Food: North Korean Food Aid Feeds Dictator

Evidences: Articles - Food for the Dictator

Feeding the dictator
Food aid to North Korea only props up Kim Jong-il's grotesque regime. It should be stopped

Fiona Terry
The Guardian
Monday 6 August 2001


Kim Jong-il, the north Korean leader, bought £300m worth of weapons from Russia at the weekend. Meanwhile, at home, millions of his people are starving to death.

North Korea, the last bastion of Stalinism, is in the grip of an economic crisis that has provoked famine in many parts of the country. Yet the regime maintains the budget for its 1.1m-strong defence force. While monuments to the grotesque personality cult of Kim Jong Il and his dead father, Kim Il-sung, are floodlit, apartment blocks in the showcase capital, Pyongyang, are without electricity.

Rural areas have abandoned tractors and reverted to ploughing by hand or with livestock. Mercedes Benz belonging to the ruling elite ply the streets of the capital, while ordinary citizens dig for roots and edible plants in the grass strips lining the five-lane boulevards. The public distribution system on which three-quarters of the population depend for food, only provides rations on important dates, like the birthdays of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il.

Extrapolations from testimonies of North Korean refugees in China suggest that up to 3.5m people might have died from starvation and related illnesses between 1995 and 1998. Reports of deaths continue to permeate the border, although with less frequency now: the refugees say that the weakest have already died - the elderly, the young and the sick - leaving less mouths to feed from the meagre food available.

All this takes place while North Korea receives one of the largest allocations of food aid in the world - almost 1m tonnes annually. This food, mostly channelled through the UN World Food Programme (WFP), supposedly targets 8m of the most vulnerable North Koreans: school children, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly and sick. Yet refugees in China from the hard-hit northern provinces where WFP concentrates its aid say they never received this food, despite being from the hard-hit northern provinces where WFP concentrates its aid.

What is happening to the food aid? No one knows, not even the organisations in charge of distributing it, because the North Korean regime does not allow aid agencies the access necessary to ensure that aid is reaching those for whom it is intended. All aid is channelled through the government-run public distribution system, effectively strengthening one of the main instruments of control at the government's disposal.

Aid agencies are permitted to "monitor" the aid, but must announce monitoring visits one week in advance; no random visits to households, kindergartens or schools are allowed. Aid workers have little contact with ordinary North Koreans as a government translator accompanies them wherever they go, and questions deemed controversial are left untranslated.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) endeavoured to overcome these restrictions and create the minimum conditions necessary to work decently in North Korea between 1995 and 1998, but was unsuccessful. The teams realised that the government fabricated whatever they wanted aid workers to see: malnourished children in nurseries when more food aid was desired, and well-fed children when donors needed reassurance that food aid was doing good.

Refugee testimonies corroborate this: some report having carried food from military storage to nurseries before a UN visit, and others speak of being mobilised to dig up areas to exacerbate flood damage in preparation for a UN inspection.

MSF began to understand that the North Korean government categorises its population according to perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and those deemed hostile or useless were expendable. In fact, in 1996, Kim Jong-il publicly declared that only 30% of the population needed to survive to reconstruct a victorious society. With no possibility of directing aid to those most in need, MSF withdrew.

Although they label their aid humanitarian, donor governments and aid organisations keep North Korea on life support for political, economic and diplomatic reasons. The US, Japan and South Korea are pursuing a "soft-landing" policy aimed at avoiding an implosion of the regime which could trigger military action or refugee flows into China and South Korea. Food aid is aimed at opening dialogue and trust to pave the way for controlled reunification.

Other governments, such as Australia, hope to improve ties with the regime for future trade benefits. Most members of the EU - including Britain, which opened an embassy in Pyongyang last month - have re-established full diplomatic relations with the regime, thereby bestowing legitimacy on Kim Jong-il and his clique.

While political and diplomatic engagement provides the only real means to influence the regime, using food aid to do so in a country beset by famine is reprehensible. The purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives. By channelling it through the regime responsible for the suffering, it has become part of the system of oppression.

Fiona Terry is a researcher for Médecins Sans Frontières.