China’s Unconditional Aid to North Korea

An article on South Korea’s Donga Daily reported on June 24 that it had the figures for China’s annual unconditional aid to North Korea.

The Chinese Commerce Ministry and the North Korean government usually discusses the items, volume and timing of free aid every year, but Beijing generally has been providing 100,000 tons of food, half a million tons of oil, and goods worth 20 million dollars as demanded by Pyongyang in a flexible way.

The same article implied that the aid to North Korea is adjusted according to the needs of Pyongyang, most likely to supplement the shortfalls in food production. Naturally, North Korea’s import of food from China increased, from 125,000 tons in 2008 to 356,000 tons last year, alongside the difficulties in its agriculture industry.

However, this year, Beijing has reportedly only delivered 10,000 tons as of June. This is a shocking revelation considering the symbolic importance of both Juche 100 and Kim Jong-un’s succession. With the spring droughts in the grain basket provinces in the southern parts of the country, one can assume that the food shortage has been further accentuated by the slowdown of the usually reliable source of food.

One source suggested that “This seems to be China’s act of retaliation for the North`s test-firing of a long-range missile in mid-April despite Beijing’s strong demand that Pyongyang reconsider.” Apparently this is a precedented move:

when the North unveiled its highly enriched uranium program, China shut off its oil pipeline to the North for three days in 2003 citing facility repair. The shutdown of the oil pipeline led to serious consequences at the time, with North Korean industry reeling from the aftereffects for more than a year… Beijing can halt oil supply and inflict a direct blow to North Korean industry. China`s foot-dragging on food aid to the North is meant to send Pyongyang the message that Beijing could use food as a warning measure first instead of an extreme warning.

Yet according to another source, 220,000 tons of corn was delivered to North Korea in April 20 – after the launch of the controversial rocket on April 13.

The new report also leaves questions regarding other information already gathered on China’s aid to North Korea. There were reports in January that truckloads of Chinese rice had crossed the border. At the time, Japan’s Tokyo Shimbun newspaper claimed that China had decided to donate 500,000 tonnes of food and 250,000 tonnes of crude oil. The presumed delivery in January did coincide with the steady fall in the price of rice  throughout the country, though the trend was noted earlier in January.

In the end, North Korea-watchers must admit that it is unlikely that the Chinese state will ever be transparent about the amount and specifics of the aid provided to North Korea. However, one can begin asking two big questions:

  1. How does Pyongyang and Beijing agree on the quantity of food/fuel aid;
  2. Does Beijing actually utilize food aid to influence Pyongyang?

The answers to these two big questions could seriously impact the way we look at food security in North Korea and perhaps even begin to quantitatively assess the situation in the secretive state.


About Yong Kwon

I develop trade advocacy strategies for a DC-based consulting firm. Studied economic history at the London School of Economics, and can be found on twitter at @ykwon88
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