To address hunger in North Korea, the World Food Program must first tell the truth.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the World Food Program may soon suspend operations in North Korea due to a lack of funding. The program’s internal reports claim that as of late 2013, it was feeding just 1.45 million North Koreans, compared to 2.4 million intended recipients, mostly pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children. Most of what is distributed now consists of materiel like high-energy biscuits, which (thankfully) are not easily digested by healthy people and thus not easily diverted.

But as the U.N. has also told us, 84% of North Korean households have “poor” or “borderline” food consumption, and there are about 23 million people in North Korea today. Clearly, the WFP’s current operations barely dent North Korea’s broader hunger problem. As recently as 2005, the WFP was feeding 6.5 million North Koreans, but Pyongyang forced the WFP to scale that program back dramatically. It has been shrinking steadily ever since.

Unfortunately, as I’ll explain below, the WFP’s compromises with Pyongyang — and consequently, with the truth — are perpetuating and contributing to the regime policies at the root of North Korea’s hunger. That likely means that as configured, the WFP’s work in North Korea does some good, and also, far more harm. The WFP has been operating in North Korea since the Great Famine in 1995, which must make North Korea the only industrialized society on earth to experience such a prolonged famine. Why? The WFP’s answer is almost the same as North Korea’s:

With a population of 24.5 million, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been excluded from globalization and economic development for various reasons. Floods, torrential rains, typhoons and droughts threaten lives and livelihoods every year and cause soil erosion, landslides and damage to infrastructure.

The country does not produce enough food, and it has limited emergency food stocks and scant foreign currency reserves to buy food on the international market. [WFP]

Rather than rebut each of these falsehoods point-by-point, I’ll refer you to the Congressional Research Service, which elaborates on how North Korea has excluded its own people from globalization and economic development by resisting economic reform, and quotes the findings of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that Pyongyang’s “decisions, actions, and omissions,” including the obstruction and diversion of food aid, “knowingly causing prolonged starvation” and “the death of at least hundreds of thousands of people.”

Another under-examined cause of hunger is the extent to which the regime seizes crops from poor regions, cracks down on smuggling and markets that make food available to the poor, and destroys crops cultivated quasi-legally, on unused public land.

And if you really believe that North Korea is starving because of 19 consecutive years of floods or droughts, just ask yourself why South Korea isn’t.

But to say, as the WFP so very incredibly does, that North Korea has “scant foreign currency reserves to buy food on the international market” is simply an obscene and outrageous lie:

No wonder no one trusts the WFP’s assurances about how it delivers food aid to those who need it. It isn’t just me questioning that — the WFP’s own inspector general’s own findings tell us that the WFP has outsourced the transportation, distribution, and guarding of the food to the regime. Because the regime’s workers have access to the WFP’s computer records system, the WFP has no sure way of auditing the distribution of the food.

Remarkably for a program on such a wide geographical scale, the WFP only staffs one facility in Pyongyang, and is only able to visit its own regional offices in Chongjin, Wonsan, and Hamhung. The WFP’s monitoring and distribution are frequently obstructed by the regime for extended periods, when the regime would claim that roads and bridges were washed out, preventing access. (Yet Kim Jong Un can always find a helicopter to fly Dennis Rodman to his yacht at Wonsan.)

Although the WFP claims that “the DPRK government covers all manpower and running costs, while WFP provides the food commodities, spare parts and packaging materials,” it’s apparent from the IG report that the WFP is paying the regime for the fuel, logistical services, and labor. This suggests that the WFP has become another source of hard currency for Pyongyang. That explains why Pyongyang allows the WFP to operate at all, but it’s further reason to question how the WFP’s donations are spent.

