There are doubts over a World Food Program (WFP) report calling for urgent food assistance to North Korea, where some 40 percent of the population is suffering from food shortages. Fanning the doubts, some reports claim that rice prices in markets in major North Korean cities have declined by 20 percent over the last six months. Lee Hye-hoon, chairwoman of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee, also said recently that it was “hard” to call for food assistance to North Koreans for humanitarian reasons because they are being starved to death.
If rice prices, an indicator of North Korean’s livelihood, are falling, it is difficult to say that the international body’s report that the North is suffering from its worst food crisis in a decade properly reflects the reality. This is why there are claims that the North’s food crisis has been exaggerated. Some attribute the recent rice price falls to Pyongyang’s release of rice reserves and the arrival of food assistance from China and Russia. Still, it is hard to say that North Korea is in a situation of an urgent humanitarian crisis.
Some experts question the international body’s survey. David Beasley, executive director of the WFP who recently visited Seoul, said the North had granted him “unprecedented” access. However, WFP researchers were able to base their analyses only on data provided the North Korean government and conduct field surveys only at places they were allowed to visit. They could not have conducted proper observation of the reality under such circumstances. It is said that the WFP investigators could not perform field surveys at marketplaces. Considering that most North Koreans except elites and soldiers who are under the ration system depend on marketplaces, failure to include market research could not have resulted in an accurate report.
North Korea has recently been making outright provocation against South Korea with ballistic missiles. The North’s propaganda media criticize Seoul for “making a fuss” about humanitarian projects for North Korea. This is why there are concerns that food assistance would only replenish the Kim Jong Un regime’s military provisions. Humanitarian aid is needed any time. However, it would not be too late to provide it after making a proper assessment of the North’s food situation and securing transparency in distribution.