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A Comparative Study of China's and ROK's Food
Aid to DPRK in the 21st century


Compared with other countries, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the ROK are the main stakeholders with significant interests at play in what is happening in DPRK, like famines brought about by natural disasters.  The Chinese concern has been that the scope of its internal financial reforms can leave little room for the waste of budgetary resources. If North Korea did not reform its own economy and agricultural system. And the reform, from PRC’s perspective, was something that so far Pyongyang had refused to initiate in any form. For the ROK’s side, the food aid to North Korea has been scrutinized because Pyongyang restricts the ability of donor agencies to operate in the country. Compounding the problem is that ROK and China, which have been North Korea’s two most important providers of food aid, have little to no monitoring systems in place. Comparing with China, ROK, more aware of its political motive, is implementing the aid through private business largely.


The paper uses three theoretical lenses through which to examine  the empirical problems of both PRC-DPRK and ROK-DPRK humanitarian relief relations. The first is the analytical model developed by  Deborah W. Larson, who argued that social exchange is motivated by the prospect of mutual gain. This theory could interpret, in great degree, the PRC-DPRK and ROK-DPRK relations on aid policy, in which China’s “special responsibility” for North Korea has become a common value shared with the both sides. 


The second tool I employ is a political analysis on recent context of famine in North Korea to focus on both actors’ political objectives before and during the food shortage resulted from the natural disasters, with particular attention to opportunities taken to improve relations with hostile states as management of the crisis develops. In interaction between China/ROK and North Korea, such emotional factors or the nationalism complex could influence the bilateral relationship as expressed in their responses to natural disasters and food aid.  


The third tool is the emotional rhetoric, which were often relying on an implicit strategic consideration when describing and explaining state behavior. My research is in part informed by an inquiry to determine a clear theoretical justification for the emotional language often used to describe state behavior.  

The core of the paper is a comparative study of Chinese and South Korean policy on food aid, particularly from a strategic perspective with a focus on relations with North Korea. After decades of positive and stable economic development, Sino-North Korea relations have taken on a new form in the 21st century. Relations are moving beyond their formerly bilateral political scope to cover social and humanitarian spheres as the two countries build a new regime for the humanitarian aid. Indeed, China’s humanitarian aid to North Korea is more like top-down, mainly run by the Chinese government. ROK, however, is inclined to be combination with top-down and bottom-up, mainly managed by official and unofficial agencies such as NGOs or private businesses. Both China and ROK have formed a systematic mechanism for international aid. The policy processes have come to provide a paradigm for North Korean response to its own national disasters. In my study of PRC food aids to the North Korea from the 1990s until present, I find that although the  rhetoric such as “the blood alliance” was primarily invoked in policy makers’ discourse, Chinese officials did indeed draw upon understandings of emotional behavior when formulating their first policies toward North Korea. This is particularly true in the case of the CCP’s condolence letter for Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, which triggered a large amount of economic assistance from China. In terms of its quantity, there was a clear conflict in the PRC between proponents of large-scale aid and those who worried that it would hurt Chinese economy or invite similar requests from other developing countries. Nevertheless, in the end it was the former that prevailed. With the conclusion of this policy, the strong emotional terms like  “the blood alliance” and “friendship sealed in blood” became a fundamental part of the relationship and would later provide further impetus. Over time  these phases would be institutionalized to take the form of the “special responsibility” that persists to this day.


The description of China’s and ROK’s food aid to North Korea shows a different look on North Korea from most scholarship. The paper is not primarily an account of the international aid effort to end the famine, but a broad study of what factors influence Chinese and South Korean food aid policies and what China and ROK can learn from the aid process.

(Grandview institution)A Comparative Study of China’s and ROK’s Food Aid to DPRK in the 21st century.pdf



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