U.N. aid isn’t solving North Korea’s hunger problem

Two years ago, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry cited estimates that North Korea’s Great Famine of 1993 to 1999 killed up to 2 million people.* All of those deaths were needless — the regime spent those years wasting more than enough money to feed everyone who starved. By 1995, when Kim Jong-il finally let U.N. aid agencies in, hundreds of thousands (or more) had already died. The aid agencies, most prominently the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), never left, and have now been operating in North Korea for 21 years.

No other industrialized country in a temperate zone has “needed” international food aid for so long. Yet last year, U.N. aid agencies estimated that more than 80 percent of North Korean households have poor or borderline food consumption, and last month, the WFP estimated that one in four North Korean children at the nurseries it funds are malnourished. I don’t doubt that many of North Korea’s children are malnourished, but to project that figure onto the broader population, you have to believe that the WFP has enough access to the population to do a credible needs assessment. For reasons I explained here, I don’t believe that.

I believe that many North Koreans really are hungry and/or malnourished, but beyond this fundamental truth, it gets harder to know what to believe. North Korea blames its hunger on droughts and floods, but no one starved in South Korea during this same period. Pyongyang’s apologists blame sanctions, of course, but there are no U.N. or U.S. sanctions on food, only on the weapons and luxury goods Pyongyang buys instead of food. The apologists also overlook the sanctions the North Korean government imposes on its own people, by preventing them from growing, importing, and selling food on their own.

The conclusion that becomes harder to escape each year is that North Korea’s food crisis is man-made, and man-made problems demand man-made solutions. Year after year, aid agencies have failed to confront (and at times, have actually misrepresented) the real causes of hunger in North Korea. Thus, despite the good international aid undoubtedly does for a lucky few, it may be doing more harm than good for the broader North Korean population. 

The aid agencies can’t get their stories straight.

What inspired me to write this long rant? The last straw came when I read these two Yonhap headlines:

June 4: “N. Korea’s rice production to rise in 2016: U.N. report

June 11: “N. Korea’s 2016 food shortage may reach worst level since 2011: report

The first story cites a report in Radio Free Asia, which in turn cites a South Korean expert’s conclusion based on favorable weather, and supplies of water and fertilizer, “after quoting a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.” It cites the FAO as saying that the North Korean government will import 100,000 tons of rice commercially, will have a total rice supply of 1.6 million tons, and will produce 2.5 million tons of corn. Although Yonhap’s headline hypes the FAO’s conclusions, the FAO is upbeat about North Korea’s overall food situation:

Early prospects for 2016 main season food crops favourable

Planting of the 2016 main season food crops, including rice, maize, soybeans and potatoes, normally starts in April and continues until mid-June. Normal to above-normal rainfall since April over central and southern ‘’food-basket’’ provinces of the country, coupled with improved supplies of irrigation water, benefitted planting operations and early crop development. Assuming favourable precipitation for the remainder of the season, the 2016 main season cereal output is expected to recover from the drought?affected harvest of 2015.

Production of 2016 early season crops expected to recover from last year’s sharply reduced level

Latest official production forecasts from the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) put the 2016 early season potatoes, wheat and barley crops, currently being harvested, at 363 000 tonnes (cereal equivalent), 21 percent higher than the sharply reduced 2015 level. The expected production gain is the result of favourable weather during the cropping season and improved water availability in the main reservoirs that boosted yield prospects. Early season potato production in 2016 is forecast by FAO at 297 000 tonnes, 27 percent above the previous year’s level, while the combined production of wheat and barley is expected to almost double from last year’s level and reach 66 000 tonnes. [U.N. FAO]

The second Yonhap story also quotes an estimate by the FAO. It says the government will import 300,000 tons of food — not just rice — but will still have a shortage of 394,000 tons, because last year’s rice harvest fell by 26 percent to 1.95 million tons, and its corn harvest fell to 2.3 million tons, representing a 9 percent decline in total grain harvest. Yonhap’s story then cites the very same South Korean expert as the first story, but this time, the expert says that North Korea “may have given up rice production, which requires a large quantity of water, and instead planted other crops amid a water shortage.” Although Yonhap’s headline arguably hypes the FAO’s conclusions, the FAO is downbeat about North Korea’s overall food situation:

North Korea’s total  food production – including cereals, soybeans and potatoes in cereal equivalent – is estimated to have fallen in 2015, the first drop since 2010, and is expected to worsen food security in the country, according to a FAO update issued today. [….]

Given the tight food supplies in 2015/16, the country’s food security situation is expected to deteriorate from the previous year when most households were already estimated to have poor or borderline food consumption levels.

Besides severely affecting the rice crop, the dry conditions during the 2015 main season, coupled with low irrigation water availability following recurrent dry spells since July 2014, also impacted negatively on the production of maize, the country’s second most important cereal crop. Despite an expansion in plantings, maize output is estimated to have decreased by 3 percent to 2.29 million tonnes in 2015. [U.N. FAO]

If you can find any consistency in those reports, enroll in law school. At times like this, I wonder whether the WFP and FAO have a clue what’s going on in North Korea. Again, the overwhelming evidence from refugees, clandestine reporting, and aid workers all aligns to support the contention that there really is a serious, chronic food crisis in North Korea. Yet U.N. agencies — which have been frustrated at every turn by the North Korean government — focus on short-term “emergencies,” perhaps because they, too, find it hard to escape the conclusion that Pyongyang’s policies are the cause of the long-term crisis, and because in the end, they aren’t willing to challenge those policies. 

