The food aid dilemma

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The food aid dilemma


Kim Byung-yeon
The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.

South Korea’s offer of $8 million in humanitarian aid to malnourished North Korea has become a hot potato as the good-will gesture could upset the international sanctions and maximum-pressure campaign on the recalcitrant state. To help North Korea give up its nuclear weapons program, the sanctions should deepen the economic crisis and political pressure on North Korea, but if food shortages threaten the lives of infants, children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers, opposition to food aid would violate the universal value of defending human rights.

The Moon Jae-in administration announced the donation plan as soon as the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) earlier this month raised concerns about 10 million North Koreans, or 40 percent of the population, facing “severe food shortages” in the wake of the worst harvest in a decade. Seoul had hoped the gesture could revive the denuclearization process, but that’s wishful thinking. Half-baked aid can undermine the sanctions and delay denuclearization. North Korea could believe it can endure the sanctions as long as it acquires food and oil. With food and smuggled oil stocked up, it can withstand the sanctions until next year or later. Pyongyang could make miners dig up more anthracite and increase coal power generation to revitalize its industrial activity.

The donation will help ease North Korea’s shortage of food and hard currency. Sanctions can become effective when reduced trade hurts domestic consumption, as well as food and foreign exchange reserves. International aid will not only increase the food supply for North Korea but also help it save hard currency it needs to import food. Therefore, the aid can help reduce the effects of sanctions on North Korean industry, consumption and foreign exchange reserves. As a result, the current denuclearization stalemate could drag on.

Yet it is also wrong to neglect malnourished children and pregnant women across the border. We can hardly let them starve to death. Our ultimate vision for Korean integration and unification would lose dignity if we do not care for the vulnerable. So we need to strike a balance between aid and sanctions: minimizing the effects on sanctions while offering humanitarian aid to North Korea.

First, it is important to accurately assess the seriousness of the North Korean food problem. According to the WFP and the FAO, food output in the North fell by 12 percent on year to 4.17 million metric tons. But the crop yield is inaccurate as it is derived from North Korean data. The international organization said that it interviewed North Korean rural households, but the validity of its samples cannot be assured. The South’s Rural Development Administration estimates a lesser severity — 4.55 million metric tons, or 3.4 percent lower yield from the previous year. From the two numbers, last year’s crop output could be estimated at around 4.4 million metric tons.


Trucks laden with South Korean rice are lined up for shipments to North Korea on July 4, 2017. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Crop production of 4.4 million metric tons falls within the average level of the mid-2000s — and about 900,000 tons more than during the Arduous March period in the mid-1990s when as many as three million North Koreans were estimated to have died of starvation. North Korea therefore should not be considered in danger of a famine. A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) also showed that the nourishment level of North Korean children has significantly improved since the 2000s. But still 4.4 million metric tons are about 300,000 tons short of the average level of 2012-17. That means North Koreans can become chronically malnourished.

I propose South Korea offer 100,000 tons out of the 300,000 tons without condition through United Nations agencies for distribution to infants, children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers as the amount could be enough to feed 800,000 of them a year.

Even under the supervision of international agencies, transparency in the final delivery cannot be guaranteed. Aid beyond the minimum 100,000 tons, therefore, could only end up weakening sanctions. The remaining 200,000 tons can be supplied according to increases in Pyongyang’s food imports. Aid would therefore hinge on the regime’s efforts to secure more food for its people. Since Pyongyang would have to spend its foreign currency to import food, the sanctions effect could stay intact.

It is heartbreaking to see North Koreans suffer from sanctions. But sanctions are the only way to ensure the safety of Koreans on both sides of the border. The Seoul government should be coolheaded. At the same time, South Korean people should be more compassionate. The government must come up with a solution that can win support from most South Koreans.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 22, Page 31
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