were set in place in 2008 and that are improved on by the WFP in this most recent round of aid. Good monitoring is possible with the DPRK and provides a foundation on which we can make continued improvements.

    As far as “how it all ended”: I agree with Omin that the most likely reason for the end of the 2008-09 program was the nuclear tests. If the DPRK had wanted to end the program because the U.S. “held firm” they would have done this 8 months earlier when the program first started and the monitoring terms were implemented and enforced. No matter the reason for ending the program early, though, it’s never a good thing to leave food on the ground without international monitors. If there is a new round of aid, the U.S. should be able to employ strategies for reducing this risk.



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