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North Korea Disaster Diplomacy

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North Korea Disaster Diplomacy

Seats for North Korea's delegation at the International Maritime Organization, London, U.K. (2022).

Seats for North Korea's delegation at the International Maritime Organization, London, U.K.: Environmental diplomacy?
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2022.)

Famine (1995-2002)


  • Starting around 1995 and lasting several years, a famine induced by a series of floods and droughts--but likely caused by agricultural and economic mismanagement--affects North Korea. Millions are malnourished and the death toll may have been several million. Various international relief operations occur.

  • December 1997. Kim Dae-jung is elected president of South Korea promising better relations with North Korea. BBC Coverage.

  • 7 March 2000. Japan sends food aid to North Korea as part of a deal for starting diplomatic talks. BBC Coverage.

  • 15 June 2000. The leaders of North Korea and South Korea meet in Pyongyang for a summit. BBC Coverage.

  • 18 September 2000. South Korea announces food aid to North Korea. BBC Coverage.

  • 13 October 2000. Kim Dae-jung wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts with North Korea. BBC Coverage.

  • 7 March 2001. Newly-installed President Bush is cold to North Korea. BBC Coverage.

  • 23 April 2001. South Korea announces fertiliser shipment to North Korea. BBC Coverage.

  • 12 June 2001. After President Bush decides to resume talks with North Korea, an agreement is reached to start dialogue. BBC Coverage.

  • 2-4 September 2001. As North Korea proposes official talks, the South Korean cabinet resigns after parliament votes non-confidence in the minister dealing with North Korea. BBC Coverage.

  • 14 September 2001. North Korea and South Korea restart formal reconciliation negotiations. BBC Coverage.

  • 9 November 2001. North Korea and South Korea restart talks yet again. BBC Coverage.

  • November 2001 to April 2002. The same games continue amongst North Korea, South Korea, Japan, the USA, and other countries. Several agreements are signed, envoys are exchanged, and meetings are held but talks go through on-again, off-again shenanigans. Military exercises, defectors and President Bush immaturely terming North Korea "evil" add to the diplomatic complications. In April 2002, food shortages again plague North Korea amid a lack of donations from the international community. As well, the World Health Organization (WHO), which had opened a permanent office in North Korea in November, started an anti-malaria programme following a resurgence of the disease.

  • June 2002. Amongst continuing hopes and setbacks for Korean diplomacy, North Korea informs South Korea about their plans to control water levels at a dam which South Korea had suggested could break causing cross-border flooding. US Water News writes:

    North Korea has notified South Korea of plans to control water levels at a dam near the border, alleviating South Korean concerns about possible cross-border flooding. North Korea's Land and Environmental Protection Ministry said it would begin drawing out water from the Kumgangsan Dam ahead of the rainy season, said South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles policy toward communist North Korea. The Unification Ministry quoted the North as saying the decision to notify its southern neighbor was based on "brotherly love" and a "humanitarian spirit". North Korea notified the South of its plans in a telephone call through its liaison office at the border village of Panmunjom. "We believe that the North's measures will help alleviate concerns over the dam," the South's Unification Ministry in a statement. South Korea had said there were cracks in the dam and that cross-border flooding would be severe if the dam broke. North Korea has called the concerns a "smear campaign". South Korean officials had hoped to bring the issue up during a scheduled round of economic talks with the North this month. But the North canceled the talks, accusing South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong of supporting what it calls Washington's hard-line policy toward the North.


  • Bennett, J. 1999. North Korea: The Politics of Food Aid. RRN (Relief and Rehabilitation Network) Network Paper 28, Overseas Development Institute, London, U.K.

  • By Paul Tsoundarou (6 February 2001):
             The North Korean famine was the catalyst for a gradual, yet sustained, improvement in the climate between the two Koreas. The direction of the relations was never certain, and always carried underlying mistrust, even though the increasing amount of contact between the two states on a humanitarian level eased the military tensions gradually. In this case, the incremental approach to improving relations which the famine triggered can be explained by two important factors. The nature of the bilateral relationship is the first; quite simply, one did not exist apart from an official state of war. The second component was the very nature of the disaster, in this case the famine, where it was not extremely dangerous early on, but progressively became more desperate, with the North gradually accepting the situation and requesting additional humanitarian aid. The result of the contact generated due to the famine was the eventual visit of the South Korean President to North Korea and an atmosphere of reconciliation and friendship has emerged, which will only continue to aid the improvement of the bilateral relationship and lead to possible reunification.

