# Research Insider
International Humanitarian Aid to North Korea: Progress, Results, and Controversy
Dialogue on the North Korea Economy
International Humanitarian Aid to North Korea:
Progress, Results, and Controversy
Since the first provision of international food assistance in the mid-1990s, humanitarian aid to North Korea has been a constant source of scrutiny and debate. It was not only a major contributing factor to ending the devastating famine in the mid-to-late 1990s, but it has continuously helped with improving both the food situation and public welfare. Above all, humanitarian aid has become a vital channel that connects North Korea with the global community, and the increased contact that providing humanitarian aid has enabled has led many to believe that cooperating with the once hostile and isolated society may not be entirely impossible.
Despite the advantages, however, there has been never-ending controversy surrounding the humanitarian aid to North Korea aid. Some of the main issues include whether the aid is being misappropriated to those in power and the military, whether the aid has had an actual impact on vulnerable groups, why the regime accepts help but continues to provoke, and whether, under the circumstances, humanitarian aid even needs to continue. Of course, we do not have a definite answer to any of these questions as of yet. But, it has been over 20 years since North Korea received humanitarian aid and it has yielded vast amounts of information and data. Accordingly, we would like to examine this from diverse aspects with one of the world’s leading scholars in the field, Professor Hazel Smith.
♦ Interviewer: Lee, Suk (Senior Fellow at KDI)
♦ Interviewee: Hazel Smith (Advisory Fellow at KDI)
Lee, Suk Q.
How and when did the international humanitarian aid to North Korea begin? Who led the initiative and why?
I think probably, before we get into the detail of what happened, when and why, we need to first specify what we mean by humanitarian assistance. An important distinction, for example, needs to be made between what constitutes humanitarian assistance and what constitutes development assistance.
Humanitarian assistance and development assistance are very different from each other and it’s important to understand the difference otherwise we can have quite unrealistic expectations about what either of these types of assistance can be expected to achieve.
Humanitarian assistance, which we will be talking about today, is emergency aid, designed to save lives. It is only designed to provide short term help. It is not designed to provide support for economic development and/or designed to rectify the faults that brought about the need for humanitarian or emergency aid in the first place.
"Humanitarian assistance and development
assistance are very different from each other
and it’s important to understand
the difference otherwise we can have
quite unrealistic expectations
about what either of these types of
assistance can be expected to achieve."
Development assistance by contrast is comprised of medium to long term economic assistance, designed to support economic growth and improve the social welfare of a given society.
Humanitarian aid, because it is designed to save lives in emergencies, is unconditional. Development assistance is different in that it is conditional, economically and/or politically, in that recipient governments must adhere to donor conditions, normally negotiated between donor and recipient government.
Humanitarian assistance is given when governments fail, in that they cannot guarantee basic human survival without outside help. This can happen in natural disasters, in war and conflict and where there is severe economic distress. Development assistance by contrast is allocated to functioning, effective governments with which donors work in partnership, on the basis of medium to long term shared economic aims and objectives.
So what does all this mean for understanding humanitarian assistance to the DPRK?
Almost all international assistance to the DPRK has been humanitarian assistance. North Korea has never received substantive development assistance unlike other underdeveloped, countries including the much wealthier India and China. China even today, although both a Communist country and an important global economic player, continues to receive international development assistance.
It is true that some individual farms received technical assistance from the IFAD – that is the International Fund for Agricultural Development – and bilateral agencies like the SDC and from some NGOs, but the country has never received development assistance designed to support national reconstruction of the agricultural sector, or any other strategic, medium or long-term development aid. Most donors tried to incorporate elements of ongoing technical assistance into the larger humanitarian programmes – for example in offering training and technical advice and this is normal practice everywhere in the world where a humanitarian emergency becomes protracted, for example in Afghanistan, but these efforts to provide technical support were ancillary to the main humanitarian programmes that mostly delivered commodities of one sort or another – mostly food but also various inputs like medicines, agricultural equipment, children’s winter clothing.
"International aid to North Korea,
being humanitarian in nature,
was designed to save lives and
alleviate suffering in the short term."
International aid to North Korea, being humani- tarian in nature, was designed to save lives and alleviate suffering in the short term. It was never designed to bring economic growth, either across the economy more broadly, or even in the food sector, which has been the recipient of most humanitarian assistance.
What this means is that, in terms of assessing efficacy of assistance to the DPRK, the appropriate and relevant judgment then is not whether or how much international assistance improved the medium- and long-term well-being of the population, because humanitarian assistance is not designed to do that. The appropriate question is instead – did international humanitarian assistance to the DPRK save lives in the short term?
We can discuss the detail, but in summary, we have a lot of evidence that international humanitarian assistance to the DPRK indeed saved many lives, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the country was emerging from famine and when international humanitarian assistance was large enough to make a difference.
