The European Union announced July 4 it would provide €10 million of emergency food aid to North Korea through the World Food Program (WFP) until the end of September — before this year’s harvest.

This aid represents a much delayed response to an initial request for humanitarian assistance sent by North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun on Jan. 24. The letter thanked the EU for earlier assistance and requested 100,000 tons of emergency food aid and fertilizer for this year’s farming. The letter noted that while the WFP and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had conducted a crop and food security mission in the autumn of 2010, which had estimated for North Korea’s production a shortfall of 867,000 tons of food, this initial estimate had proved over-optimistic, as heavy rain and floods affected the final grain harvest and kimchi production — the winter vegetable staple of North Korea — in August and September.

The public distribution system, which once supplied everything then limited to providing fitful supplies of rice and other cereals, has apparently delivered nothing in Pyongyang since March. And recent floods bode ill for early 2011.

Those likely to suffer most will be in the small cities of the northeast of the country, squeezed between mountains and the sea with little local agriculture, barely any functioning industry compared to a generation ago, and little capital equipment to scavenge and sell.

Distribution problems may make food availability problematic. Even where it is available, it may no longer be accessible in the new monetary economy of North Korea. Apparently, the need was so desperate that Mr. Pak said, “My hope is that if the EU finds it difficult to allocate extra budget for food and fertilizer it would reallocate all of the earmarked 2010-2011 budget to the DPRK for food.”

Certainly Pyongyang’s claims of an emerging crisis were backed up by normally trustworthy people on the ground in North Korea, who reported the particular problems in the urban northeast and a more general food shortage. Yet, what should have been a fairly straight forward decision on humanitarian grounds swiftly became entangled in Peninsula politics. The Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul was still smarting from the sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March last year as well as the artillery barrage launched against the fortress island of Yeonpyeong in November.

Demanding apologies for both and for an earlier incident in 2008, when a tourist died in North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang resort, they were in the mood to use any means possible to pressure the North. Their response to the initial request for emergency food aid was to claim that this was primarily an attempt to build up food stocks so that the North’s rulers could organize a real blowout for the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth.

The WFP/FAO/UNICEF organized a Rapid Food Security Assessment Mission that produced, late in March, a confirmation of Pyongyang’s claims and an even gloomier assessment of the situation. The situation was far worse than Pyongyang had claimed.

The March 24 report indicated that more than 6 million people were in urgent need of international food assistance, recommending the delivery of 430,000 tons of food as stocks would be exhausted by May, remarking that “the suspension of assistance from ROK over the past couple of years has had a substantial negative impact on the food security situation.”

Nevertheless, in a political climate where the North was a pariah state, the result was deemed inconclusive by Washington, Seoul and Brussels, and nothing was done.

In April, a group from Nelson Mandela’s “Elders” visited Pyongyang, led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. After visiting areas around Pyongyang, Mr. Carter said, “One of the most important human rights is to have food to eat, and for South Korea and the United States and others to withhold food aid to the North Korean people is really a human rights violation.”

In June, Brussels sent a mission to North Korea. Their report echoed that of the WFP/FAO/UNICEF in March: “Clearly, North Korea’s chronic nutrition problem is turning into an acute crisis in some parts of the country” and “the purpose of this aid is to save the lives of at least 650,000 people. Our experts saw severely malnourished children in hospitals and nurseries where no treatment is available.”

In the face of the stark facts, Brussels relented and became the first major donor in this famine after Sweden to break the malign neglect of North Korea’s request for emergency aid almost six months after the initial request. The EU has laid down firm conditions for distribution, focusing assistance regionally and demographically in the northeast of the country and to children, pregnant and nursing women, hospital patients and the elderly.

EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva made clear that “if at any stage we discover that the aid is being diverted from its intended recipients, then the Commission will not hesitate to end its intervention.”

The €10 million will purchase 50,000 tons of wheat or up to 30,000 tons of rice, well short of what was requested let alone what is needed. Will others now follow?

Glyn Ford, a former member of the European Parliament and its delegation to the Korean Peninsula, is the author of “North Korea on the Brink: Struggle for Survival,” published in English, Japanese and Korean.

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