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How Should the International Community Respond to North Korea’s Request for UN Food Aid?

By Robert R. King

The North Korean Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Kim Song, last week made an urgent request on behalf of his government to the United Nations and its affiliated humanitarian agencies to provide food assistance to his country.  The request said the looming food crisis is the result of a forecast sharp drop in agricultural production this year, but also a result of stringent international sanctions imposed on the North because of its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

North Korean officials at the United Nations in New York made their request for humanitarian food assistance quite publicly.  NBC News reported that it had obtained a copy of the memorandum to United Nations officials from the North Korean UN Mission in New York.  A UN spokesperson said publicly on March 7th that North Korea had made the request to UN assistance agencies.  Pyongyang told UN officials that it is facing a shortfall of 1.4 million tons of food production this year, particularly in key crops of rice, wheat, potato, and soybean.

The timing of the request was not random.  It was made just ten days before the ill-fated Hanoi Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the end of February.  North Korea was seeking removal of international sanctions as a key objective at the summit.  Giving the request for sanctions relief a humanitarian twist was probably a key reason for the plea to the United Nations and the timing and publicity for the request.

The Effect of Sanctions on Food Supply

The North Korean narrative that sanctions are denying North Korea access to much-needed food imports for its hungry population is largely fictitious.  The sanctions regime approved by the UN Security Council are focused on limiting Pyongyang’s access to goods and financing needed for enhancing its military capability, particularly its nuclear and missile programs.  The current UN sanctions, which strengthened sanctions imposed earlier, followed the missile test of November 27, 2017 when the North tested an intercontinental ballistic missile with longer range and higher elevation than it had ever previously tested.  One month later the UN Security Council approved a series of mandatory sanctions, the toughest ever imposed on North Korea.  (The Council on Foreign Relations recently published a good primer on the sanctions.)

Security Council resolution 2397 coupled with previous sanctions still in place explicitly sought to limit Pyongyang’s expanding military capacity.  The Security Council sanctioned the importation of these products into North Korea:  aviation fuel, refined petroleum products, crude oil and natural gas;  helicopters, naval vessels, military arms, and “any item contributing to military capabilities, excluding food and medicines”;  and items related to weapons of mass destruction and dual-use items that could be used for the building of such weapons.

The sanctions on the importation of such goods by North Korea or the export of such goods to North Korea by UN member states is not the cause of severe food shortages in the North.  Even the sanctions on petroleum products likely have minimal impact on agricultural production because farms in the North are not highly mechanized.  Restrictions of farm equipment and spare parts for farm equipment also have minimal impact for the same reason, and exceptions for farm equipment are possible if the North can provide end-use assurances to be certain that such equipment is not for military use.

The sanctions also ban the export to North Korea of luxury goods, such as high-end automobiles, expensive liquors, designer clothes, etc.  Time Magazine discussed North Korea’s import of luxury goods during Kim Jong-un’s first year in office in an article entitled: “North Korea’s Kim Spending Big on Cars, Cognac, and Pianos.”  In that first year as Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un reportedly spent $645 million with some estimates suggesting as much as $800 million spent on luxury goods.  Obviously that was part of the effort by the newly installed leader to win the “loyalty” of his supporters in the elite.  According to a South Korean lawmaker, in 2017 Pyongyang spending on luxury goods was still some $640 million.

Sanctions also prohibit key North Korea exports, and this has reduced resources available to Pyongyang for the purchase of goods from abroad—both military equipment and raw materials needed for domestic production of military goods, and also for food, if the regime makes the decision to purchase food for the masses rather than just luxuries for the elite.

Prohibited goods from North Korea include raw materials mined there—coal;  iron, lead, copper, nickel, zinc, and rare earth minerals, either processed or ore;  North Korean-produced monumental statues (an important North Korean export to dictatorships, particularly in Africa) or other manufactured goods, unless approval is granted in advance by the UN Sanctions enforcement committee.  Export of seafood is also prohibited.  Seafood has been a lucrative export in the past.  Furthermore, the export of North Korean labor to foreign countries has been prohibited.  All foreign laborers working abroad when the sanctions were imposed are to return to North Korea by December 2019.  (Russia appears to be violating this sanction provision, which suggests that enforcement of UN sanctions is far from perfect.)

The key question regarding sanctions and their impact on access to food for the North Korean people is this:  Would Pyongyang buy food or devote resources to the development of the agriculture and food production sectors of its economy if greater resources were available?  Past experience clearly indicates no.  A key conclusion of the 2014 UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s human rights situation, concluded:

“The State [North Korea] has consistently failed in its obligation to use the maximum of its available resources to feed those who are hungry.  Military spending—predominantly on hardware and the development of weapons systems and the nuclear programme—has always been prioritized, even during periods of mass starvation. . . . Large amounts of state resources, including parallel funds directly controlled by the Supreme Leader, have been spent on luxury goods and the advancement of his personality cult instead of providing food to the starving general population.”  (Paragraph 51, Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, UN Human Rights Council, 7 February 2014.)


Though the Commission of Inquiry report was issued five years ago, there is nothing even to suggest that its conclusions are no longer valid.  The regime of Kim Jong-un has continued the same practices followed by his father and grandfather toward vast majority of the inhabitants of North Korea.  There nothing to suggest that lifting sanctions against Pyongyang would free resources that would be used to improve access to food and medicines for the people of North Korea.

