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Upholding Aid to North Korea: The Politics of Food Aid

May 15, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

The United Nations World Food Programme is to start an emergency food programme to help 3.5 million people in North Korea, the Rome-based organisation said on Friday.

“A bitter winter, crop loss and a lack of resources to secure cereal supplies from outside the country have left the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea highly vulnerable to food shortages,” Reuters

This news comes after the US and South Korea have refused to recognize the crisis and to authorize the delivery of food aid to north Koreans (the government in Seoul has drastically reduced the issuance of authorization for civil society organization in South Korea to ship food aid to the north). Two considerations on this point:

1. This episode demonstrates how political interests are often at odds with developmental goal. The reasons for such denial are political and they collide with strictly humanitarian goals. President Carter denounced that such policies are a direct violation of human rights as they deny the most basic right to food. The problem is that intervention is said to be a-political – in this case the delivery of food to needy people, regardless of their political affiliations,- bear consequences which are very much political- in this case indirectly supporting the North Korean regime. In the case of Somalia the distribution of food through Al-Shabab authorities had the very political effect of recognizing them as administrative institutions on the ground, thus discrediting the idea of one central government. The dilemma that arises, in such cases, is whether political goals can justify the withdrawal of humanitarian aid.

2.The distribution of food is often treated as a straightforward technical procedure, which is able to reach the hungry people. Yet, the case of Somalia proves that food distributed by the WFP with the purpose of alleviating the needs of the hungry can in reality end in the pockets of local businessmen and authorities and not in those of the poor. This case bears the question of who is in charge of distributing the food aid in North Korea and how it can be ensured that the aid does not go in the pockets of the government authorities. I could not find any information on this. However, I think is a crucial issue to gauge whether or not a strong case can be made for food aid.

Any thoughts on this?

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