The crucial test for North Korea and the U.S. will be how the tussle over the DPRK's nuclear programme and the supply of food aid are resolved.

North Korea's statement last Friday that it would launch a satellite into space as part of the celebrations next month on the 100th birth anniversary of Kim Il-Sung has again thrown a spanner into the works. Just two weeks ago, an agreement had been reached between North Korea and the United States on the resumption of food aid in return for suspension of nuclear activities. The U.S., Britain, Japan and South Korea responded immediately, urging the North not to proceed as it would violate the United Nations ban on nuclear and missile activity. Expectedly, on Sunday, the North's official news agency dismissed the criticism calling it “a sinister and deliberate anti-peace action by hostile forces.”

For someone who lived in Pyongyang for over three years and travelled extensively in connection with efforts to improve the health and nutrition of women and children in DPR Korea, the news on resumption of food aid had come as a big relief. Though the conditions in the years I was there have improved from the dark days of the mid-1990s, when an estimated up-to-a million people perished in one of the worst famines the world had seen, the situation continues to be precarious. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that there is an “uncovered deficit” of over half a million tons of food. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) considers that a quarter of women in the age group of 15 to 49 are malnourished and nearly 90,000 children in danger of slipping into severe malnutrition.

The first crisis

Why is North Korea so chronically short of food? Part of the reason is the topography and climate. Most of the country is mountainous and the crop growing seasons are short. But more important is the government's practice of “self-reliance” in food supply in the world's last total command structure economy. All markets were banned in North Korea for many years in efforts to create a society hermetically sealed off from the outside world. The first major crisis hit the country with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the loss of crucial economic support including oil supplies at “friendship prices” from the Eastern Bloc. The public distribution system that reached food and essential supplies to the majority of the population suffered a setback from which it never fully recovered.

It was during the famine that illegal food markets sprang up in the country as a desperate coping mechanism. The government was compelled to bring in reforms that recognised these markets in 2002. This policy was however reversed from time to time. In 2007 we were witness to one such bizarre attempt when women under 40 were banned from trading in general markets.

It was also in 2002 that the government announced that it would resume plutonium production and ejected International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors for the first time. Following North Korean announcements in December 2002, Japan introduced trade embargoes and the U.S. imposed financial sanctions. The complexities multiplied manifold with the nuclear tests done by North Korea in 2006 and 2009 and the U.N. sanctions that followed. An aborted satellite launch also preceded the 2009 nuclear test by a month.

I was in North Korea when both nuclear tests happened. Following these, running a humanitarian programme dependent on support of mainly western donors was a challenge. But children's needs could not wait. It was essential to keep the life saving support of immunisation, essential medicines and nutritional supplements to severely malnourished children going.

Help in 2008

The last occasion when significant food aid was initiated by the U.S. was in 2008, when a commitment for delivering 500,000 tons of food was made. This initiative fizzled out in less than a year following disputes over monitoring. Though the U.S. has formally held the view that food aid is based on humanitarian need and not used as a diplomatic lever, the facts on the ground speak a different story both then and now. Therefore, the crucial test for the current engagement will be the good faith in which the assurances of freezing the nuclear programme and permitting monitors into the country are fulfilled by North Korea and the resolution of all modalities for supply of food aid to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.

“This agreement provides the best monitoring conditions the World Food Programme has ever had in North Korea,” said Tony Banbury, then director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Asia while food aid was launched in 2008. For the first time, WFP will be allowed to deploy monitors who speak Korean to check that food goes to needy civilians, said Banbury in an interview with the Boston Globe on July 1, 2008. This indeed was true. But what is not known so widely are the difficulties that WFP faced in renewing the short-term visas of their Korean speaking monitors when the time came for their extension. In a short while, there were very few Korean speakers left with WFP in the country.

Another major problem was the lack of agreement on the timing and modalities of a nutritional survey that was to be undertaken as part of the Memorandum of Agreement between the government and WFP. It was due to the WFP's inflexibility regarding the timing of the survey and their insistence that it should be done during the exact period when a national census was to take place.

It is therefore vital that the clouds around satellite launches and nuclear tests lift and the nuts and bolts issues regarding the modalities of aid delivery are fully clarified on both sides if help is to reach the people, particularly women and children so desperately in need.

(The author is a retired civil servant who was a representative of UNICEF in Pyongyang, DPR Korea from 2006 to 2009. The opinions expressed here are personal. Email:

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