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The US offer to North Korea: What kind of food aid was that?

Written by Ed Clay


The US offered 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea as part of the “Leap Day understanding”, announced on 29 February 2012. This would, apparently, see the supply of 20,000 tons of food each month from the US for a year, with USAID working out the details. But before any agreement was finalised, the offer was suspended on 13 April 2012 after North Korea attempted to launch a satellite – an act considered to breach the understanding. So what kind of food aid operation was being envisaged?

Two proposed disciplines on food aid in the draft World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture, which the US negotiators helped to draft, offer a useful basis to answer this question.

First, genuine emergency food aid as outlined in the WTO draft Agreement requires an internationally recognised appeal for assistance and an internationally acceptable assessment of needs in the country affected by disaster or a humanitarian crisis. The donor(s) is/are expected to retrospectively report on the aid provided directly to affected people.

Second, Non-emergency food aid in-kind, i.e. tied to the donor market, must not displace commercial trade in food. There is a long history of food aid being (mis)used for political and economic purposes without serious regard to whether it genuinely addresses the needs of hungry people and displaces commercial export of other countries or the internal market of the recipient country.

In the case of North Korea there has been no appeal and no internationally acceptable assessment. The US, in offering this aid, had set political conditions including a halt to developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capability. This looks like government to government aid, almost a left over from the era in which the US sustained the Camp David agreement with wheat to Egypt or, in 1999-2000, the provision of over six million tons of food aid to Russia, mostly by the US, but with some EU support.

And so the same issues arise. Would all of this food have been additional imports by North Korea? Or would there have been some displacement by US wheat, corn and especially rice of commercial imports from SE Asian rice exporters whose markets are currently overhung with record stocks?

US food aid is funded annually by appropriations approved in advance by Congress, so would this food aid have been additional to (or would it have  crowded out) assistance that would have otherwise have been provided over the next 12 months to hungry people elsewhere? The food needs in 2012 in countries affected by the Sahel drought already amount to almost one million tons, but are not yet fully covered by donor commitments.

The food aid that was envisaged was equivalent to almost 10% of the minimum 2.5 million tons annually to which the US government is committed under domestic agricultural legislation (The Farm Bill). Funding is also tight. This aid, if provided as a grant, would also have qualified as part of the US minimum commitment of 2.5 million tonnes to the Food Aid Convention

This whole episode strengthens the case for early completion of the negotiation on food aid within the WTO: the draft disciplines for food aid accepted by the US and other donors will provide a useful framework for bona fide food aid.

And the poor, hungry and malnourished in North Korea? Where does the withdrawal of the US food aid offer leave them? Doubtless some of those drafting the US offer saw the understanding as a way to address the needs of these oppressed people.  But is this kind of food aid – with strings attached and questionable trade implications – just too problematic a way to do this? Would it be better to have internationally organised humanitarian assistance?  There are no easy answers where a government prioritises rocket science over its people’s entitlement to food.