Aid agencies’ claims aren’t always supported by the evidence.

A less generous interpretation, which Marcus Noland has raised here, is that aid agencies are deliberately hyping North Korea’s food supply problems. Aid workers — who are compassionate, well-meaning people — need more funding to keep their programs going. This creates the understandable temptation to exaggerate the crisis and misrepresent each new crisis as transitory, but only at the cost of their long-term credibility. The U.N.’s donors are staying away in droves, maybe because they’ve come to the same realizations I have, and maybe because they just think their money can feed more people elsewhere. 

So how much of what the FAO says is really true? There’s reliable evidence that last year was a dry year in North Korea, yet despite alarmist headlines earlier in the year, there was no drought, and food prices stayed relatively stable. Evidently, there will be better weather this year, which we can predict because it’s late enough to see how global weather patterns are shaping up. Because last year was dry, the FAO may suspect that leftover food stocks are diminished, which could have a domino effect on this year’s food supply. Unless it won’t, of course.

First, the actual reported numbers aren’t that alarming in historical context. For 2016, FAO expects North Korea to produce around 4.8 million tonnes of cereals (requirements of 5.49 million minus a shortfall of 694,000). By comparison, North Korea’s 2010 harvest was either 4.3 or 4.5 million tonnes (not tons) of cereals. The figure for 2009 was 4.1 million tonnes; in 2008, 4.21 million tonnes; in 2007, 3 million tonnes; in 2006, 4 million tonnes; in 2005, 4.5 million tonnes in 2005; and in 2004, 4.24 million tonnes. Et cetera. All of these were lean years to be sure, and certainly featured terrible, preventable malnutrition for millions of North Koreans, but they were also years when North Korea was recovering from famine. If we believe these figures — and I stress that they rely on the North Korean government’s official food production statistics — they represent a slow-but-steady recovery in food production.

As it happens, I don’t believe anything based on North Korean government statistics and neither should you. Still, the bigger trend (slow-but-steady recovery) is consistent with a source that I’m more inclined to believe. The Daily NK’s reporting tells us that food prices stayed stable throughout this year’s “barley hump” (North Korea’s traditional spring lean season) and sanctions scares.

Do aid agencies really know what the food supply is?

One of the biggest problems with WFP and FAO estimates is that the North Korean government has impeded their access to the population so much that it’s difficult to do credible needs assessments. That leaves WFP and FAO dependent on North Korean government statistics, which are prone to manipulation. The fact that North Korea placed a spy inside WFP’s Rome office certainly suggests it has an interest in manipulating the narrative.

An even greater problem with WFP/FAO assessments is that they can’t possibly assess the growing role of private agriculture in supplying the markets on which nearly all North Koreans rely for their daily sustenance. Private agriculture operates in that penumbra between tolerance and illegality, a space that is often filled by bribery of, and extortion by, state officials. North Koreans are understandably reticent about telling foreigners about how much they grow in their private gardens and farms. If you’re estimating caloric intake based on North Korean state statistics about the latest cut in rations, you’re not only vulnerable to manipulation, you’re only telling part of the story. The quiet, steady rise of private agriculture is the untold “good news” story about North Korea’s food supply.

The aid agencies blame the weather (wrong).

I’ve argued before that U.N. agencies working in North Korea act as if they’re afraid of losing access if they blame Pyongyang’s policies for causing food shortages. Instead, FAO blames the weather, as if we’re supposed to believe that by some meteorological miracle, 23 consecutive years of drought or flood have caused food shortages in North Korea, but not South Korea.

Aid agencies blame sanctions (also wrong).

Rural North Koreans, who don’t understand sanctions any better than most Washington academics or journalists, don’t know that the trade in food isn’t sanctioned. They’re understandably worried that China will impose a trade embargo and that they’ll go hungry. 

In fact, U.S. and U.N. sanctions have humanitarian exemptions allowing them to adjust their targeting to avoid adverse impacts on the food supply. The U.N. resolutions stress that the sanctions “are not intended to have adverse humanitarian consequences for the civilian population” of North Korea. Unlike the aid agencies, the Security Council has called on Pyongyang to “respond to other security and humanitarian concerns of the international community.”

People who don’t understand this, including plenty of journalists, see all cross-border trade as evidence that sanctions are failing. Scholars who should know better fan the same fears outside North Korea. (Naturally, so does the know-nothing rabble-rouser Doug Bandow, citing as “evidence” a Russian diplomat, a Chinese scholar, and Andrei Lankov, who knows many things about North Korea, but is no sanctions expert. Bandow might just be the most easily disinformed person in this town.)

