Two U.S. envoys are meeting with North Korean officials in Beijing this week to discuss the delivery of 240,000 metric tons of food aid Washington has pledged to provide the North. The talks, which begin on Wednesday and could stretch to Thursday, will focus on finalizing the details for the delivery of the aid and monitoring its distribution.
Robert King, the special envoy for human rights in North Korea, and Jon Brause, a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for the talks, which could move forward the first round of food aid in nearly three years.
◆ Key Issue
U.S. food assistance to North Korea stopped in 2009, when North Korea expelled U.S. food monitors. One key detail the two envoys will seek to resolve is how the distribution of aid to North Koreans will be monitored to ensure it reaches those who need it the most.
Impoverished North Korea has long suffered from chronic food shortages, and despite a better-than-usual harvest last year, United Nations agencies estimate the country is currently suffering a deficit of more than 400,000 metric tons of food.
David Austin, North Korea program director with Mercy Corps, says the initial offering of food aid will go a long way to helping North Koreans because it targets those who are the most vulnerable -- young children and pregnant women.
"In the last year, we've seen a rise in what we call acute malnutrition, which is when somebody no longer has stopped growing, but now they are dying and their body is shutting down," he said. "And so, we have visually confirmed that in several locations in multiple provinces in different institutions -- children's homes, hospitals, clinics -- people are not getting enough to eat and now they are dying."
Mercy Corps is a U.S. non-governmental organization that has worked with Washington and other American NGO's in the past to help distribute and monitor the distribution of food aid in North Korea.
◆ Long-term Food Shortages
In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands, if not a million North Koreans died from starvation. Persistent and long-term food shortages continue to plague the country and according to a UN survey 32 percent of children in North Korea are suffering from stunted growth. In some provinces that figure is as high as 45 percent.
Austin says there is an entire generation of North Koreans who are already much shorter than their South Korean counterparts. "When kids don't get enough food to eat, not only do they stop growing physically, but developmentally they stop growing and it's something that they can never recover from," he said. "So, if we don’t intervene in these kids lives now, we don't get the chance to do any kind of corrective work later."
◆ Different New Deal
Concerns about the diversion of aid to the privileged or the military has long been a concern of food assistance deals in North Korea, but aid workers say the new deal is different because it focuses on a specific demographic.
U.S. officials say that if all goes well in their final negotiations with their North Korean counterparts, they hope to create what will be the most thoroughly monitored and managed programs since the U.S. began assistance to the North in the mid-1990s. They say it is crucial that partner organizations helping with the distribution of the aid will be on the ground in North Korea and fully operational before the nutritional assistance arrives.
The United Nations Children's Fund, which is already on the ground in North Korea, working to help alleviate the problem of malnutrition and other other health problems, has welcomed the prospect of more aid.
Bijaya Rajbhandari, the representative for UNICEF in North Korea, says the aid from the U.S. could complement their efforts that are already ongoing in 25 of North Korea's 209 counties.
"We are also looking into not just focusing on the food, but in taking an integrated approach to nutrition, which is also related to the health and water sanitation situation," said Rajbhadari. "I think we need to look at a more integrated approach when it comes to the reduction of malnutrition among children."
Rajbhandari adds his organization would like to expand the scope of their work as funding becomes available. UNICEF made a request late last year for about $20 million in funding for their work, but until now has only received a third of that total.