Food Aid Follies



Balance sheet calculations, price evidence, and eyewitness testimony all indicate that the food insecurity in North Korea is rising and a resumption of aid is justified.  Proponents of aid like me ought to have the intellectual honesty to admit that aid acts as implicit balance of payments support and at the margin could further North Korean military ambitions. You can’t be a little pregnant on this one.

Last month US and North Korean negotiators reached an agreement on the resumption of aid. Sort of.  Despite the usual bromide that the US does not link humanitarian assistance to other diplomatic goals, the quid pro quo was the suspension of North Korean nuclear activities and a resumption of nuclear negotiations. The catch is that US thought that it was negotiating over the 240,000 metric tons of assistance that it had assessed the North Koreans needed, while the North Koreans expected the balance of 330,000 metric tons from the prior, suspended, aid program as the reward for concessions on their nuclear activity.

The death of Kim Jong-il has implications for both sides in this standoff. For the US, it reduces the credibility of North Korean concessions on nukes and the US responded by suspending the deal. For the North Koreans the problem is even knottier: Kim Jong-il signed off on the deal at a price of 330,000 tons of assistance—to accept the US offer of 240,000 tons would constitute a concession beyond what the recently departed Dear Leader authorized. Nevertheless, the joint New Year's editorial, which appeared after the Beijing negotiations and the death of Kim Jong-il, contained an unprecedented admission of North Korea's food problems, and could be interpreted as a signal that the North Koreans were still seeking assistance.

One has to suspect that there are Obama Administration political advisors who are not entirely displeased by this impasse.  They have an understandable wariness of expending any political capital on North Korea in an election year borne of demonstrated Republican opposition to aid and the historical memory of the drubbing on North Korea that the Clinton Administration took in the run-up to the 1996 election.

So where does that leave us? We could get lucky. The Chinese are reputedly extending aid and for what it is worth, the FAO is predicting a softening of world grain prices, a critical determinant of food security in North Korea.

But it is also quite possible that if bellies remain empty, in the run-up to the 15 April Kim Il-sung centenary, Kim Jong-un will be tempted to wave the bloody shirt.  Ironically another nuclear test might be among the more benign options. Given the mood in Seoul, another military provocation directed at the South could, as they say, get “kinetic.”

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