United Nations DPRK Needs and Priorities



Last week, Marc Noland walked through WFP/FAO food security report, and reports that North Korea might be entering a new phase of shortages (for example, here from the FAO itself). He noted that the reports failed to take account of the fact that production had been up over the previous two crop cycles, that grain prices are holding steady and that some of the food balance estimates produced in the past would imply continuing famine. But he also notes that when we are talking about North Korea, this means little more than a return to the new normal of ongoing and widespread insecurity.

Earlier in the month, the UN released its annual humanitarian assessment, which provides the official view of this new normal and also estimates financing needs.  The report acknowledges Noland’s point about increasing food production, but argues that these aggregate food balances belie the fact that the quality and diversity of average diets in North Korea remain substandard. For example, the report claims that “a majority” of the population consumes 25 percent less protein and 30 percent less fat than is desirable for health. Indeed, the report cites the FAO’s State of Food Insecurity Report to the effect that the proportion of people undernourished in the total population has actually gone up from 35.5 percent in 2005-07 to 41.6 percent in 2014-16.

But the problem is that we simply don’t have timely data given North Korean reluctance to cooperate with the donor community. As a result, the report jumps around between surveys conducted at different points in time that make somewhat contradictory claims: a 2012 National Nutrition Survey showed some improvement in chronic malnutrition among children from 2009; a 2014 Social and Demographic Health Survey (SDHS) supported by the United Nations Population Fund found improvements in indicators like life expectancy.

However, the report is right on one basic point: that if we are not entirely clear on trends, the levels of insecurity and access to basic services remain strikingly substandard: 20 percent without access to clean water and sanitation; 10.5 million out of 24.9 million malnourished; as many as 18 million with cross-sector insecurities.

The ability of the international community to mitigate this distress arises from a combination of ongoing North Korean controls on the humanitarian sector and—as a result—growing aid fatigue. The report reminds us that the number of foreign entities operating in the country remains extraordinarily low; 11 entities in total work in the country. Five UN agencies—FAO, UNFPA, UNICEF, WFP and WHO and four international NGOS—Premiere Urgence Internationale, Save the Children, Concern Worldwide, Deutsche Welthungerhilfe—have humanitarian programmes in the DPRK, along with the International Federation of the Red Cross, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and FIDA International. A map of their involvement across counties shows highly uneven access. Chagang is almost completely off limits—with virtually no international monitoring—and humanitarian agencies also have limited presence in a number of counties in Kangwon-do, Ryanggang, South Hamgyung and North Pyongan as well. Maps showing access by county and by program underline clearly that a kind of triage is going on. No food insecurity problems in the Northern half of the country? 

The report notes in passing that the North Korean structure for managing these groups makes coordination difficult, as the UN agencies liaise with the National Coordination Committee (NCC) while the Korean European Cooperation Coordination Agency (KECCA) oversees the European NGOs. According to the report, an effect of this is that the NGOs cannot act as agents of the UN entities, as they are in other settings. As we noted in Famine in North Korea almost a decade ago, the government continues to tightly control access of the humanitarian community.

The report walks through estimated need by sector, which is of course not actual need but some compromise with respect to what the multilaterals believe stands any chance of getting funded. An annex outlines what it calls “Participating Organizations and Funding Requirements.” But the funding from the multilateral agencies is aspirational while the NGO budgets—reported down to the dollar—are more likely to reflect actual budgeting; it is a certainty that these funding levels will not be reached. 

What about the effects of sanctions? Both 2270 and US sanctions legislation were in principle written to exempt humanitarian activities. The UN report suggests strongly that it doesn't look that way on the ground. The language of the report is worth quoting, because it highlights the more general difficulty that financial sanctions create:

“Since 2013, banking channels were regularly disrupted, with agencies being unable to transfer funds into the country…Agencies are also faced with delays in procurement, from additional requirements for licensing, to ensuring equipment or supplies are not on the sanctions list…International sanctions have also indirectly contributed to resistance among donors to provide funds to DPRK. Factors such as disruptions to fund transfers, as well as lengthy procurement processes and slow delivery of equipment and supplies has influenced donor’s attitudes and decisions on the allocation of funding.”

It is not the sanctions that have contributed to resistance among donors; it is the ongoing difficulty of operating in North Korea as well as continuing evidence that North Korea prioritizes its military over humanitarian objectives that has generated aid fatigue.

I find these last two sentences particularly objectionable, although we understand the constraints under which the multilateral and NGOs operate. It is not the sanctions that have contributed to resistance among donors; it is the ongoing difficulty of operating in North Korea as well as continuing evidence that North Korea prioritizes its military over humanitarian objectives that has generated aid fatigue. Our hats go off to the international civil servants and NGOs that are pushing this difficult rock uphill. Everything should be done to ease the constraints that NGOs face, including through exemptions with respect to financial transfers. But the report is unfortunately silent about the ultimate sources of what Noland calls the new normal; is it really impossible to toughen up our language on how the government’s priorities contribute to the problems summarized here? 

More From