Inspector General finds flaws in WFP monitoring in N. Korea (and I find a bigger one)


A reader (thank you) directs my attention to this Fox News report covering a new report by the U.N. World Food Program’s Office of Inspector General, finding major loopholes in the WFP’s controls to prevent the North Korean government from stealing food aid and diverting it to regime loyalists and the military. The report is so cryptic that it’s almost unreadable, so I’ll summarize:

– The WFP failed to meet its targets for monitoring visits to ensure that aid was being delivered to intended recipients. The in-country program padded its monitoring visit statistics by including fly-by VIP visits, and monitoring visits that were canceled by the regime.

– When the regime did cancel monitoring visits — in many cases, ostensibly because of weather-related reasons and road damage — the WFP never checked up on the North Koreans’ excuses.

– The WFP isn’t doing adequate on-site “supervision and oversight” of its food warehouses. The report suggests — sorry, the language is so impenetrable that “suggests” is the best verb I can use — that the WPF has outsourced its warehouse security to … the North Koreans. (The North Koreans are guarding the food! What could go wrong?)

– The WFP allowed the North Koreans to help run its computer networks and databases, which creates a vulnerability in the integrity of WFP monitoring.

– The WFP failed to document what it paid the North Koreans for fuel and labor provided by North Korean nationals, making it impossible for the auditors to know if the WFP overpaid.

– And finally, there is this:

Assessment of ‘No Access, No Food’ requirement – In the absence of documented analyses and evaluations by the Country Office of the Governments’ reasons for the denial of access to WFP staff of WFP project sites, the Country Office could not demonstrate that its agreement with the Government on access is fully complied with. Collect and analyse data on reasons for denial of access for both programme and logistics at all levels and implement the relevant clause of the agreement where warranted. [Page 10]

As an aside, I can’t help wondering why the WFP pays the North Korean regime for services rendered to feed the very people the regime itself is responsible for feeding. After all, it’s not as if they’re really short of cash in Pyongyang, but that also goes to the wider issue of why the U.N. has to have a feeding program for North Korea at all.

The latest report won’t do much to improve the WFP’s donor fatigue problem:

In the case of North Korea, WFP in the past two years has been trying to raise $200 million to feed some 2.4 million of the country’s most vulnerable people. Those operations are currently only “21.3 percent funded,” according to a WFP spokesman. And as a result, the spokesman said, “WFP in 2013 distributed the lowest amount of food assistance [in the country] since 1996.” [Fox News]

Some of the worst damnation of the WFP’s efforts actually comes in guise of praise. For example, the IG praises the great working relationship between the program officers and regime officials:

“[T]he [U.N.] Country Office monitoring staff and Senior Government County officials had established effective and efficient working relationships and County officials came to meetings with the Country Office monitoring missions with most of the required supporting documentation.”

In other words, the regime managed them, and they all got cozy. How you react to all of this will obviously depend on your perspective:

“The report makes clear that the WFP program in North Korea is unsustainable,” argues John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor. “There is simply no evidence the WFP can prevent itself from being exploited by the North Korean authorities, so that food aid is allocated according to the regime’s priorities rather than by the needs of the people.”

The WFP responds that it’s all because … they’re underfunded. So noted.

This raised one of my bushy eyebrows:

WFP also declared that “the audit report commended the geographical coverage of WFP’s monitoring and the robust monitoring systems that WFP is able to use in the country.” In fact, the report did declare that “the geographical coverage of the Country Office’s monitoring activities was commendable.” 

Yes, let’s talk about that, because I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while now. A well-regarded North Korea scholar gave me the color-coded map you see below. It was produced by the WFP. The areas shown in blue are those where the WFP claims to have had access to NorthKorea in 2013, in accordance with its “no access, no food” principle. I then made that map into a Google Earth overlay, so that I could show the locations of North Korea’s main political prison camps — places North Korea says don’t exist, and where foreigners aren’t allowed to go.

Overlay - Camps and WFP access

If you click and expand this map, you’ll see that the areas the WFP claims to be visiting, and feeding the population, include parts of Camp 14, and all of Camp 16, the largest and most secretive camp. They include Camp 25, on the outskirts of the city of Cheongjin, which recently underwent a major expansion, and Camp 12 at Cheongo-ri, also recently expanded. They even include Camp 22, from which thousands of prisoners simply disappeared, many of whom may have starved to death.

Now, if the WFP’s aid monitors had really gone to these places, you’d think that by now, one of them would have leaked word about what he or she saw there, or didn’t see. “See? Just an ordinary peaceful farming village, only surrounded by electric fences to keep the undeserving from entering this bucolic paradise!” That certainly would have been newsworthy. Or, you’d think that the WFP’s spokesman would have told me so when I posed the question to him in this interview. He didn’t answer.

In other words, the Inspector General isn’t finished inspecting the WFP’s adherence to “no access, no food.” Why isn’t the WFP feeding North Korea’s political prisoners, who may be the hungriest and most vulnerable people in North Korea? The WFP feeds prisoners in the Ivory Coast, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Why not North Korea, too? Must they be sacrificed to the WFP’s “effective and efficient working relationships” with this regime?

What I say here, I say more in sadness than in anger. The WFP is motivated by a sincere desire to help the North Korean people. Unfortunately, it fell into the same trap that all foreigners eventually fall into when they enter North Korea — they are bullied and cajoled into playing by Pyongyang’s rules and abandoning the principles that got them there in the first place. It’s what Marcus Noland has described as “North Korean exceptionalism” — Pyongyang’s ability to exempt itself from rules, like “no access, no food,” that apply to everyone else. The WFP made the difficult decision to help some North Koreans — actually, just 2.5 million out of a population of 23 million — even at the cost of perpetuating the system that starves many others. But if we can’t be sure that the WFP is feeding its intended recipients, that compromise becomes much harder to justify.