Mistrust of the other party’s true intentions often underscores the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. Thus it is to no one’s surprise that the United States is approaching the food crisis in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with extreme caution and hesitation. However, conditions this year appear too dire for the US State Department to wait for Pyongyang to commit to substantive changes in its military posture before supplying everyday North Koreans with humanitarian assistance.
2011 has been without a doubt a difficult year for the Korean Peninsula. The winter had been one of the coldest in 66 years and the rainfall in July had been one of the largest in the past 100 years; a double blow for the already struggling North Korean agriculture industry.
Members from US aid organizations such as Mercy Corp, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Global Resource Services and Christian Friends of Korea visited three North Korean provinces in February of this year and assessed that severe winter conditions had frozen nearly half of all the country’s winter crops. In addition, the group witnessed and documented cases of acute malnutrition and other hunger-induced health problems among the children. That was February, before heavy flooding in July struck the southern provinces of North Korea and washed away 600,000 hectares of the country’s “rice bowl.”
The World Food Program (WFP) reported in September that cases of children being admitted to hospitals for malnutrition has substantially risen and estimated that a third of all children under the age of five are severely malnourished. Furthermore, the lack of clean drinking water and other basic sanitation systems have led to widespread diarrhea and skin diseases. US-based NGOs reported that the daily rations for individuals in certain areas of the country have dropped as low as 150 grams of potato per person.
Meanwhile, concerned with the possibility of Pyongyang either diverting the aid to its military or hoarding the supplies for the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s centennial, Washington refused to provide any food assistance until Pyongyang also offers satisfactory transparency in their distribution system.
In August, despite both the European Union and the Russian Federation committing food aid to North Korea, the United States continued to delay its decision by suggesting that Pyongyang should reengage with the world to establish long term food security first. On August 18, the State Department finally offered $900,000 in flood assistance, but specified that the aid package will not include any food. Samaritan’s Purse returned to North Korea to deliver the non-food goods in early September.
Samaritan’s Purse returned from North Korea with new documented evidence of exacerbated health conditions of the malnourished youth in many parts of the country. Despite the evidence presented by the WFP and NGOs over the past seven months, Washington remains in deliberation over the appropriate course of action. This remains the case after the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, a South Korean NGO delivering food aid to North Korea, was allowed to not only oversee distribution of foodstuffs to flood victims but also videotape the process in early August.
The United States cannot forever withhold food aid to the North Koreans without further linking food aid to political aims, something that the US State Department disavowed as its policy time after time. Robert King, US special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues, emphasized this point when he said that "the United States policy is that … we provide assistance, humanitarian assistance... based on need and [not on] political consideration." Washington should stand by its stated principles.