"Food self-sufficiency was never really
achieved as improvements in grain production
always depended on hidden subsidies from abroad –
mainly in the form of cheap imports
and technology transfers."
There is a big contrast between those days and more recent years. Since 2021 international humanitarian aid to the DPRK has been negligible – even as our current knowledge of the DPRK indicates the existence of a severe national food emergency and we have credible, unrefuted reports of families starving to death, this year, in 2023.
To go back to the question then of when, how and why international humanitarian aid to North Korea began, the first part of the question is the easiest to answer. The DPRK started to receive large-scale international humanitarian assistance in the second half of the 1990s. To understand why it received such assistance, we have to go back in history a little bit.
After the end of the Korean War in 1953, the DPRK had pursued a policy of industrialization, but it also redeveloped domestic agriculture, with the aim of being self-sufficient in food production.
Food self-sufficiency was never really achieved as improvements in grain production always depended on hidden subsidies from abroad – mainly in the form of cheap imports and technology transfers. Until the end of the Cold War in Europe in 1989/ 1990, North Korea received aid from allies within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, including Eastern Europe, as well as from the Soviet Union itself. Some of this we might classify today as development assistance – that is economic assistance to the government, although the government never acknowledged how dependent it was on help from abroad. Even with outside help though, the North Korean government did not achieve a stable food supply, to the extent that famine conditions emerged in the 1950s and again in the 1970s.
In the 1970s, well before it joined the United Nations as a full member in 1991, the DPRK started to engage with UN development agencies; it joined the UN World Health Organisation in 1973, the FAO in 1977 and the UNDP in 1979. UNDP even established a residential presence in the DPRK in 1980 – although its international officers did not become resident in North Korea until the 1990s.
In this period, UNDP gave some technical advice on trade and UNICEF conducted a nutrition survey in Kangwon, in 1988, led by an Australian nutritionist, but none of these contacts resulted in agreements to provide long term development assistance. Nor did the DPRK ask for humanitarian assistance from the UN agencies at this stage.
"In the 1980s and early 1990s,
the DPRK very much saw itself
as a global provider of international
In fact, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the DPRK very much saw itself as a global provider of international humanitarian assistance; and it had some good reasons for this self-perception. During the Cold War era, the DPRK provided military and development assistance abroad, the latter in the form of technical support for agriculture and in the construction sector in a number of African countries. Between 1959 and 1961, during the Chinese famine, there is some evidence that Chinese citizens came over the border to access food from North Korea. The DPRK also trained doctors from abroad for instance from Mongolia, in Pyongyang. The DPRK government was extremely proud of its activities abroad which it saw as evidence that North Korea should be understood as an important global player.
What changed of course was the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union and East and Central European states abandoned Communism – and China, although it remained politically Communist, was transforming itself economically into a market- oriented state.
"With no significant alternative trade and
aid partners, North Korea’s economy,
including its food economy,
deteriorated rapidly in the early 1990s."
Quite abruptly, from 1990, the DPRK’s trading partners, including China, started to demand global market prices for their exports to North Korea, refused to pay inflated prices for North Korea’s exports and no longer were prepared to give free or highly concessional capital and technology to North Korea. With no significant alternative trade and aid partners, North Korea’s economy, including its food economy, deteriorated rapidly in the early 1990s. It is no exaggeration to say that, in this period, the economy collapsed. Food production fell as the DPRK could no longer import essential agro- industrial inputs, especially oil, which it does not produce itself.
By about 1994, there was evidence seeping out of the country, often via South Korean NGOs, that starvation was widespread in North Korea. The North Korean government did not then and have never since admitted that their economic policy
of self-reliance had failed but instead blamed its problems on ‘natural disasters’. It did though start to approach the UN agencies with which it had already developed some contacts to ask for help.
We should probably pause a little bit and examine the issue of ‘natural disasters’ which the government has continued to blame for its inability to achieve grain production targets. For the DPRK government, the term ’natural disasters’ is a synonym for bad weather conditions – not, for example, extreme events like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. And North Korea has been subject to bad weather, even extreme weather conditions. But so of course has the agricultural sector in every country on the planet. What makes the difference between an efficient and productive agricultural sector and one that is not, like North Korea’s, is not primarily the weather however – but the capacity of an agricultural sector to be resilient to extreme weather events.
Hugely diverse agricultural economies, from China to the USA, South Korea to Ukraine, all suffer extreme weather events and in the case of Ukraine of course their farmers also face bombs and missiles, but these countries continue to be agriculturally productive. One difference is that these countries have efficient organisation in their agricultural sectors, appropriate technology, and sufficient agro- industrial inputs which they obtain from abroad or produce themselves. At its core, North Korea’s agricultural fragility reflects a fragile, unproductive national economy. One consequence is that when domestic food production fails there is no other sector of the economy, like say a flourishing international trade or services sector that can provide export earnings to pay for food imports to fill food gaps. This is especially so since the UN sanctions of 2017 banned over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports.
