The North Korean government has announced that torrential rains from August 7-12 caused "huge human and material damage," with hundreds of people dead or missing and more than 30,000 houses destroyed. Representatives of the few aid organizations remaining in Pyongyang are calling these floods the worst in a decade.
Responding to this emergency will be a challenge. The overall capacity of the humanitarian community in North Korea has been badly degraded. After mounting major responses to the famine in the mid-90s, which killed over one million people, important non-governmental humanitarian agencies, such as Oxfam, CARE, and Doctors without Borders, had pulled out of the country by 2000, concluding that government restrictions made it impossible to monitor their assistance. In 2005 the government nearly expelled the UN World Food Program on the grounds that emergency food assistance was no longer required. While WFP was able to maintain its presence after lengthy negotations, it had to reduce the scale of its program significantly, and currently feeds only 750,000 North Koreans in a country of 23 million people that even in good years can meet only 80% of its overall food needs.
Even when it was able to implement a more extensive program, WFP had chronic difficulties getting government permission to monitor its assistance. All monitoring visits had to be organized well in advance, and the government placed restrictions on the hiring of Korean speakers who would be able to gather information directly from the beneficiaries.
A WFP regional spokesperson told AFP news agency on August 15 that the government was organizing an assessment of the flood-affected area for diplomats and aid agency officials, a sign of the government's concern about the situation.
Floods are an annual event in North Korea and it is important for outside agencies to gather as much first-hand information as possible to determine whether this emergency is truly an exceptional occurrence.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the North Korea Working Group of InterAction is planning to meet on Friday, August 17 to determine how member agencies might respond.
The record of international humanitarian assistance to North Korea is not inspiring, with huge problems of accountability and transparency and little independent testimony as to its effect. I spent a week in China in 2003 interviewing North Korean refugees who had fled from some of the poorest parts of the country, many during the famine and its immediate aftermath.
None had seen, much less received, any international food assistance. The fact is that it's very easy to set up set-piece distributions to satisfy international monitoring requirements, but almost impossible for international agencies to verify where all of its food assistance has been distributed. Food aid provided at central level to a centralized, militarized government like that of North Korea is simply too fungible.
But I can't feel comfortable arguing that no food assistance should be provided in response to this emergency. That would amount to punishing the victims of the floods even further. Agencies should insist on assessing the situation first hand, and being allowed to send fluent Korean speakers to conduct the follow-up monitoring. It is unrealistic to expect good will and adherence to international standards from the North Korean government; every effort should be made to insist that those standards be met.
Labels: North Korea
January 13, 2009