Amidst all the speculation about the future of North Korea’s leadership, a critical problem remains unresolved: the country has a major food problem affecting its most vulnerable and poorest populations, which even Pyongyang acknowledges could result in another humanitarian disaster. Despite the importuning of its humanitarian organizations and the contributions of other countries, the United States has sat by and watched.
After a long slog of negotiations interrupted by the death of Kim Jong-il in December, it now appears more likely that the United States and North Korea will finally work out a deal for renewed negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula: Washington gets assurances from North Korea on the suspension of its nuclear-weapons efforts, and North Korea gets 240,000 tons not of grain but of something known as “nutritional supplements.” Although this quid pro quo deviates from the standing policy of not using aid for political ends, many of the cognoscente hail this as great American statecraft. Yet the Obama administration continues to try to have it both ways—insisting that its motives are humanitarian while finding various excuses for failing to deliver urgently needed food aid.
How did we get here?
Recall a little history: The severe food shortage affecting vulnerable elements of the population in North Korea was brought to light a year ago. However, Washington, unlike many other countries, has not acted on its professed humanitarian principles but instead in effect has leveraged the crisis to its advantage.
U.S. humanitarian organizations first noted the acute nature of the food crisis in February 2011 when they visited North Korea and observed crop failures from a particularly harsh winter. They reported hunger-induced health problems among children, urging immediate action by the U.S. government and the international community. Despite these reports, the United States appropriately refused to consider providing food aid until Pyongyang offered effective monitoring—but Washington did not follow up on its prerequisites. In July, heavy flooding struck the major rice-producing provinces of southern North Korea, reducing the already restricted food supply. Washington then undertook exploratory talks with North Korean officials, but no consensus was reached. The State Department refused to give a clear answer as to whether the food issue was raised during the meetings.
By August, the European Union and Russia had discovered the crisis and committed food aid to North Korea, but Washington continued to drag its feet, still citing problems in monitoring. On August 18, the State Department finally offered $900,000 in flood assistance but explicitly stated that the package would not contain any food, even nutritional supplements for toddlers.
Although the World Food Program noted a substantial rise in hunger-related illnesses in September, the State Department continued to suggest that it was assessing whether Washington could provide assistance in a way that was monitored and consistent with U.S. policy. Meeting in Geneva with North Korean representatives in October, U.S. officials concluded the meetings with positive comments about the talks and promised to meet again at a later date, but there were still no plans to deliver the much-needed aid. However, when negotiations resumed in Beijing in December, Washington began openly discussing the offer of nutritional assistance in the framework of North Korean acceptance of U.S. demands on nuclear assurances—an exchange, it is asserted, North Korean officials insisted on.
The State of Play
Talks were put on hold after the death of Kim Jong-il, but despite the hurried transition in North Korea the two sides resumed “conversations” in January. Both now appear vested in coming to some kind of consensus on the nuclear issue and food aid. According to Pyongyang, the United States has offered to provide food in return for halting the uranium-enrichment program. Although the North Korean delegation accused the United States of politicizing the issue, Pyongyang appeared receptive to the idea “if the United States has a willingness to establish confidence.” The show of “confidence” that North Korean representatives are referring to is the delivery of the remaining 330,000 out of 500,000 tons of grain promised in 2008 (a deal broken by the North Koreans), not the 240,000 tons that Washington is now offering.
Talks are stalled on this point, but both sides seem to be acting with a little more urgency. The U.S. government still appears focused on the monitoring issue despite the absence of grain deliveries and recent progress toward greater transparency. Both the World Food Program and the European Union arranged for stringent monitoring last year and concerned U.S. agencies with long experience in North Korea showed their long-standing experience in monitoring food aid. The United States was also able to monitor its recent flood assistance without incident.
Hunger is not an issue that can be put off indefinitely. It rapidly grows into a bigger problem: hunger-induced illnesses, consumption of seed, loss of manpower and other grave consequences. Since recognition of the problem in early 2010, it is uncertain how many children born and unborn have died while negotiations dragged on. The State Department keeps reiterating that the regime in Pyongyang is primarily responsible for providing food for its own people. While this is certainly true, the United States has shown no urgency in forestalling a humanitarian disaster, and no one chooses to care about the results of inaction.
Given the terrible nature of the North Korean state, the hunger of its population is hardly an issue in Washington; indeed, many in Congress are particularly opposed to food aid to North Korea unless some political or strategic gain can be achieved. The experience exposes an increasing fault line in the Obama administration: while loudly professing its dedication to international cooperation, humanitarianism, the rule of law and all the usual verities, it is doing the opposite—in this case trading food for political concessions. To be generous, perhaps the administration believes that this is the only way food aid can get by Congress. But the simple fact remains that for over a year, the United States has failed to work out monitoring requirements and arrange to supply badly needed food.
And who is hurt if food aid is withheld? Certainly not Pyongyang—but rather innocent, poverty-stricken people in remote areas of the country who are reduced to foraging for food. This is what needs to be considered. It is not a problem that should pass unnoticed into history, as we tend to do when the facts are inconvenient.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.
Image: jensowagner 
Image: Kok Leng Yeo