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A Foe in Need: Famine in North Korea

A disastrous famine struck the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1997.  Dubbed “The March of Suffering” by the North Korean government, hundreds of thousands of people in the countryside starved. The famine arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s former patron, and was exacerbated by a series of floods.  It also came in the midst of efforts to implement and verify a 1994 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang on steps toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.

With little background in North Korea, USAID was asked to assess the famine and help coordinate a U.S. response.  Leonard Rogers headed USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Response at the time. He traveled to North Korea and helped organize a coordinated international program of famine assistance.  And along the way, he and the agency had to make some tough calls. How to avoid humanitarian assistance being used, or seen, as a political tool? Some of the most struggling states are also the most tyrannical.  How can we ensure that humanitarian assistance does not shore up a tyrannical regime that continues to violate the human rights of their own citizens? In his oral history, Rogers describes how he tackled these issues.

Leonard Roger’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on April 18, 2017.

Read Leonard Rogers’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Hunter Matthews and Christina Krisberg

“This was a country AID had nothing to do with, nobody had anything to do with it really.”

The Beginning of the Problem: It turned out [USAID] had to deal with a major political problem during [the 1990s] which became one of the most interesting issues in my career. We were getting word of famine in North Korea. Of course, this was a country AID had nothing to do with, nobody had anything to do with it really. And I can recall going to the first meeting—this must have been in late 1995—with the North Asia division of State’s East Asia Bureau, and they didn’t know anybody from AID. They didn’t know AID and we didn’t know them. But we hit it off well and we were able to collaborate.

We began assessing—through the World Food Program, USDA, and independent sources—the need for food aid and whether it was desirable to provide aid to North Korea. We had some people who said this was one of the worst famines for a long time and others who were saying it was not so bad; in fact, some thought it was stage-managed by the North Koreans to get resources. So, we had a tough call as to whether we were going to provide aid. Ultimately we concluded that we would, so we made the first of a series of pledges through WFP (World Food Programme). Initially, we provided modest amounts, and as we came to understand the severity of the situation we pledged hundreds of thousands of tons and involved U.S. private organizations in its delivery.

“We didn’t want to appear to be providing humanitarian assistance as a political gesture”

Negotiations: At the same time, Chuck Kartman was the State Department’s special representative—maybe ambassador—for North Korea and was negotiating on their nuclear program. He was interested in the fact we had decided to provide food aid and asked me to come up to the UN in New York to explain to the North Koreans what we were planning as humanitarian assistance for their people. And so I did. It was kind of a fine line that we were walking here because we didn’t want to appear to be providing humanitarian assistance as a political gesture; at the same time there was this political negotiation going on. So, we had to collaborate. He led a successful negotiation, and we had a successful food aid program that checked a major famine.

I had a chance to go on a WFP-led delegation to North Korea in the Fall of 1997. We got an opportunity to travel around the country, meet senior officials and see how isolated, impoverished, and militarized the country was. Throughout this period, I spent considerable time briefing the Hill. And this is kind of interesting because it turned out there were several Republicans on the Hill who were instrumental in agreeing that we should go forward with a food aid program for North Korea. In any case, it was interesting to me that the Republicans were supportive of providing food aid to North Korea. Maybe they remembered Ronald Reagan’s old dictum that “a hungry child knows no politics.”

“It was a devastating experienceyou could see it in the grim cities, the bent people and the emaciated children.”

Falling into Famine: I was convinced the famine was real. But it’s a striking situation wherein Pyongyang, the regime’s leadership, lives quite well. The North is often characterized as a one-man dictatorship and I think for public and international consumption it is, but its governance has a lot of the characteristics of an oligarchy. You have a leadership group that we estimated at the time was maybe as many as a million people who actually ran the country and who lived quite a good life. Those who live in Pyongyang are well-fed and normal height; and the peasants who live out in the countryside who have been hungry for a long time and were being devastated by the famine obviously had stunted growth.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and ultimately withdrew its assistance, the North lost a lot of the resources that they needed to sustain their economy. So they went into a protracted and draconian adjustment. They probably never had enough food to feed their people but they managed with aid from the Soviets. When that ended they had no money to import food and they were hit by a series of natural disasters—floods and droughts—and famine was the result. It was a devastating experience—you could see it in the grim cities, the bent people and the emaciated children.

“There was no contact with the outside world. Everybody is told what to believe, what was going on in the world.”

Militaristic Control of Negotiations: It is very obviously tightly controlled, the most militaristic place I’ve ever seen. In the countryside, you see not only formal army units but local popular forces walking around with weapons. They had communist party cadre everywhere. I remember talking to one woman and she’d obviously been selected to talk to me; her son was in the military. So, I asked her how often this political cadre came to visit her, to check up on her in effect. And she said every day. So, it is a completely screwed down society, completely isolated, no contact with the outside world. I think that may be breaking down somewhat now with the advent of cellphones, but at that time there was no contact with the outside world. Everybody is told what to believe, what was going on in the world. There was a real hatred for the Americans from Korean War days, and even more hatred for the Japanese. This has persisted from the occupation and forced dislocation of workers. You see signs all over the place, pictures of the Japanese as demons. They suffered terribly at Japanese hands, they suffered terribly in the Korean War as well, and they are regularly reminded they have enemies.

I think there was opportunity for negotiations to be more successful than they were, and I regret people have turned to a much more militaristic policy. I blame that on the Bush administration, which in my mind was more interested in talking to its political base than it was in really trying to get a solution to the North Korea problem. But the Obama Administration essentially adopted the Bush administration foreign policy. So, I think we’re now at a very dangerous and tragic point and if things were to go wrong, a lot of people would get killed.



     BA in Political Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill                                           1961-1965

     Peace Corps                                                                                                                                          1965-1967

Joined USAID                                                                                                                                       1970

     USAID Budget Office—Budget Analyst                                                                                          1970–1980

     Asia Bureau Development Program Office—Deputy Director                                                   1984-1987

     Agency Management Directorate—Senior Program Director                                                    1988-1989

     USAID—Acting Executive Secretary                                                                                                1989-1990

     Bureau for Humanitarian Response—Deputy Assistant Administrator                                  1994 -1996

     Acting Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Humanitarian Response                                     1996 – 1998

     Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance—                                             1998 – 2007

          Deputy Assistant  Administrator