South Korea last week approved $8 million in food aid to North Korea, in response to what U.N. agencies say are the worst harvests there in a decade and severe food shortages affecting 40% of the North's population.
Despite the South Korean government's insistence on separating the aid from politics, the donation is widely seen as having the political goal of improving inter-Korean relations. With nuclear negotiations with the U.S. in limbo, South Korea is eager to nudge the North to return to the negotiating table — and humanitarian aid is one way to do that. Seoul was quick to point out that U.N. sanctions targeting the North's nuclear programs allow for humanitarian assistance and that the Trump administration is on board with it.
Even though North Korea requested the aid from international aid organizations and South Korean food will be distributed through those groups, Pyongyang was not impressed with the donation. It called the gesture — the first from Seoul since 2015 and the first under the administration of President Moon Jae-In — "non-essential" to ties between the two Koreas.
Aid agencies and politicians often trot out a Ronald Reagan quote: "A hungry child knows no politics." The idea is that nobody wants civilians to starve, even though their rulers' policies may be responsible for that hunger. And so governments and aid agencies must deliver humanitarian assistance.
The donations will be delivered through the World Food Programme and UNICEF. They will include nutritious food and medicine for infants, children and mothers at hospitals, nurseries and orphanages.
But the aid carries risks. One is that the aid is based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Another is that the aid will be diverted away from the intended recipients. In addition, the money a regime saves on buying food may be used on weapons. And the aid may delay reforms and perpetuate a system that distributes food inequitably.
To determine what kind of aid is needed, in April, teams from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Food Programme (WFP) fanned out across 12 counties in 6 of North Korea's 9 provinces to assess whether the country has enough food. (A similar survey was conducted last November). They spoke to farmers and officials and visited grain stores and nursery schools. That's not easy in North Korea, where aid agencies' access is often restricted.
The survey found that abnormally high temperatures, drought in some areas and flooding in others severely reduced the 2018 fall harvest of grains including rice, wheat and soybeans, leading to food insecurity for 10.1 millionof North Korea's 25.5 million people. North Korea's government is calling the droughts the worst in nearly four decades.