Here's a Tip: Don't Give North Korea More Aid

"No matter what promises North Korea makes and agreements North Korea signs, nothing is likely to change."

Shenyang, China: North Korea is a major topic of interest in this provincial capital in China’s northeast. The “Hermit Kingdom” is just a couple hours away by car. Pyongyang sends diplomats and students to Shenyang while attempting to stem the flow of refugees. Again the North’s harvest does not look good. Observers warn that another famine may be coming. The first reports of drought appeared earlier this year. The United Nations began worrying about a “huge food deficit” in May. It warned that 70 percent of North Korea’s population faces a food shortage.

A month later the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea claimed that it was experiencing “the worst drought in 100 years.” Pyongyang has been known to exaggerate its problems to encourage outside assistance, but the Food and Agriculture Organization predicted that domestic production may run only half that of last year. UNICEF predicted a serious drought which would cause widespread malnutrition. Three years ago the group concluded that one-quarter of children already were malnourished. Thus, UNICEF argued, disaster threatened: “If we delay until we are certain of crop failures, it may well be too late to save the most vulnerable children.” Visitors affirm significant rural problems. American diplomats stationed in the region give credence to such reports.

Of course, another famine is another grievous embarrassment for a state that is constantly embarrassed. The Kim Jong-il regime ostentatiously announced that it would demonstrate the country’s power and wealth in 2012. The world—and more importantly, the North Korean people—still are waiting.

Far worse, several hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as two million, North Koreans died between 1995 and 1997 from a brutal, extended famine. The North since has been dependent on the generosity of others to feed its people. The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been receiving food assistance from the United Nations and other countries and organizations for 20 years.

Despite its celebration of the philosophy of “Juche,” or self-reliance, the DPRK again has begun to bang its tin cup, seeking aid. However, international “fatigue” has set in. The United States long ago stopped giving. This year the UN’s World Food Program collected less than one-fifth of the money which it requested. Total humanitarian aid fell in 2014 over 2013; despite growing need, support for the North remained flat at $21.3 million in the first half of this year.

North Korea is in perpetual need but must compete with other, newer crises. Moreover, Pyongyang’s misuse of aid created enduring suspicion, forcing donors to impose extra safeguards. International sanctions also impede international activities by making it more difficult to transfer money and organize activities within North Korea.

Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of China remains the North’s most important food supplier. Noted the Congressional Research Service’s Mark Manyin: “food from China is known to enter the North on commercial, concessional, and barter terms, making it difficult to distinguish aid from trade.” The Chinese government almost certainly will continue to stand by its ally. Although assistance has varied over time, Beijing always has ensured the Kim regime’s survival. Academics, scholars, journalists, and individual citizens increasingly criticize the North—during my recent trip I chatted with one social scientist who advocated that China forthrightly penalize Pyongyang. The government also appears to be increasingly frustrated with the DPRK’s behavior. But Beijing is not willing to risk chaos on the peninsula or a united Korea allied with America, or both.

Between 1995 and 2005 Seoul provided nearly $1.2 billion in food and fertilizer alone. The ROK often linked its assistance to North Korean participation in talks, though with little substantive result. Seoul cut off general support after Pyongyang’s military attacks in 2010: aid fell from about a peak of about $400 million in 2007 to a low of around $13 million in 2012.

Still, the South remains willing to restart humanitarian transfers. Lee Joo-seong, chief of the Council for Cooperation with North Korea, advocated that “regardless of political and military issues, sustainable aid should be ensured.” In June Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said his government would respond to any request: “If North Korea faces tougher situations, South Korea is willing to provide the necessary support.” He frankly hoped to use assistance for political gain: “I think that this situation can be a chance to promote cooperation.”