Food Aid Can Change North Korea

Katharina Zellwegger in her office at Stanford University’s Asia Pacific Research Center. Ms. Zellwegger recently ended a five-year stint as head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Pyongyang. She joins Stanford’s Korea Studies Program as the 2011-12 Pantech Fellow. Photo courtesy of Sangsoo Lim, Yonhap News.

Five years in North Korea might seem like a prison sentence for most, but for Katharina Zellwegger life in the Stalinist state’s capital Pyongyang felt “normal.” Indeed, she concedes from her new office in Stanford’s Asia Pacific Research Center, she misses the “lively social life” she enjoyed with fellow expats and North Koreans alike.

From October of 2006 to September of this year, Zellwegger served as head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in North Korea. A long time humanitarian aid worker with more than three decades of experience, she says the people she came to know during her time in North Korea were “just like you and me.”

Days off were spent hiking, picnicking and “swapping recipes” with friends and coworkers, activities that belie the traditional image in the West of a bleak, lifeless society.

A photo hangs on her wall, with Zellwegger standing beside a group of smiling North Korean women with whom she shared her office. Their faces are slightly gaunt. “You just don’t see obese people in North Korea,” Zellwegger points out, hinting at the other, more widely discussed aspect of North Korea, namely its chronic food shortages.

Zellwegger says images from the mid-1990s, during her initial visits to the country as it was suffering through a famine that killed upwards of 3 million, continue to haunt her. Visiting orphanages around the capital, she recalls, “I knew in 2-3 weeks time that these children would no longer be there. Those memories follow you.”

“We cannot allow North Korea to fall back into that situation,” she insists.

While conditions in North Korea today have improved, Zellwegger says the food situation is still “difficult,” with chronic malnutrition permanently afflicting untold millions, especially those most vulnerable.

“The children are all stunted,” she says, pointing to photos of rosy-cheeked children in tattered clothes and rubber shoes. Reports consistently point to a dramatic difference in height between North Korean children and their South Korean counterparts. “The effects of malnutrition don’t show on their faces,” she explains. “You see it around here,” she continues, gesturing to the area around her chest.

According to estimates by the World Food Program (WFP), North Korea’s annual harvest is expected to increase by about 8.5 percent from last year, though Zellwegger notes the country will still see a shortfall of about 739,000 metric tons of food this year. While the government plans to import 325,000 tons commercially, that still leaves around 414,000 tons needed to meet demand.

That last figure is equivalent to about two months of public rations, says Zellwegger, who notes that during the “barley season,” or late spring and early summer when food levels begin to dip ahead of the fall harvest, rations amount to around 150 grams per day per person. “That’s less than a hamburger and a Mars bar per day,” says Zellwegger.

Despite the clear need, however, donor countries remain reluctant to provide aid, for fear of bolstering what they see as a belligerent and hostile regime that is just as likely to siphon monetary donations toward the military and ruling elite as it is to ensure such contributions reach the intended recipients.

That the U.S. shares this concern was apparent in a quote by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who recently told the New York Times that one of his agency’s goals “is to identify and complete an assessment of whether food aid assistance can effectively be provided in a manner that is transparent and targeted and reaches intended beneficiaries and avoids the risk of graft and misappropriation.”

Shah made the comment while in South Korea to attend an annual meeting of international aid donors. Aid organizations like SDC and Mercy Corps have criticized Washington for playing politics with food aid, a position shared by Zellwegger. “Food aid should be detached from politics,” she says, countering critics who say that in North Korea that isn’t possible.

“The world was more open to helping North Korea [in the 1990s] than it is today,” explains Zellwegger. What is needed, she says, are “planned food interventions,” carried out by organizations like the WFP, which has 15 years of experience working in North Korea. “They know how to plan,” she says.

Still, Zellwegger notes that the WFP only received 31 percent of its planned budget in terms of food aid for this year.

The alternative to aid is ratcheting up efforts to further isolate the regime in Pyongyang, essentially starving the populace and thereby discrediting the leadership’s mandate to rule. Such is the approach taken in Seoul, which in 2008 elected conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who immediately ended ten years of humanitarian and economic support under the so-called “Sunshine Policy.” The move plummeted inter-Korean relations to historic lows, heightening fears of renewed conflict on the peninsula.

“The average North Korean wakes up and thinks: Do we have enough to eat? Is anyone ill? Can my kids go to school? Is there water? People cannot think of change when they are worried about their most basic needs,” explains Zellwegger.

As far as whether or not food aid can help foster positive change in the country, Zellwegger says that in the past couple of years there has been a growing interest in doing business with the outside world. Besides food and agricultural aid, SDC has also engaged in business training for North Koreans, exposing them to free market principles and practices. “North Koreans realize they need to understand these things in order to create a win-win situation.”

Should the food situation deteriorate, such movement toward greater openness and cooperation with the outside world is likely to falter. On the other hand, ensuring that North Koreans don’t go hungry can help foster the kind of environment conducive to ending six decades of hostilities with the wider world.

“Food aid,” says Zellwegger, “sets capacity free.”

This story was originally published by New America Media. Reprinted here with permission.