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White House Rebuffs U.N. Appeal to Expand North Korea Food Aid

The United States sees private investment in Pyongyang, not aid, as the nuclear deal’s prize.

David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, briefs reporters in Seoul, South Korea, on May 15 on his visit to North Korea. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)
David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, briefs reporters in Seoul, South Korea, on May 15 on his visit to North Korea. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), is seeking to exploit a diplomatic thaw between Pyongyang and Washington to potentially secure hundreds of millions of dollars from donor countries to dramatically expand U.N. relief operations in North Korea.

But the former Republican governor from South Carolina has encountered resistance from the White House, even as President Donald Trump prepares to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore next month.

According to two diplomatic sources, White House officials rebuffed Beasley’s appeal for funds in a meeting in late April.

The United States donated hundreds of millions of dollars to WFP’s food assistance to Pyongyang in the 1990s but began phasing out aid after the George W. Bush administration designated North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil in 2002. Today, the United States no longer contributes to the food agency’s operations in North Korea.

If the United States commits funds to food aid, U.N. officials say, other countries, including Japan and South Korea, are likely to give more generously.

Beasley, who returned recently from a visit to Pyongyang and other parts of the country, told Foreign Policy in an interview that North Koreans face a shortfall of up to 2 million metric tons of food each year.

He didn’t specify the cost of expanding the U.N. program. But filling that gap, experts say, could run to $750 million in food assistance each year.

More than 10 million of the country’s 25 million residents are undernourished, according to a 2017 U.N. report.

“The human needs are so great, and we have a severe funding shortage,” Beasley said.

“We hope that we will receive the necessary funding to ramp up in a major way. But it is up to us to show the donors the needs [of North Koreans]. The donors want to know the food is going to the intended recipient — and not supporting a military buildup.”

Trump’s White House has been reluctant to offer foreign aid, particularly to America’s adversaries. A National Security Council spokesman, Robert Palladino, would not comment directly on the question of Beasley’s contacts with the administration. But he said the United States would continue to apply pressure on North Korea until it is free of nuclear weapons.

“Weapons of mass destruction are extremely expensive. The reallocation of North Korean resources currently being used to build weapons programs would bring immense benefit to the North Korean people,” he said.

The prospects of a landmark summit between the American and North Korean leaders hit a bump on Tuesday, when North Korea reportedly threatened to cancel the June 12 summit if the U.S. and South Korea continue joint military exercises in the region. But U.S. officials said they have received no official notice of North Korea’s plans to withdraw from the talks and plan to proceed with preparations.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that the United States would consider authorizing American companies to make private investments in a nuclear weapons-free North Korea. But he said U.S. taxpayers would not foot the bill.

Other administration officials echoed the sentiment.

“I wouldn’t look for economic aid from us,” John Bolton, the U.S. national security advisor, told CNN on Sunday. The goal, according to Bolton, is to have North Korea become a “normal nation” that can fend for itself.

Not all Republicans ruled out the idea of aid. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday that it would be the “best money we ever spent,” provided that North Korea was willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

“If you could really get North Korea to give up their nuclear program, then I think there’d be a lot of support in Congress to give North Korea a better life,” he said.

At its height in the 1990s, the WFP’s relief operation spent $750 million on North Korea each year.

The agency’s aid to Pyongyang is much smaller today and includes the distribution of fortified cereals, biscuits, and nutritional supplements to about 650,000 pregnant women, young mothers, and children under the age of 5.

Funding shortfalls have plagued the U.N. relief agency. If the organization cannot secure $10 million in funding over the next six months, it will have to cut the rations to women and children, a WFP spokesperson says.

Beasley’s visit to North Korea this month was his first as the United Nations’ top food official. He met with senior North Korean officials in Pyongyang and toured WFP projects in several outlying provinces.

The visit coincided with Pompeo’s second meeting with Kim and the release of three detained U.S. citizens. The two delegations did not meet.

In the interview, Beasley said that while he saw no sign of the widespread starvation that afflicted North Koreans in the 1990s, severe malnutrition continued to pose a threat.

North Korea faces geographical, environmental, and technological challenges to meeting its population’s basic food needs, he said. Only about 20 percent of the country’s land is arable.

But Beasley was upbeat about the prospects of delivering assistance where needed. “Let me say clearly, the access our team has been granted thus far has been unprecedented,” he said. “Clearly, a new door of opportunity has been opened.”

Beasley said he pressed North Korean officials to provide more “accurate and detailed information” about the country’s needs and to ensure “improved access” for U.N. workers.

“The response was very positive. We can see clearly they want to turn a new page of history.”

Beasley is now pressing governments in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington to step up funding for the operations.

Beasley declined to comment on his discussions with the White House except to say, “I have meetings at many houses, including the White House. Let me be clear, the United States is the No. 1 donor to the World Food Program.”

U.N. officials are still hopeful that U.S. reluctance to commit to funding food aid is merely part of its opening negotiating stance and that it may soften its position during talks. South Korea has been more receptive to Beasley’s calls for greater humanitarian aid. North Korea’s high levels of malnutrition present an existential challenge to Seoul, which may one day have to shoulder the burden of caring for North Koreans if the government should ever collapse and the two nations united.

“It is very much in the South Koreans’ interest to get more food into the country because of massive stunting and malnutrition,” said Nancy Lindborg, who ran feeding programs for Mercy Corps during the Clinton and Bush administrations.

But she cautioned that humanitarian assistance flowing into North Korea should be distributed and monitored by WFP relief officials, not given directly to North Korea’s distribution system. And any pact authorizing the resumption of a large-scale food deliveries should not be negotiated as part of a broader political pact.

“Anytime you provide human assistance as part of a political package, you risk cutting off the assistance when the politics fail,” said Lindborg, who currently serves as president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “They totally control the spigot, and they can turn it on or off depending on the politics.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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