The Problem With Aid to North Korea is Bigger Than Diversion

in Program

On October 23, Kee B. Park and Eliana E. Kim made a convincing case for funding the UN’s request for humanitarian assistance to North Korea. The authors argue that even if it tried, the regime could, at most, divert only negligible sums of aid money to its missile and nuclear programs. Moreover, Park and Kim claim that humanitarian aid does not take pressure off the government’s shoulders in providing for the most vulnerable among its population, as some claim. Even if aid wasn’t forthcoming, the resource allocation priorities of the North Korean regime would remain the same, and humanitarian needs would simply go wholly unfunded, rather than the North Korean regime shifting more spending toward humanitarian purposes.

The authors are likely right that the risk of direct diversion of aid funds is relatively low. North Korea as a whole is not in any major food emergency at the moment, and systematically diverting aid deliveries would likely be too difficult to warrant the potential gains. The circumstances were different in the 1990s and early 2000s, when total food availability in North Korea was low enough for it to be worthwhile for the army, for example, to divert food aid from its intended beneficiaries. (To this author’s knowledge, systematic, large-scale diversion of aid has never been fully proven, and the issue is much more complicated than it may seem at first glance).

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