Feeding the dictator

Kim Jong-il, the north Korean leader, bought £300m worth of weapons from
Russia at the weekend. Meanwhile, at home, millions of his people are
starving to death.

North Korea, the last bastion of Stalinism, is in the grip of an economic
crisis that has provoked famine in many parts of the country. Yet the
regime maintains the budget for its 1.1m-strong defence force. While
monuments to the grotesque personality cult of Kim Jong Il and his dead
father, Kim Il-sung, are floodlit, apartment blocks in the showcase
capital, Pyongyang, are without electricity.

Rural areas have abandoned tractors and reverted to ploughing by hand or
with livestock. Mercedes Benz belonging to the ruling elite ply the streets
of the capital, while ordinary citizens dig for roots and edible plants in
the grass strips lining the five-lane boulevards. The public distribution
system on which three-quarters of the population depend for food, only
provides rations on important dates, like the birthdays of Kim Il-sung or
Kim Jong-il.

Extrapolations from testimonies of North Korean refugees in China suggest
that up to 3.5m people might have died from starvation and related
illnesses between 1995 and 1998. Reports of deaths continue to permeate the
border, although with less frequency now: the refugees say that the weakest
have already died - the elderly, the young and the sick - leaving less
mouths to feed from the meagre food available.

All this takes place while North Korea receives one of the largest
allocations of food aid in the world - almost 1m tonnes annually. This
food, mostly channelled through the UN World Food Programme (WFP),
supposedly targets 8m of the most vulnerable North Koreans: school
children, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly and sick. Yet refugees
in China from the hard-hit northern provinces where WFP concentrates its
aid say they never received this food, despite being from the hard-hit
northern provinces where WFP concentrates its aid.

What is happening to the food aid? No one knows, not even the organisations
in charge of distributing it, because the North Korean regime does not
allow aid agencies the access necessary to ensure that aid is reaching
those for whom it is intended. All aid is channelled through the
government-run public distribution system, effectively strengthening one of
the main instruments of control at the government's disposal.

Aid agencies are permitted to "monitor" the aid, but must announce
monitoring visits one week in advance; no random visits to households,
kindergartens or schools are allowed. Aid workers have little contact with
ordinary North Koreans as a government translator accompanies them wherever
they go, and questions deemed controversial are left untranslated.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) endeavoured to overcome these restrictions
and create the minimum conditions necessary to work decently in North Korea
between 1995 and 1998, but was unsuccessful. The teams realised that the
government fabricated whatever they wanted aid workers to see: malnourished
children in nurseries when more food aid was desired, and well-fed children
when donors needed reassurance that food aid was doing good.

Refugee testimonies corroborate this: some report having carried food from
military storage to nurseries before a UN visit, and others speak of being
mobilised to dig up areas to exacerbate flood damage in preparation for a
UN inspection.

MSF began to understand that the North Korean government categorises its
population according to perceived loyalty and usefulness to the regime, and
those deemed hostile or useless were expendable. In fact, in 1996, Kim
Jong-il publicly declared that only 30% of the population needed to survive
to reconstruct a victorious society. With no possibility of directing aid
to those most in need, MSF withdrew.

Although they label their aid humanitarian, donor governments and aid
organisations keep North Korea on life support for political, economic and
diplomatic reasons. The US, Japan and South Korea are pursuing a
"soft-landing" policy aimed at avoiding an implosion of the regime which
could trigger military action or refugee flows into China and South Korea.
Food aid is aimed at opening dialogue and trust to pave the way for
controlled reunification.

Other governments, such as Australia, hope to improve ties with the regime
for future trade benefits. Most members of the EU - including Britain,
which opened an embassy in Pyongyang last month - have re-established full
diplomatic relations with the regime, thereby bestowing legitimacy on Kim
Jong-il and his clique.

While political and diplomatic engagement provides the only real means to
influence the regime, using food aid to do so in a country beset by famine
is reprehensible. The purpose of humanitarian aid is to save lives. By
channelling it through the regime responsible for the suffering, it has
become part of the system of oppression.

Fiona Terry is a researcher for Médecins Sans Frontières and president of the MSF-Australia office.