An Overview of Humanitarian Aid to North Korea

By Jacob Wang (PO ’21)

The year 1995 was a turning point for the relationship between the United States and North Korea; prior to 1995, both countries refused to have any substantial contact with each other. The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) constantly and vehemently criticized the U.S. for imperialist capitalism and its support for South Korea. On the other side, the U.S. froze virtually all forms of economic transactions with the North Korea in an attempt to delegitimize and weaken the hermit regime. The North Korean famine between 1994 and 1998 broke the ice. Commonly known as the “Assiduous March or The March of Suffering in North Korea,” the famine was caused by a variety of reasons: the loss of Soviet bloc partners that diminished 80% of its trade volumes, failed agricultural reforms, outdated equipment, strict control of population movement, interdiction of private markets, restriction on private farming land, inequitable Public Distribution System (PDS), and devastating floods. Out of desperation, in September 1995, North Korea officially announced a food shortage, which it blamed on the flood, and requested the assistance from the World Food Programme (WFP) for the very first time.

The complex history of U.S. foreign aid to North Korea has much relevance today in terms of helping countries that are still delivering humanitarian aid to North Korea distribute aid more precisely to the most needed locales and demographics.

China, South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have been the four biggest contributors of food aid to North Korea, accounting for over 75% of the total donations since 1995. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung initiated the ““Sunshine Policy”” in 1998 to soften the belligerent attitude of North Korea by providing economic support. For China, it is in the interest of its national security to prevent its communist neighbor from collapsing as North Korea acts as a buffer zone between the US-backed South Korea and China. Such relationship is reportedly depicted by Mao Zedong as “being as close as lips and teeth.” According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance. However, in early 2009, when North Korea launched a suspected long-range missile in April and tested a nuclear device in May, the US halted its support to North Korea while South Korea continued sending aid at a reduced level.

U.S. aid to North Korea came as food aid, energy, and technicians mobilized to dismantle nuclear structures. Under the US-DPRK Agreed Framework of 1994, North Korea agreed to freeze and break down its nuclear program in exchange for two light-water nuclear reactors, heavy fuel oil, and US reduction in trade barriers and financial transactions.

The aid program from the U.S. lasted eight years uninterrupted until a significant portion of the program was suspended due to alleged violations of at least one side. In the fall of 2002, North Korea clandestinely developed a uranium-based nuclear project while the U.S.’ construction of two light-water reactors was far behind schedule. As tension increased, U.S. energy aid to North Korea was permanently terminated since 2003 while the food aid was temporarily suspended from 2006 to 2007. In 2007, another set of agreements was reached in Six-Party Talks- a multilateral negotiation representing North Korea, South Korea, U.S., Russia, Japan, and China. The U.S. agreed to resume food aid to North Korea under the condition that North Korea would dismantle their nuclear project. This agreement was short lived, as two years later, North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the Six-Party Talks after the UN security council condemned it for launching another round of nuclear test. Since 2009, the U.S. virtually ceased all its aid programs to North Korea.

Typical U.S. policy de-links food and humanitarian aid from strategic interests. However, some experts argue that the aid was often politicized, and the U.S. used humanitarian aid as a leverage to negotiate North Korea’s denuclearization process. Regardless of the linkage, sending humanitarian aid to North Korea proved to be an extremely complex issue. For example, the food aid is, reported by various sources, to be diverted to the military, the elite, and resale in private market rather than the targeted recipients such as children, pregnant women.

Given the current political climate, the likelihood of the U.S. resuming its humanitarian aid to North Korea appears slim. However, lessons can be learned from past mistakes to help other countries distribute distribute aid to the most needed regions and demographics. For example, sending food aid to the Northern regions of North Korea, where the famine inflicted most severely and requiring UN representatives to be be stationed in these places would be effective measures to maximize the utility of humanitarian aid.  

Ensuring that countries such as China and South Korea are enacting comparable level of monitoring food aid to North Korea is crucial. For much of the 2000s, attempts to pressure North Korea to conform to the international humanitarian aid standards was often undermined by South Korea and China’s unconditional delivery of aid to Pyongyang. While the tensions between North Korea and other countries were initiated due to the whims of North Korean leaders, its famined citizens are by no means complicit. Therefore, a precisely targeted humanitarian aid to North Korea’s impoverished people and regions is imperative.


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