For now, however, there’s more evidence that sanctions have improved North Korea’s aggregate food supply than harmed it. One dynamic we’ve seen is that because the North Korean government can’t export luxury food products like seafood for cash, it temporarily dumped it on the local markets (later, it just idled much of the fishing fleet). Another is that trading companies that have found more difficulty trading in sanctioned goods have shifted to the profitable business of importing food, because the trade in food isn’t sanctioned.

The continuation of a healthy trade in food and consumer goods means that for now, the targeting and the exemptions are working as intended. That’s important, because if sanctions really do impact the food supply, political support for sanctions enforcement would suffer. One concern we should keep watching closely for is whether recent banking cutoffs and asset freezes have spillover effects on cross-border trade. And of course, the North Korean government will hype any food supply problems to use its poor as human shields. That’s a key flaw in the FAO’s methodology, which relies on statistics from the North Korean government to arrive at its estimates.

And still, the World Health Organization — you will recall that its head, the incompetent global laughingstock Margaret Chan, has praised North Korea’s health care system and the lack of obesity there — still feeds us bullshit like this:

“International sanctions have also indirectly contributed to resistance among donors to provide funds to DPRK. Factors such as disruptions to fund transfers, as well as lengthy procurement processes and slow delivery of equipment and supplies has influenced donor?s attitudes and decisions on the allocation of funding,” the report read. [NK News, Hamish MacDonald]

U.N. sanctions do discourage giving Pyongyang cash that it will certainly misuse, but there’s nothing in them that discourages donations of in-kind aid. Is there no one in the U.N. who can resolve this non-existent inconsistency between the Security Council and the aid agencies?

Pyongyang could feed its own people, but chooses not to.

The most fundamental question about hunger in North Korea is why North Korea needs food aid at all, when it could afford to feed all of its hungry. This may be the most succint and damning summary of the problem:

When the country finally admitted in 1995 that it was facing famine, the international community responded with considerable generosity, at one point feeding roughly a third of the population. But the North Korean government has never accepted the international norms in the provision of aid, impeding normal assessment, monitoring, and evaluation functions of the relief organisations.

Critically, with assistance ramping up, the government cut commercial grain imports – in essence using humanitarian aid as a form of balance of payments support, freeing up resources to finance the importation of advanced military weaponry.

Even at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close the gap were modest, in the order of $100-$200m, or about five to 20% of revenues from exported goods and services, or one to two per cent of contemporaneous national income.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does

Today, the gap could be closed for something in the order of $8-19m — less than 0.2% of national income or one per cent of the military budget. [Marcus Noland, The Guardian]

Not once have I heard a U.N. aid agency or agency official say anything like this. As I’ve pointed out in the New York Times and repeatedly on this blog, North Korea has more than enough money to meet its food gap by spending less on big screen TVs, watches, yachts, ski resorts, and missiles. The latest evidence of those skewed priorities is an estimate that Pyongyang spent $200 million on its recent party congress. That seems like a pretty low estimate to me, but just consider that $200 million is enough to fully fund World Food Program operations in North Korea for two years.

Even more troubling is the fact that Pyongyang sometimes reduces food imports even as aid agencies make emergency appeals. There’s some evidence that the North Korean government reduced spending on food imports again, earlier this year. Why? Noland thinks Pyongyang prefers to let the aid agencies buy its food so that it can spend its hard currency on other priorities.

You can’t solve a problem if you aren’t willing to name it.

What discourages in-kind aid is the grim reality that 21 years of U.N. aid haven’t solved North Korea’s food crisis, and the other grim fact — that U.N. agencies are still overlooking the real causes of the crisis and blaming weather and sanctions, just as Pyongyang demands of it. And if the aid agencies are so cowed by Pyongyang that they’re willing to lie to the world, what other compromises have they made with the truth?

At what point does it become inescapable that the North Korean government’s own policy decisions are to blame? I can certainly point to a number of those policy decisions, including the refusal to carry out broad reforms in how land or crops are distributed, the refusal to fundamentally open North Korea’s economy, the prioritization of weapons over development and trade, arbitrary restrictions on humanitarian aid workers, the diversion of aid, and the diversion of national resources into palaces, yachts, and nukes instead of food. The point that I’ve flogged here again and again is that what North Korea spends on missiles or luxury goods is many times what it would cost to feed every hungry North Korean. Until the U.N. abandons its fear of expulsion and confronts that, we aren’t going to solve the greater problem.

What’s needed is a top-to-bottom review of international aid policy, and why that policy has failed to solve North Korea’s food crisis, despite the best of intentions. It might begin with the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, finding that aid can actually encourage the policies that cause poverty and hunger. It should then take a harder look at private agriculture, and whether pushing for market-based solutions — including land reform that gives land back to the tillers — are better solutions than those that prop up on a broken system of collectives and rations. Above all, aid agencies should raise international pressure on the North Korean government to take more responsibility for feeding its own people.

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* Previously said that the report estimated that the famine killed up to 2.4 million people; since corrected. The report also cites higher estimates, but allows that some of the “missing” population in these estimates may be due to migration.


  1. That Angus Deaton piece is a good read. It persuasively illustrates how foreign aid can empower the corrupt institutions who created the need for aid in the first place. North Korea is probably the most extreme case of this, but it’s interesting to learn that this pattern was observed elsewhere.