Foreign Assistance to North Korea

Publication Date: March 2010

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Government; International relations

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


Since 1995, the United States has provided North Korea with over $1.2 billion in assistance, of which about 60% has paid for food aid and about 40% for energy assistance. As of early March 2010, the United States is not providing any aid to North Korea, except for a small medical assistance program. The Obama Administration, along with the South Korean government, have said that they would be willing to provide large-scale aid if North Korea takes steps to irreversibly dismantle its nuclear program. The main vehicle for persuading Pyongyang to denuclearize is the Six-Party Talks, involving North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. The Talks have not met since late 2008.

U.S. energy and food aid to North Korea fell significantly in the mid-2000s, bottoming out at zero in 2006. The Bush Administration resumed energy aid in the fall of 2007 after progress was made in the Six-Party Talks – involving North Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia – over North Korea’s nuclear program. The United States and other countries began providing heavy fuel oil (HFO) in return for Pyongyang freezing and disabling its plutonium-based nuclear facilities. However, no additional energy assistance has been provided through the Six-Party process since North Korea withdrew from the talks in 2009, following condemnation and sanctions by the U.N. Security Council for North Korea’s April 2009 launch of a suspected longrange missile and May 2009 test of a nuclear device.

In 2007 and 2008, the United States also provided technical assistance to North Korea to help in the nuclear disablement process. In 2008, Congress took legislative steps to legally enable the President to give expanded assistance for this purpose. However, following North Korea’s actions in the spring of 2009, Congress explicitly rejected the Obama Administration’s requests for funds to supplement existing resources in the event of a breakthrough with North Korea. However, Congress did approve monies for the State Department’s general emergency non-proliferation fund that the Administration could use in North Korea.

Since the mid-1990s, North Korea has suffered from chronic, massive food shortages. Food aid— largely from China, the United States, and South Korea—has been essential in filling the gap. In 2008 and 2009, the U.S. shipped about a third of a planned 500,000 metric ton food aid pledge before disagreements with the North Korean government led to the program’s cessation. The drying up of food aid donations from the United States and South Korea has led the World Food Programme to drastically curtail its operation in North Korea, despite ongoing food shortages.

Pyongyang has resisted economic reforms that would allow the equitable distribution of food and help pay for food imports. Additionally, the North Korean government restricts the ability of donors to operate in the country. Multiple sources have asserted that some of the food assistance going to North Korea is routinely diverted for resale in private markets or other uses. Compounding the problem, China, North Korea’s largest source of food aid, has no known monitoring systems in place. In 2009 and 2010, in response to continued food shortages, Pyongyang asked South Korea – and the United States, according to some reports – to renew food assistance. The Obama Administration must make a number of decisions, including: whether to resume food aid; if so, whether to condition all or part of its assistance on expansive levels of access and monitoring; whether to condition food aid on progress in other areas (such as in the Six-Party Talks); and whether to pressure China to impose similar conditions on its food aid.

This report will be updated periodically to track changes in U.S. provision of aid to North Korea.