Natural Disasters and Failure to Prepare for Them

The other cause of food shortages in North Korea cited by the memorandum from North Korea’s permanent representative to the United Nations is natural disasters—record high temperatures, drought, and heavy rainfall.

Agriculture in the North has inherent problems.  The country is more mountainous than the southern half of the peninsula.  But decades of poor agricultural practice and lack of proper investment under the Kim regimes have contributed to lower output.  South Korea, which has more favorable land for farming, has much the same temperatures and rainfall, and is subject to the same drought and floods as the North.  The South, however, has followed better agricultural practices and put greater investment into the rural sector.

Thus, the problem is not greater natural disasters and climate difficulties in the North, but rather an inadequate response from Pyongyang than what we have seen from Seoul in dealing with these same issues.  North Korea has neither prepared for nor effectively dealt with the predictable natural disasters.  The North has failed to provide adequate investment in agricultural infrastructure and sufficient inputs.  Instead, government funds have gone to the military, nuclear and missile programs, and investment in projects to entertain the elite (Masikryong Luxury Ski Resort, the Dolphinarium and riding stable in Pyongyang among other luxuries in the capital city).

The UN has confirmed the food shortages in the North, and the problems are serious.  The United Nation’s resident coordinator for UN programs in North Korea, Tapan Mishra, reported that there is a “significant food gap” in the North.  He said that 10.9 million people in the country, or 43 percent of the population, need humanitarian assistance, some 600,000 more than last year.  The UN reported that “widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition.”

UN officials were not explicit, but the figures they are using have been provided by the North Korean government, which does raise questions.  At the same time, however, Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, a North Korean agricultural specialist, suggests that agricultural output between 2017 and 2018 dropped by 19 percent.  The problem is indeed a serious one.

Appeals by UN humanitarian agencies for UN member states to aid the North have received less support than needed.  Just a few days ago, the UN made an urgent appeal for $120 million “to urgently provide life-saving aid to 3.8 million people.  Last year the UN appealed for $111 million to help 6 million of North Korea’s most vulnerable people.  The appeal received only 24 percent of what was requested—one of the lowest levels of response to a UN appeal in the world.  The March 2018 similar forecast and appeal for urgent humanitarian assistance was preceded by a similar appeal in March 2017.

The tepid international reaction to UN appeals for aid to North Korea is in part the fault of the policies of the North.  The significantly increased attention and focus on human rights violations in the North since the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry into North Korea’s human rights issues have raised international concern.  Pyongyang’s increased nuclear and missile testing under Kim Jong-un since 2012 has further eroded international support and sympathy for Pyongyang.  The priority of Kim Jong-un in testing and building nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems has made it much more difficult to gain international sympathy, even in the face of serious humanitarian threats.

Humanitarian Assistance Can Be Delivered in Appropriate Ways

The Kim regime wants food assistance, but providing food to the masses is not a high enough priority for that government to reorder its priorities or change its policies to provide the food through its own resources.  Simply eliminating the budget for elite luxuries, for example, would provide more than five times the amount the UN seeks to raise through voluntary contributions.

Nevertheless, something can be done.  It is important to keep in mind that the suffering people of North Korea—particularly children who are its most tragic victims—are not responsible.  A national election was just held in North Korea, but there was no choice of candidates for the Supreme People’s Assembly.  Even if there were real choices, the rubber-stamp Assembly has no power to alter the policies of the Kim regime.  It is difficult under these conditions to hold the victims responsible for their lack of food.

The United Nations has provided food assistance to North Korea for decades, and the UN humanitarian agencies, particularly the World Food Programme and UNICEF, have experience in delivering nutritional aid to children and families in ways that assure it reaches the intended recipients.  Pyongyang will struggle to control the distribution, but UN agencies have dealt with such problems in North Korea and elsewhere for decades and are effective in doing so.  The United States and other UN members should respond positively to the appeal from UN agencies.  The UN agencies have a track record of assuring that aid for those in need gets those who need help.

Furthermore, the United States should not oppose UN assistance to North Korea, and the UN sanctions regime should not be used to limit food and other humanitarian aid to the North.  It is likely that Congress will balk at the United States providing direct food assistance to North Korea, even by providing funds through experienced UN humanitarian agencies.  But there are other ways the United States can help those most in need in North Korea.

In the lead up to the Hanoi summit between President Trump and supreme leader Kim Jong-un, U.S. government officials indicated they were easing restrictions on private American humanitarian organizations providing aid to North Koreans.  There was hope that this might allow private assistance efforts to help fill the gap.  There are indications, however, that the U.S. administration is backsliding on its commitment.  The United States should encourage responsible private humanitarian efforts to continue and support, not obstruct, those efforts.  These organizations understand North Korea and are experienced in assessing need and assuring appropriate distribution of assistance.

The United States can—and should—work actively and aggressively to move North Korea to nuclear disarmament and reduce tensions with North Korea.  At the same time, the U.S. can—and should—provide humanitarian food, medical, and other assistance to the people of North Korea.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Todd Mecklam’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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