Will the nuclear test affect North Korea’s ability to secure food aid? The World Food Program’s experience since the missile test in December suggests that the answer to this question is “yes.”
News on North Korea’s food situation is mixed. On the one hand, the FAO/WFP crop assessment estimated that overall food production rose by 10% for the 2012 and 2013 early season harvest. On the other hand, this still leaves a staple food deficit of 207, 000 tons, with little evidence the regime is prioritizing food. Other bits of evidence, including gruesome reports of cannibalism, localized famine, as well as wider nutritional surveys paint a more dire picture, with evidence of significant variation across region and by status. The RFA reports that winter cold and lack of rations are resulting in increasing defections from the lower ranks of the military.
Whatever the overall picture, a short piece in Yonhap points out that since the missile launch, donations to the World Food Program’s efforts in the country have dried up. This pattern is not new. In July 2012, the WFP resumed its “Nutrition Support to Women and Children in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK),” which targets 2.4 million vulnerable women and children in 85 food-insecure counties. This operation was initially started in 2010, but had to be suspended in favor of an emergency operation in April associated with a particularly cold winter and a squeeze on commercial imports and donations (see the first monitoring report from 2010 here).
Yonhap quotes a WFP spokeswoman on the current state of play. The total cost of the program is $153 million; to date, the organization has received only 43 percent of that target, itself reduced to accommodate declining willingness to contribute. In November, the Russians made a $3 million wheat donation, but that donation was promised before the December launch and nothing has happened since. With little in the pipeline, the effects are felt immediately in programming: the WFP helped feed 740,000 North Koreans in January but this was only half the number reached in December and only 30 percent of planned assistance. The WFP’s food processing plant in North Korea is also facing a shortage of supplies. In the absence of response to the appeal, that part of the program is being bailed out by discretionary funds under the control of United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs approved in late January. But the program does not look sustainable in the absence of a change of course in Pyongyang or a change of heart among donors. We are not holding our breath on either front. Despite the mantra that humanitarian assistance should be separated from politics, donors have little interest in extending food assistance to a country that prioritizes its missile and nuclear program over basic human needs.