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North Korea Needs Development, Not Food Aid

North Korea Needs Development, Not Food Aid

By Christine Ahn*

This column was distributed internationally by the Inter Press Service Columnist Service. Editors interested in using this column, please contact [email protected] specifying the name and address of the publication.

Last month, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution led by the U.S. and the E.U. condemning North Korea for its human rights violations. Timed with the vote was footage aired on CNN of public executions and images of emaciated North Korean children scrounging for food. North Korea needs to address allegations of torture and prison camps, but impeding its development will not improve the human rights of 22 million North Koreans.

The North Korean government met opposition from the U.S. and many western nations when it asked the U.N. to transition from humanitarian assistance, such as food aid, to supporting development projects. It says it has enough food, but instead needs concrete aid in developing its agricultural and industrial sectors, both still reeling from external shocks of a decade ago.

According to UN FAO figures, North Korea needs 4.5 million tons of cereal to provide a basic ration through its Public Distribution System to feed its entire population. Yields have significantly increased in recent years, and in 2005, North Korea harvested an estimated 6 million tons of rice. As a result, the government recently announced that the PDS has returned to rations before the food crisis struck in the mid 1990s. However, the U.S. and many western nations oppose shifting to development assistance, citing the real reason North Korea wants development assistance is because it is more difficult to monitor than food aid. Whether North Korea has enough food or not, the U.S. State Department advocates for food aid because it gives the U.S. leverage to negotiate, and also profits American grain giants.

The U.S., the largest donor to the World Food Program, provides most of its relief aid as food in-kind, which helps explains the bias toward food aid in the design of relief responses. The EU procures 90 percent of its food aid locally because it requires less transport, is swifter and cheaper, and supports agriculture and development in the recipient country. In contrast, only 1 percent of U.S. food aid is procured outside the U.S. because it provides markets for large American agribusinesses. In the past two decades, one-third of dry milk powder, 15 percent of rice, and 12 percent of wheat were exported as U.S. food aid.

The point is that ongoing humanitarian assistance, largely in the form of food aid, has not helped advance the security of North Koreans. The difference between sending food aid versus development assistance is the difference between sending one kilogram of corn versus one kilogram of maize seeds that can yield 180 kilograms of corn. Development assistance, such as ensuring proper seed production and crop growing technologies, is the most efficient way to improve agriculture and implement lasting solutions to North Korea's food crisis.

North Korea's slide towards famine began with diminishing food production in the late 1980s due to depleted soils caused by their heavy reliance on external inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. North Koreans were hit hard with food shortages because they developed one of the most sophisticated intensive monoculture systems in the world and because of the sudden cuts in farm inputs and fuel with the collapse of the socialist-trading bloc. Global advances in agriculture now show this system destroys the soil, which has prompted the world's leading scientists and policymakers to create alternative farming systems which preserve soil fertility and allow sustainable production. The solution to North Korea's food crisis is to help farmers and institutions apply these new farming methods based on existing resources and infrastructure.

The North Korean government recognizes that by just giving farmers rice or tractors only reinforces the dependence that created the crisis in the first place. And countries like Sweden and Switzerland and UN Development Agencies have switched their approach by prioritizing ecologically sustainable food production and substantially cutting food aid since 1998. North Koreans are ready to change, but can the U.S. and the western world see that advancing human rights in North Korea means ensuring genuine security achieved through food, health, development, and ultimately peace?

As the global movement for human rights in North Korea gains momentum, we must advocate for development assistance because it is the sure way to promote the security of the people. The other route, articulated in the 2003 UN Consolidated Appeals Process, says, "The absence of an acceptable resolution of the 1950 to 1953 conflict on the Korean peninsula & remains the main problem faced by people in DPRK." Development and peace then are vital steps to ensuring the security and human rights of all North Koreans.

* Christine Ahn is a Fellow at the Oakland Institute and the author of the report "Famine and the Future of Food Security in North Korea."