Before heading to North Korea this week, Franklin Graham offered a blunt assessment of the debate over whether the United States should send food aid to the reclusive North Korean regime: "It would be tragic if the United States withholds food and uses food as a weapon."
Graham's comments on Fox News revealed one side of a growing controversy: Is North Korea facing a severe food crisis, and should the United States intervene despite North Korea's dangerous belligerence? What does the answer to that question mean for millions of North Koreans trapped by a brutally abusive regime?
Graham and representatives from four other U.S.-based aid groups gave a resounding response to whether a food crisis exists after visiting North Korea in February: The team reported evidence of looming food shortages and rising malnutrition.
Heavy rains and a brutal winter in North Korea damaged crops, and rising food prices hindered the country's ability to import food. The U.S. team reported that the country's public distribution system had cut rations to about 1,250 calories a day for millions of citizens dependent on food aid for survival. They also reported that North Korean authorities estimated the country could exhaust its food stocks by mid-June.
The team said the crisis is most dangerous for the most vulnerable, including young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, the elderly, the poor, and the chronically ill. They recommended that U.S. groups should target emergency food aid to the most endangered populations.
Meanwhile, South Korean analysts say the North Korean regime is exaggerating the food crisis, pointing out that the country's food production may have increased last year and questioning whether any shortages are severe enough to induce famine. South Korea cut most of its aid to North Korea last year after the regime sunk a South Korean warship, and polls show that South Korean citizens remain opposed to food aid for their northern neighbor.
Despite South Korea's doubts, the United Nations delivered a dire report on food conditions in March, saying that a quarter of North Korea's population of 24 million citizens need urgent food aid. The report said a growing number of North Koreans were relying on wild grasses and herbs to make up for food shortages. Graham echoed that report: "We were able to go to 17 counties. They gave us access to orphanages, homes, schools. We were able to measure the arms of children to see the malnourishment. . . . The food shortages are chronic throughout the country."
Food shortages aren't new for North Korea. A famine in the 1990s killed as many as 1 million of its citizens. Delivering aid to the communist regime has been complicated: Human rights groups say government officials have often diverted food aid from a needy public to well-fed military officers and government workers.
Graham's group-North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse-is one of five U.S. aid agencies that began a food aid program in North Korea in 2008 in conjunction with the USAID, the United States' international aid arm. Three of the aid agencies in the group-known as NGO Partners-were Christian organizations.
Less than a year later, North Korea halted the food program, though the aid groups continued other relief projects in the country. By February of this year, the North Korean government had invited the groups to assess the country's food crisis and consider delivering aid again.
U.S. officials haven't indicated whether the U.S. government will reengage a food aid program. North Korea's nuclear tests and announcement of a uranium-enrichment facility have strained already-frayed relations. American officials have said they want assurances that they could directly monitor and verify that food aid is reaching needy populations-a point the secretive North Korean government may not concede.
Bruce Klingner of the conservative Heritage Foundation says the United States would also need to make sure that aid doesn't interfere with food markets in North Korea. And Klinger notes that the North Korean government manipulates markets for political ends instead of allowing them to work for the people.
"North Korea's problems are systemic, brought on by its state-run economic system and resistance to reform," Klingner wrote. "When conditions are most dire, the regime relaxes some controls and allows nascent private markets to flourish. . . . When conditions improve, the state rescinds economic freedoms and cracks down on markets." The result: "North Korea has doomed itself to being a habitual beggar, unable to feed its own people," he added.