North Korean workers are seen through a window from a conference building… (Jung Yeon-je, Getty Images )
Reporting from Seoul and Washington — As humanitarian groups warn of increasing food shortages in North Korea, the authoritarian government faces diminishing prospects for international aid, with allegations from both the United States and South Korea that donations rarely reach the poor and starving.
The European Union recently announced a plan to provide $14.5 million in emergency aid to the impoverished nation of 24 million as officials expressed concern at food shortages caused by seasonal flooding and a severe winter.
Washington and Seoul, meanwhile, appear to be solidifying a strategy to end any further food shipments until a monitoring system is instituted for such assistance, analysts say.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House approved a measure to bar aid to North Korea, which lawmakers said would serve only to prop up the repressive government. Many said they believed Pyongyang was exaggerating its needs and storing food for national celebrations in 2012 to mark the 100th birth anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung.
North Korea's food problems are systemic, critics allege, the result of a creaky state-run communist economic system resistant to reform or oversight. Only when changes are enacted should aid be granted, they say.
"North Korea will always cheat," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who sponsored the amendment. "Providing food aid not only allows Kim Jong Il's oppressive regime to divert scarce resources towards its military program — one that has grown increasingly threatening over the past several years — but it delays the day when real, structural reform will come to North Korea."
The Obama Administration has yet to take a stand on food aid to North Korea, but a State Department spokesman said this week that Washington "understood" the European Union's decision. She did not elaborate.
South Korea suspended such assistance in 2008 with the election of President Lee Myung-bak, who has said Kim Jong Il must give up his nation's nuclear arsenal and meet other conditions before Seoul will resume aid.
Critics say Washington and Seoul are playing politics with poverty and that arguments for withholding aid are based on misperceptions of the situation in North Korea.
After conducting a food assessment there this spring, five nongovernment aid agencies concluded that food for the nation's most vulnerable groups — children and the elderly, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers — was running dangerously low and would likely run out during what's known as the summer "lean season" before fall harvest.
"I don't believe the need in North Korea is fabricated," said David Austin, a program director for Portland-based Mercy Corps, who led the assessment. "I saw children and elderly who were acutely malnourished. These people will die first as everyone is consumed with accessing food."
Former U.S. President Carter, who recently traveled to Pyongyang, said, "One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat.
"For South Korea and the U.S. and others to deliberately withhold food aid for North Korea and its people is really a human rights violation," he added.
Many high-ranking Democrats, including Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also support humanitarian aid to North Korea.
A reported 2 million North Koreans died of starvation in the 1990s, a debacle that rallied donor nations and international humanitarian groups to focus on aid.
More than a decade later, a debate still rages over the extent of the continued need there. A U.S. assessment team led by Robert King, special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, spent two weeks in the country in spring. At a recent hearing, King told Congress that any aid to North Korea should be heavily monitored.
He said the U.S. would provide only "the kinds of food that are less desirable for the elite, for the military. For example, we would not provide rice. We would focus on some kind of a nutrition program that would provide other kinds of food that would be harder to divert."
Though North Korean officials have resisted foreign oversight, European Union officials say they plan to send 50 personnel to ensure proper monitoring of any aid.
Humanitarian groups are calling for quick action. The World Food Program estimates that one-fourth of the North Korean population is in urgent need of assistance, recommending that the international community provide more than 478,000 tons of food assistance to support children and pregnant women.
Glionna reported from Seoul and Simon from Washington.