Is USAID Politicizing Food Aid to North Korea?

New North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has secured food aid from South Korea for the first time since the death of his father Kim Jong Il. Although South Korea has provided food aid to its neighbor in the north, the United States is hesitant to assist the vulnerable population in the isolated, dynastic communist state. This has led to criticisms against the U.S. for withholding and ultimately politicizing aid. While policy objectives and donor dynamics play a role in providing food assistance to North Korea, the leaders in Pyongyang are responsible for the food shortage, not those in Washington.

The Obama administration and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have been criticized for politicizing food aid to North Korea. According to North Korean officials, the U.S. has offered food aid for the ongoing food crisis along with a suspension of sanctions in exchange for the halting of its uranium enrichment program. This trade-off is being viewed as the U.S. placing a political lens over a humanitarian issue. The ideal is for humanitarian assistance to be apolitical. The unfortunate reality is that humanitarian aid, in particular bilateral aid, is intrinsically linked to politics.

According to the UN World Food Program (WFP), North Korea is dealing with its worst food shortage in a decade. The food shortage is a consequence of poor economic management, a series of crop failures caused by harsh winters, instances of flooding on an already barren land, and the regime’s unwillingness to implement effective food policies. More than 6 million North Koreans are in dire need of food assistance, with children being the most vulnerable as one third are malnourished.

These figures are devastating and on an individual level, a humanitarian instinct urges us to take action. However, while a humanitarian motive may push states to provide aid, states do not and cannot act purely altruistically as individuals do. While aid should solely be provided on a basis of need, a process of selection is involved whereby the recipient country has to prove itself a worthy beneficiary.

North Korea’s policies and prior mismanagement of aid has not inspired confidence in USAID officials. North Korea’s songun, or military-first policy, elevates the KPA above the population, leading to concerns that food aid will be diverted to the military instead of the hungry. Food aid in the past was forced to be reduced due to a lack of monitoring capabilities. One critic maintains that “after 15 years of North Korean requests, donor nations and organizations are increasingly reluctant to provide aid to a nation that refuses to take steps to ameliorate food shortages.”

Condemning Washington for not providing food assistance allows Pyongyang to deflect its civic and social welfare responsibility to the ailing population of North Korea. Rather than USAID withholding food assistance to North Koreans for political purposes, North Korea is not only politicizing aid but sacrificing its people for international notoriety.

Photo Credit: David Stanley