And finally, as I noted here, the WFP has almost certainly been dishonest about where it is allowed access. The WFP’s own access maps of North Korea include some of North Korea’s largest concentration camps, places that no foreigner is ever allowed to go near. In a 2011 interview for this blog, a WFP spokesman refused to even respond to my questions about its ability to assess hunger in the camps or feed the prisoners there. The WFP can’t admit that it willingly provides the regime with food when the hungriest, most vulnerable people in North Korea are denied their basic needs, because the WFP claims to operate on the principle of “no access, no food.” Food isn’t supposed to be denied to starving men, women, and children, even if they are political prisoners. If the WFP feeds prisoners in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Ivory Coast, why not North Korea?

The answer, I suppose, is the same one that we so often see whenever foreigners enter North Korea with the best of intentions. Through ruthless bargaining, skillful manipulation, and shameless mendacity, North Korea sorts those who are willing to play by its rules and be useful to it from those who aren’t, and who simply aren’t let in again. Thus, North Korea exempts itself from the rules that the rest of humanity lives by, and this happens … millions of times:

A serious response to hunger in North Korea will require, first, an end to this “North Korean exceptionalism.” That will require a closer partnership between U.N. bodies with each other, and with the governments of U.N. member states:

1. The WFP must adhere strictly to the principle of “no access, no food.” It should expect North Korea to allow just as many monitoring visits per capita as it would make in, say, Darfur. It should have access to every hungry North Korean, including its political prisoners. It should insist on posting its own non-North Korean staff in the cities and towns where the hungry people are, along with its own non-North Korean translators. It should insist on random, unannounced nutritional surveys that measure the arm circumference of children and adults who are supposed to be receiving the aid. And failing that, it should offer only that much food that it is confident that North Korea cannot divert (meaning high-energy biscuits and other, similar in-kind aid). The current, small-scale program the WFP operates may well meet that low threshold, but let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking that it’s solving the bigger problem, or that it’s feeding North Korea’s most vulnerable people.

2. The WFP should end its reliance on North Korea’s corrupt and discriminatory Public Distribution System and support market-based approaches to food production and distribution. For most North Koreans, the PDS is a relic of another age; 80% of them already rely on markets for their food supply. It should actively support the privatization of agriculture, the private cultivation of public land, and unofficial commercial imports of food. It should begin programs to educate private farmers on better agricultural methods, and supply the private farmers with high-yield seed, fertilizer, and pesticides. It should criticize actions by the regime that interfere with markets and private agriculture.

3. The WFP must use its voice to influence Kim Jong Un to make better decisions about North Korea’s wealth. It must speak out about the waste of resources on luxury goods and weapons, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It must speak out about unreasonable restrictions on its monitoring and distribution of food, to increase the pressure on Pyongyang to allow transparency and fairness in the distribution of food. If that causes the regime to expel the WFP, then perhaps the WFP’s resources are better used to feed people in other places, where it can adhere to the “no access, no food” principle and feed those whose need is the greatest.

4. Donor states and U.N. member states must help the WFP enforce those restrictions by blocking North Korean government banks, accounts, and income streams, beginning with those that are used to purchase luxury goods. Those states should make clear to the North Korean government that those funds are available to provide food and other humanitarian aid to the people of North Korea, and that funds will be available for other, non-prohibited purposes after the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people have been met first.

5. Because the transparent distribution of North Korea’s resources is the most plausible path toward greater transparency in North Korea as a whole, member states should prioritize combining their diplomatic influence to extract greater transparency in the delivery of food aid. Greater transparency is the sine qua non to resolving every other crisis involving North Korea, including its nuclear program, other WMD programs, human rights violations, and threats against its neighbors. Ultimately, that will also require financial transparency, too. North Korea isn’t going to accept that on its own. Other states must use their regulatory powers over banks and businesses to demand it.

To help the silent, suffering majority of North Koreans, the WFP must make a far broader impact on North Korea’s food supply. To do that, the WFP must also impact Pyongyang’s own restrictions on the supply and distribution of food, because Pyongyang’s own policies are the cause of the hunger. By avoiding — or by affirmatively concealing — that greater truth, the WFP is perpetuating hunger and starvation among the millions of North Koreans that it can’t reach.

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Update: Similar thoughts from Patrick Cronin.