Last year I received an message from a former US government official that read in part,
“During the Clinton Administration, decisions to provide food aid were based on our best assessment of humanitarian need, consistent with longstanding U.S. policy. We would have provided food aid whether the North Koreans participated in various meetings or not, assuming we could adequately monitor the aid to assure it reached beneficiaries. There was no policy, virtual or otherwise, of “food for meetings.” I was less close to the action during the Bush Administration, but believe those who were would also say their decisions to provide food aid did not depend on North Korean participation in diplomatic meetings.
I’d like to put an end to the idea past food aid was dependant on diplomatic objectives, as I am afraid it may color future decisions on humanitarian assistance when North Korea confronts its next crisis, as it inevitably will. Any help you can give me on uncovering how this idea originated would be much appreciated.”
Uh, guilty as charged? In my book Avoiding the Apocalypse, I coined the term "food for talks" including a table that listed nine instances of humanitarian assistance being linked to diplomatic objectives. Steph Haggard and I extended the table for our book Famine in North Korea. Probably the most obvious smoking gun was the March 1999 statement of Presidential envoy and former Defense Secretary William Perry that the relationship between the provision of food aid and US access to a suspected North Korean nuclear site was a “quid pro quo for achieving our aims.”
Reports last month suggested that we might be adding another line to that table. On 18 August the US announced that it was providing $900,000 in flood assistance and that North Korea had agreed to a resumption of the excavation of the remains of US soldiers killed during the Korean War. Maybe the two announcements were coincidental.
But with indicators pointing to a deteriorating food situation in North Korea and diplomatic initiatives sprouting, don’t be surprised if the US resumes aid shipments in the context of a resumption of the Six Party Talks. Pure coincidence, no doubt.