Ten Questions for the World Food Programme on Emergency Food Aid to North Korea

May 21, 2019

Photo: Pujon County, North Korea, June 25, 2014, by Clay Gililand via Flickr

Commentary by NCNK Executive Director Keith Luse

North Korea’s population is in a perpetual state of food insecurity due to factors including their government's routine allocation of resources toward priorities other than agriculture and food imports. According to the UN agencies operating in the country, a lack of arable land; increasingly frequent extreme weather events; and the unintended consequences of sanctions are also contributing to North Korea's chronic food shortages.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Food Programme recently released the “FAO/WFP Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment” which concluded that “the food insecurity situation is serious and could become critical during the upcoming lean season.” The assessment also stated that “a humanitarian intervention is therefore urgently required to mitigate the food production shortfall.”

(In addition to its crisis response role, WFP is already providing “specialized nutritious food to around a million pregnant women, nursing mothers and children, helping to reduce acute and chronic malnutrition” in North Korea.)

The monitoring and oversight mechanisms for an expanded WFP initiative providing emergency food aid to North Koreans will be critical for ensuring that this assistance gets to its intended recipients. Additionally, potential donors will likely be more willing to contribute to this emergency relief program if they are confident that sufficient monitoring mechanisms are in place.

Based upon the content of the FAO/WFP assessment and additional news reports highlighting the reported food crisis in North Korea, I would therefore pose the following questions to the World Food Programme for review:

  1. What kind of monitoring the WFP will require in order to ensure that future food aid will reach intended recipients, and how will this compare to the monitoring mechanisms implemented for the WFP's ongoing nutritional support programs?

  2. Will Korean-speaking monitors, other than locally-hired North Koreans, be allowed to participate in the distribution and monitoring process?

  3. The household survey portion of the 2019 WFP/FAO assessment was based on interviews with only 54 households in 12 counties. When initiating the survey, how many households and counties did the WFP and FAO originally request access to?

  4. Were the households selected for the survey determined by the DPRK Central Bureau of Statistics, or were the WFP/FAO experts able to freely select any households?

  5. How might have the speed of the WFP/FAO assessment and the relatively limited number and geographic scope of household interviews affected the veracity of its findings?

  6. How many North Korean counties are permanently inaccessible to the WFP, and what is the total estimated population in those counties?

  7. What percentage of an expanded food assistance program would be directed to households in Pyongyang versus the rest of the country?

  8. Did the WFP/FAO survey mission request access to markets by technical experts, or to DPRK data on market trends and prices?

  9. Is the WFP able to provide an estimate of the proportion of the non-farm DPRK households that are reliant on markets for their food consumption, either as a supplement to the Public Distribution System or as an alternative to it?

  10. Among DPRK households that rely on markets for food security, has the WFP been able to observe any significant changes this year in household purchasing power or the availability of food?

This commentary reflects the views only of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Committee on North Korea.