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North Korea refuses food aid shipments smaller than 300 tons

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presides over a military parade on April 15, 2017. (Yonhap News/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)
June 08, 2019
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This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea is refusing food aid in small lots, despite repeatedly asking the international community for assistance as food shortages continue in the isolated state, sources in the country told RFA’s Korean Service.

The discrepancy is related to the size of aid packages. Pyongyang does not want to bother with donations on a smaller scale, but is more than willing to accept large-scale aid from prominent international organizations.

An RFA report from last month said that Pyongyang even exaggerates the severity of food shortages in hopes of landing a bigger aid-package than it actually needs from the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

But the refusal of small-scale food aid has North Korean residents and even high-ranking officials baffled, sources say.

“According to [new] rules, if an overseas private organization offers food aid, [we] can only accept 300 tons or more,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Saturday.

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The source explained that the directive was passed down from the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party to the People’s Committees in each province, city and county.

“High-ranking officials and the organizations they lead have been anxiously waiting for outside food aid. They are now at a loss,” said the source, explaining that the officials find the minimum to be too high.

“The officials says they can’t understand why the Central Committee would boldly [reject] free food, since they are in desperate need, even if it’s only a ton,” the source said.

The new policy is in stark contrast with previous attitudes towards aid.

“In the past, when we received food aid from foreign private organizations, we accepted donations of any size, even if it’s only 100 or 200 tons,” said the source, adding that the government used to publicly rationalize accepting aid, especially from South Korea.

“They said, ‘Does rice have ideology? Accepting free food is our strategic victory’,” said the source.

The source argued that only accepting large donations would discourage small private organizations from even trying to send aid.

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“Until now, food from foreign private organizations has usually been corn, beans and flour, all of which are less expensive than rice. Three-hundred tons of corn costs about 100,000 dollars, and that’s too much for a small private organization to raise [for a single donation],” the source added.

The move is especially baffling considering that private aid can be accepted without the conditions and monitoring that larger aid requires. The North Korean government has drawn the ire of the international community for channeling aid to the military at the expense of its citizens in the past.

“If a foreign private organization shows its intention to provide food aid to a [North Korean organization, the organization] has to report it to Pyongyang immediately.  Private food aid does not require a regular distribution process, so ordinary residents are excluded, and it is distributed to the military, judicial authorities, and administrative officials through the economic cooperation bureau and food distribution bureau,” the source said.

A second source told RFA on the same day, “Pyongyang has issued an order saying that we shouldn’t accept food aid under 300 tons. These days, residents, especially farmers, are suffering from food shortages, and the authorities are giving [us these] absurd instructions.”

“In mid-May, a private U.S. organization expressed their intention to provide food aid to North Korea. However, their offer was immediately denied because they only offered 25 tons,” the second source said.

“The organization is a charity organization that has continued to provide food aid to malnourished children and senior citizens in North Korea for years. However, the aid got suspended this time because it did not meet the Central Committee’s standard,” the second source said.

“One kilo of corn is traded for 1.8 to 2 Chinese Yuan (between 26 and 29 cents) at local markets. 300 tons is equivalent to 600,000 Chinese Yuan (about $87,000),” said the second source.

According to the second source, authorities have publicly rationalized the policy, saying it is a means of protecting the country and its people.

“The Central Committee says that foreign private organizations are trying to disrupt the people’s thoughts by infiltrating the country under the pretext of small amounts of food aid. But, there is a growing discontent among the residents wondering what [the Central Committee] is afraid of and why they can’t even accept free food.”

On Wednesday in Seoul, the South Korean Ministry of Unification-affiliated South and North Exchange and Cooperation Promotion Council approved a donation of US$8 million to support United Nations humanitarian programs in the North. Of this $4.5 million will go to the WFP and $3.5 million to Unicef.

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