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Australia’s aid to North Korea: a short history and future issues


The prospect of a new global deal to halt and reverse the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs raises the question of what role Australia might play in supporting such an agreement. While remaining ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the likelihood of an effective and durable agreement, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated in the wake of the recent ‘Singapore Summit’ that the Australian Government is assessing whether it could offer expertise to assist with the verification of any future North Korean actions to dismantle its nuclear capability.

It is also possible that Australia may be expected by the US and other partners to contribute to a new denuclearisation agreement through the provision of development assistance to the DPRK. While Australian aid to the DPRK is currently suspended, Australia has previously supported international attempts to secure a nuclear agreement with the DPRK through the provision of energy and humanitarian aid and limited technical assistance to the impoverished state. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), between 1994 and 2015 Australia provided over $90 million in humanitarian assistance to the DPRK ‘with a focus on food and nutritional supplementation which targets vulnerable groups’.

Statistical data from DFAT shows that Australian aid to the DPRK has fluctuated with the fortunes of various global disarmament efforts over the last two and a half decades.

Australia’s total Official Development Assistance to the DPRK, 1974–2017 (A$‘000, current prices) 



Source: DFAT, Statistical Yearbook, 2016–17: Table 4: Australian Official Development Assistance, Partner Country  

These efforts commenced in the mid-1990s and saw Australia’s aid to the DPRK reach a peak of around $12 million in 2000–01. As noted in a 2007 Parliamentary Library briefing paper, Australia’s assistance during this period included multi-year contributions totalling $22 million to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), a body established in 1995 by the US, South Korea and Japan to implement the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework. KEDO was dismantled in 2006 in the wake of the collapse of the Agreed Framework.

Australia’s assistance during this period also included humanitarian assistance through the World Food Programme (WFP) and other international organisations, as well as exchanges involving DPRK scientists and officials. According to AusAID’s 2001–02 Annual Report, while access for humanitarian aid workers was a key concern, ‘there are positive indications that [food] aid is making a difference’. In terms of training, a 2005 parliamentary committee report noted exchanges between the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and a group of four researchers from the DPRK in 2001, research training of two DPRK scientists at La Trobe University in 2003 and training provided to North Korean senior administrators and research scientists by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research.

Australia’s humanitarian aid to the DPRK increased again, although at lower levels, with the convening of successive rounds of the Six Party Talks during the period 2003 to 2007 and the 2012 ‘Leap Day Agreement’ between the US and North Korea, negotiations which also eventually collapsed.

While the prospects for a new nuclear agreement on the Korean Peninsula are uncertain, the humanitarian and food security situation in DPRK remains dire—largely as a result of the Kim regime’s brutal policies. According to the WFP’s most recent assessment, around 10.3 million people (almost half the population) are undernourished, rates of stunting (low height for age) affect one in four children under five years of age and anaemia affects one in three children under five, as well as women and young mothers.

China remains the principal source of international aid to the DPRK. While figures regarding the quantity of this aid vary, a 2014 study notes that, historically, Beijing’s assistance has focused on infrastructure—including factories, bridges, roads, railways, and dams—as well as food aid, some of which is provided through the WFP. However, while China is now believed to be North Korea’s largest source of aid, ‘it has no known system for monitoring how this aid is distributed’. Data collected by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that in 2015–16 Russia (US$59 million), the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria ($US12 million), Switzerland ($US11 million) and the European Union ($US8 million) comprised the DPRK’s other key aid donors. The bulk of this assistance was provided as humanitarian aid.   

In considering increased humanitarian aid as a possible component of any future denuclearisation deal, the Congressional Research Service highlights what are likely to be some of the key issues for the US and its allies:

  • how to establish explicit ‘diplomatic’ linkages by conditioning food aid on progress in security-related talks, including negotiations regarding the North’s nuclear programs
  • how to harmonise policy among key US allies
  • deciding whether China should be engaged on aid and
  • deciding the mix between the WFP and non-government aid channels for aid, given the limitations on in-country access and monitoring.

This issue could raise some difficult questions for Australia on the aid front. While Australia’s overall humanitarian assistance will increase to $500 million per annum in the coming years, this increase will need to be achieved within the constraints of an aid budget that continues to decline in real terms. Moreover, the severity of protracted crises such as those in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar/Bangladesh means that Australia’s humanitarian aid dollar continues to be stretched thinner. International pressure for a renewed Australian aid commitment to North Korea would force more hard choices regarding priorities and trade-offs.

Tags: Aid, North Asia
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