"The food crisis of the mid 1990s
then was not primarily a product of
natural disasters but at root a product of
chronic economic problems,
made acute by the rapid end of
subsidized trade from former Communist allies."
The food crisis of the mid 1990s then was not primarily a product of natural disasters but at root a product of chronic economic problems, made acute by the rapid end of subsidized trade from former Communist allies. Similarly, today, domestic economic mismanagement is compounded by trade cutoffs, this time because of the UN sanctions of 2016 and 2017, which, as well as export bans, prohibit North Korea from importing almost all essential inputs for the food economy. Similarly, also to the 1990s, today the government not only refuses to admit any responsibility for economic failure but hardly acknowledges that there is in fact an economic crisis. And this is not a minor economic disturbance and nor does it look likely to be short- lived. Once again, now in 2023, we see North Korean children facing starvation.
As to the beginnings of international humanitarian assistance to North Korea, we can trace its im- mediate origins to 1995 and an appeal by the North Korean government for help to the United Nations – on the grounds of unprecedented natural disasters in the form of widespread severe flooding – and a first visit by a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination – or UNDAC – team to the DPRK. The UNDAC team included representatives of the WFP, WHO, UNICEF, and the FAO. This first visit was followed by visits from individual agencies, like UNICEF and WFP, whose representatives started to report evidence of severe malnutrition, in both the child and adult population, throughout the country, in farming families as well as among urban residents. By January 1996 UNICEF had a full-time international officer based in the DPRK, traveling all over the country, who reported seeing severely malnourished children wherever he went. Reports from UN humanitarian agencies as well as from South Korean and Korean-American NGOs, some operating in China in the Korean speaking region of Yanbian that borders North Korea, played a big part in raising international awareness of what we now know was a huge food crisis in which probably up to half a million people died, directly or indirectly because of food shortages.
From this period, we see the start of a huge international operation to provide food assistance to North Koreans. One of the first major donors of food aid was the Japanese government which provided a massive half a million tonnes of food aid directly to the North Korean government in 1995/1996, enough food to feed 4 million Koreans for one year! This was quire astonishing given the historic enmity between the two governments. Other old enemies like the United States also gave generously – in 1998, the first year that the UN started to systematically record aid to North Korea – and in 1999, the USA was the largest international donor of aid to North Korea.
What has been the main form of aid for the past 25 years, and can you give a rough estimate of the scale? What distinguishes the aid to North Korea, specifically the form and scale, from the aid given to other underdeveloped countries in Asia or Africa?
First, it is very difficult to provide exact figures for either global humanitarian assistance provided to the DPRK or to specific sectors of aid – and that is the same in all humanitarian operations everywhere in the world, for different reasons. Humanitarian aid is of its nature emergency aid, designed to be distributed quickly to save lives, and the priority is not, at least initially, to set up sophisticated data capture systems. Of course aid organisations, like the UN agencies and bilateral agencies like the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and NGOs have record keeping procedures, even if in emergencies they are not quite as fine-tuned as in longer term development activities.
"Humanitarian aid is of its nature
emergency aid, designed to be distributed
quickly to save lives, and the priority is not,
at least initially, to set up sophisticated
data capture systems. "
In the case of the DPRK operation, as the UN agencies became more established in the DPRK after 1995, with the main UN agencies becoming resident, data collection became a major part of all humanitarian operations, so that knowledge outputs became more sophisticated and more accurate. Data coordination became also routinised as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), as in all humanitarian operations throughout the world, began to collect and organise data systematically. So that’s where we get most of our data from.
One point is that not all NGO aid, especially the early contributions for example from Korean- American organisations, would have been fully recorded via the UN system as OCHA only started including NGO contributions in its reporting in 1998. All in all, though, that really doesn’t make much difference to our knowledge of aggregate humanitarian aid patterns. That’s because NGO aid to North Korea was always much smaller in volume than the multilateral assistance provided by what very quickly became a huge United Nations humanitarian operation.
On the form of aid, we know that most humanitarian assistance to the DPRK came in the form of bulk food aid – for example rice, corn, or wheat. Of the $800 million dollars’ worth of UN humanitarian assistance donated to North Korea in the immediate post-famine years – between 1998 to 2004 – a massive $760 million went on food aid, leaving a total of around $40 million for everything else, including agriculture, health, education, water and sanitation.
The UN annual appeals for humanitarian assistance to North Korea were consistently underfunded in the health, education and water/ sanitation sectors – but had much less trouble meeting targets for food assistance. This was because donor governments were on the whole very wary of giving assistance that could in any way be understood as assisting the government, directly or indirectly. Some donors argued that if they provided non-food aid then this would mean the North Korean government would have more money to spend on its nuclear and missile development programmes. Their view was that the provision of food aid minimised these risks.
For more, please refer to the attached file.