North Korea has recently made a desperate international appeal for food aid. Reports from aid workers and international nongovernmental organizations warn of a major food shortage. As the United States deliberates whether to restart a food aid program in North Korea, it must consider the following questions: Is there a true humanitarian need, can we address the potential risk of food diversion and can a properly monitored program allow us to engage with the vulnerable citizens of one of the most isolated countries in the world?
The concern about potential food aid diversion arises out of the political class system in North Korea. The government considers its most loyal citizens to be the elite, who mostly live in the capital of Pyongyang, and the military. However, everyone else — whose loyalty is seen as questionable and/or who has not had the good fortune of being born into the right family — lives outside Pyongyang in areas that are an afterthought for the North Korean government. And it is this vulnerable part of the population that would be the intended beneficiaries of any food aid program.
According to a monthlong assessment conducted by the United Nations World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization released in March, there is a true humanitarian need among these vulnerable people. The U.N.'s report also concludes that 6 million people (one-fourth of the population) are in dire need of food.
But with the importance that the North Korean government has given to the elite and the military, the major concern is will those who need this aid be the actual recipients of it? The 2008-09 food aid program agreed to by the U.S. and North Korea offers the best model for addressing this concern. The agreement set up unprecedented standards in access and monitoring, allowing the U.S. to really get to the people who needed food the most.
I traveled eight times to North Korea as a U.S. government official to oversee implementation of that program. I participated in some of the more than 3,000 monitoring visits conducted during the 10-month-long program to oversee the journey of U.S. food from its arrival in North Korea to the institutions where we distributed food to our beneficiaries. This type of thorough monitoring made it difficult for any significant amount of food aid to be diverted to the military or elite. In addition, in a country where rice is viewed as such an important part of a meal, the wheat, corn and corn-soy blend that we strategically provided is not palatable to the elite, further minimizing diversion concerns.
The food aid program also offered an incredible opportunity to engage with regular North Korean citizens. People who spoke Korean were permitted in North Korea to monitor and administer the program, something not allowed under any previous food aid program. As a Korean speaker myself, I experienced how knowing the language brought extra depth and cultural insight to the encounters with nonelite North Koreans outside Pyongyang. When I drove through those closed societies far from the capital, the visits to homes, schools, orphanages and public distribution centers gave these North Koreans an unforgettable experience: contact with foreigners and Americans. It gave them a window on the outside world and perhaps a different perspective of the U.S. Through my interaction with them, I was able to confirm how much they appreciated our help and that they clearly knew the food aid was coming from the U.S.
Granted, the North Korean government made attempts to deviate from the terms of the agreement, and it prematurely ended it. But overall, for the 10 months we lived and worked in North Korea, much was accomplished in terms of our humanitarian and diplomatic objectives.
In the event that negotiations for another food aid program with North Korea resume, the Obama administration is justified in requiring that North Korea adhere to strong monitoring standards. And although there is always room for improvement in monitoring and access, the 2008 agreement offers a proven model and foundation for any future food aid effort.
Through a properly monitored program, we have the power to preserve the lives of and engage diplomatically with an otherwise unreachable population in North Korea. As human beings and as Americans, we should not miss this opportunity.
Dorothy Stuehmke, the senior advisor to the U.S.-North Korea 2008-09 food aid program for the U.S. Agency for International Development, served in the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2006 to 2008.