March 01, 2011

In North Korea, Food Shortages Strain Relations

Faced with floods, an exceptionally
cold winter, and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, North Korea has issued
desperate pleas to the
international community for food aid. 
Yet the United States, South Korea, Japan and China (which together are
responsible for 80% of North Korea’s food aid since 1995) all have significant reasons to refrain from providing the
Kim Jung-il regime with any relief. Political considerations and concerns that the
food will be diverted to the country’s elite contribute to the reluctance among
Washington and its allies. Meanwhile, a severe drought threatening
the wheat crop in China could give Beijing pause when it considers how much
assistance to dole out to North Korea this year.

The World Food Program (WFP) is currently conducting an
assessment of the food crisis in North Korea, which is due to be released next
month. Whether the report differs from one released in November of last year, which projected a slight increase for this year’s harvest,
it may help address speculation that Pyongyang is exaggerating its need in order
to stockpile food in
preparation for the planned 2012 celebrations.

However, if recent statements from the
United States Department of State are any indication, it is unlikely that
Washington will change its current stance of “no access, no food,” regardless
of the WFP report’s findings. Although South Korea demonstrated signs of a
policy reversal last October, when the government made its first shipment of food
aid to North Korea since 2008, the total amount of food was very modest
compared to historical trends.

The void left by the United States and South Korea could be
filled by China, which has reportedly done
just that for the past two years. However, the current drought and the looming food
shortages in China will make such a choice all the more costly. This mounting
price of propping-up the regime in Pyongyang has contributed to Beijing’s increasing frustration
toward the Kim regime, and poses another serious challenge to an already
strained relationship.