Features

Window of lost opportunity

"Window of lost opportunity" Continued...

Issue: "Rita: Strike 2," Oct. 1, 2005

The diversion does not only involve the North Korean military and Communist Party elite seizing grain for themselves. Rather, food is going into a system of informal and black markets that grew out of the famine, and have been partially legitimized through economic reforms. There it can fetch much higher prices than what is subject to price controls in the public distribution system. That creates incentives to divert food for political and military officials who direct the supply of aid.

North Korea's government distribution system only supplies about half the daily food needs of its people. Food bought on the market is helping make up the difference, but prices three to four times higher are hurting poorer North Koreans-under the auspices of "reforms" that have stratified society and entrenched elites.

For WFP, losing its food aid arrangement with Pyongyang is just the latest setback endured at the hands of the North Korean regime. The program has 40 international staff in the country but, like other nonprofits, is not allowed to have Korean-speaking staff. Government-supplied interpreters owe their first allegiance to the country's Flood Damage Rehabilitation Committee. Only last year were WFP staffers allowed to begin Korean-language lessons.

Access around the country is also limited: WFP is allowed in only 160 of 203 counties. For WFP staff, visiting distribution points can be bewildering. With official drivers ferrying them to different centers, aid workers cannot tell from the Korean signs if they are in the right place. In one case, the report said, workers suspected they had been taken to the same institution twice.

By contrast, China and South Korea issue few demands for accountability. China even delivers its food directly to the North Korean military, Messrs. Haggard and Noland reported, so that the international community cannot accuse Pyongyang of diverting its multilateral aid. South Korea presents its aid as a loan, though neither its leaders nor those in the North really expect repayment.

"With China and South Korea providing large amounts of loosely conditioned assistance, as one North Korean put it-referring to multilaterals such as the WFP-'Why should we bother?'" said Mr. Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics.

A survey of 1,000 North Korean refugees underscored the difficulties of working there: Only 63 percent even knew that foreign aid was available in their country. Only 7 percent of them reported receiving any aid.

But even with food aid diverted and official obfuscation, some supplies are reaching vulnerable North Koreans. The partial diversion into the market also lowers food prices, which means not having WFP aid could raise the cost of food. An emerging class of urban workers outside Pyongyang, in particular, is growing more needy. "Important recipients of its aid-they're going to be hurt by this decision," Mr. Noland said. "The elite's not going to be hurt."

The potential exit of the WFP in North Korea would mean less scrutiny of Kim Jong Il's secretive regime, a win for party officials. With U.S. concessions in six-party talks as well, Mr. Kim had a successful month in September. The only losers, for now, are his barely subsistent citizens.

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