The U.S. has defended its decision to suspend a food aid program to North Korea, drawing criticism from an nongovernmental organization which said that Washington had missed an opportunity to help “severely hungry people” by linking food aid to politics.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told reporters Wednesday that a satellite launch planned for April by the North, which caused the suspension of the food aid program, goes against conditions set forth in an agreement between the two nations late last month.
Under that agreement forged on February 29, Washington would have delivered 240,000 tons of food to Pyongyang over the course of 12 months in exchange for a suspension of missile tests and permission for international inspectors to visit the North’s nuclear facilities.
But according to the State Department, the launch of a satellite, atop a rocket that experts say could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead, is in breach of the “Leap Day” agreement and calls into question Pyongyang’s “good faith” that relief supplies would be delivered to those in most need.
North Korea maintains that the rocket does not represent a missile test and that its payload is a scientific weather satellite.
“We’ve got an issue with the government that makes a Leap Day deal with us on the nuclear side and then turns around and announces its intention to do something that would violate it in just a number of weeks,” the spokesperson said.
“So that … calls into question whether one can make any kind of arrangements with such a government that’ll be binding. And it would be hard to give food aid without being sure that the commitments that we are working on together … were going to be honored, to ensure that the food got to the right people.”
The spokesperson noted that during a three-day trip to Seoul that wrapped up Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama “made clear … we’re not going to be rewarding provocation.”
“So it obviously makes sense that we’re not moving forward with this right now, until we see what happens,” she said.
Pyongyang plans to blast the satellite into orbit between April 12 to 16.
‘No political link’
The State Department maintained that food aid to the North is not dependent on political concessions, but reiterated that Washington needs to have “confidence in the commitments” Pyongyang makes regarding the monitoring of food distribution before proceeding.
“We’re not going to send food to a country where it might be diverted to the elites … [So] there’s a link in the sense that we don’t have confidence in the good faith of the government,” the spokesperson said.
“If they want to restore our confidence in their good faith, they can cancel the plans to launch this satellite.”
But signs indicate that the launch, planned for the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, will proceed.
Last week, GlobalSecurity.org published satellite imagery showing a launch pad and tower without a rocket at the Tongchang-dong launch site facility near the North’s northwestern border with China.
And a U.S. official told Reuters news agency that signs indicate the North Koreans were getting the site ready.
"The U.S. has seen indications that the North Koreans are preparing to launch a long-range rocket," the official said.
North Korea's neighbors, including Japan and South Korea, have warned that they might shoot down any attempt at a launch.
The decision to suspend the food program was met with criticism by U.S.-based aid agency Samaritan’s Purse, which had been one of five nongovernmental organizations tasked with delivering the relief supplies to North Korea.
Ken Isaacs, Vice President of Samaritan’s Purse, told RFA that evidence is “strong” that the exchange had depended on political concessions.
“There is evidently a strong linkage in the negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea—the linkage being an exchange for discontinuation of enriching uranium in swap for food. The State Department and the Department of Defense are saying that it isn’t, but it certainly looks like it is,” Isaacs said.
“And I think it’s unfortunate, because in the end it’s going to be the people in the rural areas of North Korea that we know are hungry and malnourished—they’re going to be the ones that suffer,” he said.
“And the approach of linking humanitarian assistance with disarmament talks or nuclear weaponry talks is an unfortunate circumstance.”
In February of 2011, Samaritan’s Purse and a consortium of four other U.S.-based aid NGOs sent a food assessment team to North Korea and reported that children in numerous areas of the country were suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
Isaacs said that the assessment determined that “an intervention was needed and that people’s lives were at risk,” a claim he says was acknowledged by the State Department when it decided to proceed with plans for a food aid package.
“The fact that the U.S. put 240,000 metric tons of food on the table—that is a piece of evidence that the U.S. government recognized that food aid was needed,” he said.
Isaacs said that the assessment team met frequently with families in North Korea that had received food aid in the past and spoke with them to determine how they had obtained their food.
He said that from the NGOs’ perspective, it is unlikely that the food aid proposed in the February agreement would have ended up in the hands of North Korea’s elite.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk generally alluding to diversion, but we’ve never had any information brought to us of known diversion of that food,” he said.
“So I feel that we had an opportunity to create an intervention, a humanitarian intervention, that would have been of great benefit to … severely hungry people.”
By the U.S. and North Korea using food aid as a negotiating tool, Isaacs said, both parties have placed at risk a humanitarian facet he called “lacking and needed in the relationship between the two countries.”
“I think the people that are going to suffer are not the people who are leading governments, they’re not in charge, they’re not building military hardware, they’re not involved in military negotiations,” he said.
“They’re the people in the rural areas that are hungry.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.