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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources: Manyin and Nitikin on the Politics of Foreign Assistance to North Korea (Part I)

by | April 16th, 2014 | 07:00 am

For years, Mark Manyin and Mary Beth Nikitin have kept track of total US foreign assistance to North Korea in an excellent Congressional Research Service brief that is a standard reference on the topic. Recently, they updated it.

Why update a report when nothing is happening? Although not the stated purpose of the report, it contains insights on both the political opportunities and constraints on restarting negotiations with North Korea; as a result, it is worth a very close read. While there are a variety of channels for providing inducements to the North, Congress will have to have its say on all of them. If the administration were to recalibrate its policy of strategic patience, it would have to exert leadership not only in the diplomatic arena but with respect to Congress as well. It is highly unlikely that such an effort would succeed without some movement from China or North Korea. Even then the recent history—and particularly the collapse of the Leap Year deal–suggests the extent of the political capital that would have to be expended.

Because the report involves a variety of specific programs, we tackle it in two parts; today, we look at the humanitarian angle; in a subsequent post we talk about support for denuclearization.

First, it is interesting to be reminded of how much assistance the US has provided North Korea: over $1.3 billion between 1995 and 2008, with slightly more than 50% for food aid and about 40% for energy assistance in support of denuclearization. These humanitarian and security-related efforts wound down to virtually nothing following the collapse of the Six Party Talks in late 2008.

The report tracks the slow-moving collapse of food assistance in detail. After peaking in 2001, multilateral and US food assistance to North Korea fell steadily and then dropped sharply in 2006. The North Korean government imposed new restrictions on aid agencies and NGOs in that year in response to what appeared to be improved circumstances. As is frequently the case in North Korea, these circumstances proved short-lived. Floods in 2007 and ongoing structural problems in the agricultural sector combined to produce the worst shortages since the famine.

In May 2008, the US announced it would resume food assistance with a large scale package of 500,000 MT. We have tracked the collapse of this program in some detail in previous posts and writing on the subject, but the bottom line is that a combination of worsening restrictions and faltering nuclear negotiations weakened support for the effort on both sides. By early 2009, the North Koreans had walked away from nearly 40% of the total package, a truly extraordinary abdication of responsibility.

The combination of North Korean recalcitrance and the changed political environment following the nuclear and missile tests of 2009 forced the WFP to stumble along with dramatically reduced resources. Yet a similar cycle occurred less than three years later around the so-called Leap Year deal. The administration took some significant risks in 2011. After a decent interval following the sinking of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong-do shelling in 2010, the US resumed bilateral negotiations and concluded an agreement just prior to Kim Jong Il’s death.

The Leap Year agreement included a U.S. announcement that it would provide North Korea with 240,000 metric tons (MT) of food aid, termed “nutritional assistance.” North Korea also agreed in principle to accept tougher conditions on monitoring including that the food assistance would take the form of food products (such as corn-soy blends) that are less likely to be diverted from their intended recipients, namely pregnant women and young children.

The fact that this agreement was worked out in bilateral meetings in 2011 suggests that it is possible for the US to negotiate when North Korea puts something concrete on the table. However, on March 16, 2012 North Korea announced that it would continue with its planned satellite launch in April and when it carried through on the promise the deal blew up. Whether the North Koreans saw this as reneging on their commitment or not is an interesting historical issue, but is irrelevant to the political consequences. The administration had put itself out on a limb and the North Koreans cut it off. The implications for securing support for such an agreement in the future are immense and obvious.

While aid has dried up, it did not stop after 2008 altogether. For example, following localized floods in North Korea in the summer of 2010, the Obama Administration provided about $600,000 of support for medical supplies. Although this is modest, it signaled that the US was willing at least in principle to maintain its commitment to providing humanitarian assistance as needed.

Humanitarian assistance has also gotten caught up in politics, however. Although US generosity in the famine was substantial, Congressional support for food aid is tenuous and some have opposed it altogether either for strategic reasons of pressuring the regime or because they believed it was being diverted and inadequately monitored. In June 2011, for example, the House passed an amendment by voice vote (H.Amdt. 453) that would have effectively prohibited food aid altogether. The amendment was included again in the FY2012 Agriculture Appropriations Act. The conference committee managed to strip out the stronger House language but still required that aid could only be provided if “adequate monitoring and controls” exist. President Obama signed H.R. 2112 (P.L. 112-55) into law on November 18, 2011.

In 2012, the Senate passed by a vote of 59-40 an amendment to the farm bill that prohibited federal food aid to North Korea (amendment no. 2454, roll call vote 144), but with a presidential waiver if found to be in the “national interest.” The House version of the farm contained no provisions related to food aid to North Korea but was never brought to the floor for a vote. This cycle repeated in the 113th Congress. The Senate again passed a version of the farm bill that included a prohibition on food aid, but subject to a waiver; the House version contained no such provision and the conference committee adopted the House position. This bill was signed into law in February of this year.

A recurrent theme that Marcus Noland and I have covered is a legitimate concern with monitoring. The 111th Congress’s FY2010 omnibus appropriations act called for the State Department to determine how much Pyongyang “owes” the United States for approximately 21,000 MT in U.S. food aid that the North Korean government distributed after formally canceling the 2008 program; the bill even called on the State Department to reduce any aid to North Korea by a corresponding amount unless distribution was assured to vulnerable groups.

Marc Noland’s and my position on these issues has been consistent and clear: monitoring is important, but it is never perfect and in the presence of pressing need, humanitarian principles should trump politics. But this view is not shared, and securing support for food aid since the collapse of the 2008 and Leap Year deal programs will require signs of at least a somewhat more cooperative North Korea. In the next post, we take up support for denuclearization.