A seven-member delegation from the U.S. Congress visited North Korea this week but was not permitted to visit any of the food aid distribution centers or the countryside of the impoverished nation, delegation members said Aug. 12.
“We are obviously very disappointed that we could not see more of the real famine situation,” said Florida Rep. Porter Goss, the Republican chairman of the delegation, at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
“Our greatest concern is that the food aid provided is going to those who are most in need, not only the military and political elites, but we weren’t able to see any type of food distribution center.”
The bipartisan delegation was the largest and most high-ranking group of U.S. officials to visit North Korea in the past 50 years, Goss said.
The delegation was on a fact-finding mission to assess the extent of the drought-stricken country’s famine and to investigate the current food aid distribution system, but instead engaged only in extensive policy discussions, which they described as “brutally frank.”
“There was a lot of mistrust and questions about our motives,” said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat. “North Korea feels they have been singled out for sanctions (by the U.S.).
“We explained the U.S. policy toward all nations who export weaponry to rogue nations like Iran, but really, these talks were just a very first step in confidence-building and trust between our two countries,” she said.
“The North Koreans were very candid about their famine situation. It was clear that they are profoundly embarrassed that they cannot feed their own people,” said Rep. Charles Bass, a Republican from New Hampshire. “They told us the exportation of missiles was solely for economic reasons and said, ‘If you don’t want us to sell missiles to Iran, then you buy them.'”
The U.S. government has been criticized for allegedly using food aid as a “weapon” to bring North Korea into talks with South Korea, but the delegation denied this was the case.
“The fact is the U.S. has provided $52 million this year in food aid to North Korea and that shows we have been operating in good faith,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California. “We simply need to have confidence that the food is reaching the correct people and that this dire situation of people eating grass and roots to survive is alleviated.”
The representatives all voiced doubt about the North Korean government’s explanation of the current famine.
“They gave many reasons and excuses for the famine, but it seems to be more of a chronic and systemic problem than one that has been solely caused by the drought,” Bass said. “Collective farming has caused drastic agricultural problems. But it is very clear that they are far from willing to retreat from this system.”