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F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / M A R C H 2 0 1 2
their embassy compounds. The Ger-
mans, British, and Swedes were the
only Western governments repre-
sented, with the Swedish ambassador
carrying out consular duties for the
United States.
The accommodations were rea-
sonably comfortable and our move-
ments around the city relatively free.
(On my first trip to Pyongyang in
1995, “unaccompanied” movements
were restricted to the main street in front of our hotel.)
Still, my wife was regularly escorted out of shops and told
the establishments were closed to foreigners. Yet while
private markets supposedly didn’t exist anywhere in North
Korea, she regularly visited a large one downtown.
Running a huge food aid program is inherently chal-
lenging, but conditions in North Korea made things expo-
nentially more difficult. For one thing, the effects of
previous famines were still visible all around us. Children
born in the mid-1990s were significantly smaller than nor-
mal due to poor nutrition in their critical first years.
A decade before, I’d pushed the United Nations to ne-
gotiate various operational criteria before rendering assis-
tance to the DPRK: random access to beneficiaries,
unplannedmonitoring missions and the hiring of both Eng-
lish- and Korean-speakers. Now, as the person in charge of
executing these tasks, they proved to be even harder than
I’d imagined.
Managing six field-based offices and four port areas,
WFP was by far the largest international presence in the
country. Staff mobility outside of Pyongyang was severely
constrained, with field visits being negotiated as much as
an entire month in advance. This meant, of course, that
most of the monitoring visits could be staged. Unlike Py-
ongyang-based staff, those living in the field could only
leave their compounds when accompanied by a North Ko-
rean liaison officer. Moreover, staff members were sub-
jected to very long periods of isolation, particularly in the
more remote offices.
One afternoon I got a call from a staff member living in
Ryanggang, our most secluded office in the northwestern
part of the country. He reported that a foreigner had just
joined him in his compound. North Korean border offi-
cials had arrested this visitor, a British man who had mis-
takenly crossed the border in an effort to walk around
Mount Baekdusan. (Apparently he’d been using a map that
showed the mountain as being lo-
cated entirely in China.)
As one can imagine, my staff and
the Brit were both happy to find each
other. Ultimately, he was quietly re-
leased, unharmed, with our help.
How did WFP’s program work?
Food would land in one of the major
ports, or in some cases arrive by rail
from China. At the point of dis-
charge, we would check to make
sure the scheduled amounts were accounted for and in
good condition. After the inspections, the food would be
turned over to the Public Distribution System for delivery
to those districts hit hardest by the famine. The next time
WFP staff saw the food was during monitoring missions.
Getting the Job Done
The amount of food we were donating was immense:
roughly 40 to 60 cargo vessels’ worth per year. Moving that
much food around is no easy task. Due to the limitations
on access, we concentrated our monitoring efforts on
schools, orphanages and hospitals. We were not able to
monitor the delivery of every bag of food, but by concen-
trating on institutions, we stood a better chance of deter-
mining whether the most vulnerable members of society
were receiving food.
We also operated several food processing factories that
produced enriched foods: blended food for infants, en-
riched biscuits and fortified noodles. At the height of op-
erations, WFP managed six such facilities in the DPRK.
Aside from the nutritional benefits of the enriched
foods, those products were also seen as less likely to be di-
verted. While there were repeated claims that the regime
distributed aid based on internal political priorities, we
never saw any evidence of widespread misuse.
WFP’s international staff of 56 people made up just
under half of the 126 U.N. and nongovernmental organ-
ization relief staff in North Korea. Our large interna-
tional work force and significant field presence, I believe,
offered us a unique perspective. While I’m certainly not
completely sure that everything went as planned, I am
confident that our food aid went to people who needed
Working conditions for relief operations in North Korea
have improved dramatically over the past several years, giv-
ing theWorld Food Program and its donors a much higher
Running a huge food aid
program is inherently
challenging, but conditions
in North Korea made things
exponentially more difficult.