Foreign Policy Blogs

“Let Them Eat Grass”

The UN believes as many as 23 million North Koreans are suffering from hunger

Two weeks ago the European Union announced that it intends to provide $14.5 million in emergency food aid to North Korea. According to the statement released by the EU, after visiting North Korea in June, monitors judged the situation to be: “Increasingly desperate and extreme measures are being taken by the hard-hit North Koreans, including the widespread consumption of grass.”

While there is no question that the conditions of North Korean people are dire, it is questionable whether EU aid will benefit the citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the long term. North Koreans need a state that prioritizes the basic needs of its people over its military ambitions. By continuing to provide aid, the EU is just encouraging and enabling poor governance—the cause of food insecurity in the first place.

The behavior of both North Korea and the EU is all too familiar. Up to fifty percent of the aid provided to North Korea in the past is believed to have gone towards feeding the DPRK’s military and fattening the pockets of government elites. Western powers are equally responsible for the cycle of starvation in North Korea. The US provided food and fuel to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization, when the DPRK had already agreed to cease and dismantle any nuclear projects. There is no evidence that the EU’s aid package is anything but “buy[ing] the same horse twice” in the words of former Secretary Gates. The World Food Program will disperse the EU’s aid, which was responsible for negotiating and monitoring the distribution of the majority of aid in the past. North Korean supply chains will still be used to deliver the aid and the WFP will merely monitor, observe, and audit.

At the heart of this problem is the question of whether humanitarian aid can be ideologically separated from foreign policy in the case of North Korea. It has generally been the approach of both the US and European nations to conceptualize humanitarian assistance as apolitical. Well-respected and highly visible dignitaries, such as President Jimmy Carter, have declared US refusal to provide food aid to the people of North Korea is a “human rights violation.” Yet, North Korea has shown that its strategy is to play off of this western moral stance. By providing even this relatively small amount of aid, the EU may only be prolonging the suffering of North Koreans, delaying the emergence of a government that is willing to take steps to solve it own food shortage problems.

One my favorite definitions of insanity is the repetition of the same action and expecting a different result. There is nothing in the EU’s announcement to indicate that their aid package will be anything but business as usual. If the aid is never going to arrive and worse line the pockets of those who starve their people, the West should either give the aid to those who are guaranteed to receive it or wait for North Korea to agree to extraordinarily different set of conditions for receiving aid. Perhaps in the meantime North Koreans will take their fate into their own hands and decide to take action against the government that has basically said “let them eat grass!”



Caroline Anne Sapp
Caroline Anne Sapp

Caroline Anne is a recent graduate from the University of St Andrew's School of International Relations with an MLitt in International Security Studies. She specializes in Asian Security and US Foreign Policy, Rule of Law, and Irregular Warfare. She has done stints at the US Department of State, the US Senate, and the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. She received her BA in History and International Affairs from Sweet Briar College.

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