Friday, January 13, 2012

Why not rice?

With the food-for-nukes talks underway between the North Koreans and the US, the negotiations appear to be bogged down on the details of the food aid package. The North Korean delegation has agreed to discuss ending the uranium enrichment program if the US shows "willingness to establish confidence."

So far, Washington remains quite unwilling to build the kind of "confidence" the North Koreans are talking about - mainly providing the remaining 300,000 tons of food aid that was promised to Pyongyang in 2008. The US is offering nutritional assistance (specifically protein-high supplements targeting younger children suffering malnutrition) instead because it fears that a substantial food aid package will be diverted to the military instead of going to the people in need.

This is a reasonable concern to have considering the number of times that Pyongyang had retracted its promises to Washington and the international community. However, if the US is willing to go as far as provide nutritional assistance, then it should consider and study the effects of providing North Korea with actual food aid, including rice and other grains.

Injecting the food deficient market with valuable rice could potentially play a crucial role in redistributing the food stuffs in the country. If the food aid actually reaches those in need, then the people can either consume it or sell the valuable grains for more quantities of less valuable grains, increasing their food reserve. And so far, based on reports from South Korean, US and UN aid groups, the North Korean government has shown capable of honestly distributing food aid to its people in the past year.

However, even if the grains are siphoned off by the party and military elites, the decrease in the demand for grains by the elites may help control the food prices that are growing out of control. Specifically, the sudden availability of rice will decrease the demand and price of cheaper grains such as corn and increase their accessibility to more impoverished North Koreans who have long relied on cheaper non-rice alternatives in times of hardship. Therefore, providing real food aid should be seriously considered as a means of significantly influencing the DPRK domestic food market.

All of this is purely guesswork and could very well make no sense whatsoever in the trained eyes of an economist or those with more up-to-date information about the economic conditions in North Korea. But I hope someone somewhere in the state department (or the White House) went through at least brain storming this before quietly excluding it from US foreign policy.

There are obvious political consideration involved, but again, the cost of a broken society will only be a future burden for the international community when North Korea finally collapses (whenever that may be...)


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