The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Food Security: Whither North Korea?

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on February 24, 2011

Reports of food crises in North Korea are not unheard of. Acute food shortages were reported in the isolated country in 200220072008, and  2010. This year, more of such reports have made headlines, including alarming claims of the country importing animal feed from China to feed its population, and that some North Koreans have been reduced to searching for wild grass to eat.

The current food shortage in North Korea is attributable to a number of factors. External contributors include the recent spike in global food prices and the suspension of aid support, including that of food, from major donors. The United States, which donated over 2 million tonnes of food to North Korea between 1995 and 2005, halted food aid in 2009 over concerns of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests and transparency of food distribution. Additionally, US authorities reported that North Korea had refused US food aid just prior to the suspension. South Korea also froze almost all aid to its northern counterpart following last year’s Cheonan sinking incident and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. This represents a reversal of the Sunshine Policy of Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun that decoupled food aid from security-related diplomatic matters. This re-coupling is a major (and somewhat controversial) development in inter-Korea relations.

The current food crisis in North Korea is also exacerbated by internal factors. Reports of inequitable distribution of available food aid remain. Foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks are killing thousands of draught oxen, cows and pigs  – animals which are essential to agricultural production and consumption. The country is enduring its coldest winter since 1945, with frigid temperatures increasing the demand for fuel while adversely affecting industrial activity and agricultural outputs. As a result, North Korean industries have slowed down, rice prices are rapidly vacillating, and the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have warned that up to 5 million North Koreans are at risk of famine.

In an unusual turn of events, North Korea has asked its 40 embassies abroad to appeal to foreign governments for aid. North Korea has also directly requested that the US resume its food aid, even pledging to allow international monitors to oversee its distribution to the public. Additionally, the North Korean government has allowed the WFP and FAO to send missions to North Korea to assess the food security situation.

The political undercurrent influencing food aid to North Korea continues to drive international responses to this crisis. Despite North Korea’s apparent readiness to negotiate, the US remains reluctant to reinstate food aid to North Korea unless better oversight and monitoring in distribution is guaranteed, especially in light of internal food aid distribution issues such as diversions of aid to the military. Meanwhile, other Western countries have insisted that any food aid to North Korea would need to be part of a concerted multilateral effort.

While it may be too much to hope that North Korea’s willingness to compromise on the food security issue signifies the dawning of a new era in its relations with the rest of the world, it will certainly be interesting to observe how internal food security concerns continue to influence how North Korea conducts itself on the international stage.


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