  • By Ilan Kelman (23 March 2001):
             Did famine and flood in recent years contribute to the opening of North Korea to the outside world? Such a question is not easy to answer considering that Kim Dae-Jung was elected president of South Korea in December 1997 promising to bring a new era to relations with North Korea--and he did. Would it really be possible to claim that his promises stemmed from, or were influenced by, the humanitarian crisis in the North? Even if not, his successes may well have been, as argued above by Paul Tsoundarou.
             The overriding need for an immense amount of aid, i.e. the scale of the disaster, in this case might also be significant, considering that other disasters do not seem to have had any influence on Korean relations. For example, severe storms and storm surges frequently affect the west coast of the Korean peninsula--as noted in Kim, S.C., J. Chen, K. Park, J.K. Choi, 1998, "Coastal surges from extratropical storms on the west coast of the Korean Peninsula", Journal of Coastal Research, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 660-666--but have not yielded diplomatic dividends.
             Irrespective, the North’s response to Kim Dae-Jung's election was frequently to see how far they could push his tolerance through both incursions into the South and missile testing. Similarly, the North’s reaction to Kim Dae-Jung winning the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize was not overly supportive, perhaps indicating that disaster would not be the overriding influence in North Korea's interaction with the outside world. Nonetheless, food aid seems to have been used to force diplomatic issues--or at least as part of a complex series of negotiations involving aid, diplomatic ties, and military capability--so perhaps in the absence of the need for aid, the other issues would not have arisen.
             The longevity of any disaster diplomacy with respect to North Korea has been called into question by President Bush, who seems to prefer an ideological foreign policy which he intends to unleash upon the world irrespective of the consequences or any humanitarian imperative. As noted above, on 7 March 2001 "President George W Bush has ruled out an early resumption of talks with North Korea, saying US policy towards the region would have to be reviewed first.", exactly one year after Japan resumed sending food aid to North Korea, partly to assist diplomatic efforts. Perhaps, though, President Bush is unaware or uncaring about the true situation in North Korea. Such foreign policy and the inevitable diplomatic fallout--which perhaps is what Bush's administration is hoping for, in order to justify their pre-established military ideas--are clearly driven by forces other than natural disasters and it is not clear whether or not another natural disaster in North Korea would catalyse changes.

  • Thompson, D. and C. Freeman. 2009. Flood Across the Border: China's Disaster Relief Operations and Potential Response to a North Korean Refugee Crisis. U.S.-Korea Institute (USKI) of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Nixon Center, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

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Famine and Typhoons (2012)
With thanks to Tawab Malekzad and Armando Lamadrid for material


  • February 2012. Word of yet another food crisis in North Korea emerges. BBC Coverage.

  • 1 March 2012. North Korea moves towards political concessions in exchange for external humanitarian aid. BBC Coverage.

  • 7 March 2012. Talks with North Korea relating political changes and food aid move towards a significant agreement. BBC Coverage.

  • 16 March 2012. North Korea announces that the country will launch a rocket. BBC Coverage.

  • 28 March 2012. The planned rocket launch leads to the food aid deal being put on hold. BBC Coverage.

  • 13 April 2012. North Korea's rocket launch fails. BBC Coverage.

  • May 2012. The implications of the failed disaster diplomacy including worries about North Korea's nuclear tests. BBC Coverage.

  • May 2012. The implications of the failed disaster diplomacy including worries about North Korea's nuclear tests. BBC Coverage.

  • End of August 2012. Typhoon Bolaven and Typhoon Tembin hit the Korean peninsula. BBC Coverage

  • 10-12 September 2012. South Korea offers aid to North Korea, which is accepted. Soon after, North Korea changes its mind and decides not to accept the aid. The dispute is stated to be over the form of aid being offered. North Korea wants products that South Korea fears could be used as part of North Korea's military and nuclear programmes.


  • By Tawab Malekzad (3 September 2012):

             On 29 February 2012, North Korea and the USA reached a cooperation process agreement. This process had two phases. First, North Korea agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment, as well as all nuclear and long-range missile tests. North Korean officials also agreed to allow UN inspectors to monitor its reactor. Phase two involved the USA donating 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea in return.
             This two-phase process brought hope of prolonged "peaceful" negotiations from the North Korea side to Washington DC. It also sparked hopes of putting an end to the food shortage in North Korea. According to BBC, a North Korean state-controlled TV agency released a statement explaining that these measures were aimed at building confidence for improving relations between the USA and North Korea.
             Movement towards new relations between the USA and North Korea was halted less than three weeks after the cooperation process agreement was reached. On 16 March 2012, North Korea announced that it would launch a satellite mounted on a rocket to mark the 100th birthday of its late former president Kim II-Sung. However, during the two-phase negotiations, the USA prohibited North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activities. The Americans warned their North Korean counterparts that violation of these terms would put an end to the food aid.
             North Korea announced it would launch its rocket between the 12 and 16 April 2012. After this announcement, the USA suspended its food aid. According to BBC, Mr. Lavoy, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a government committee that the following month's planned rocket launch "reflects North Korea's lack of desire to follow through on their international commitment and so we've been forced to suspend our activities to provide nutritional assistance".
             On 13 April 2012, North Korea launched the rocket. A minute after the launch, news headlines read, "North Korea rocket launch fails". North Korea's decision to continue with the launch, despite cautious warnings from the USA, resulted in the closing of cooperation doors that had been opened. More importantly, North Korea's actions caused more disaster for its people. With the American food aid ended, the North Korean people suffer for the behavior of their country within the international community.
             An example of failed disaster diplomacy, this case is different from other cases. The key difference and why this case is significant is that the affected country was in the process of getting foreign aid when it made a move that put an end to the aid. One possible explanation for the actions taken by the North Korean government is that it wants to ensure its citizens that North Korea remains a sovereign state and the government does not follow any rules set by a foreign government.

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Train Explosion (22 April 2004)
With thanks to Ben Wisner and Firoz Verjee for material


  • 23 April 2004. South Korea offers condolences and aid.

  • 25 April 2004. China and South Korea each pledge USD1 million worth of aid. Other countries, including the USA and the UK, offer assistance. BBC Coverage.

  • 26 April 2004. The USA pledges to join United Nations relief efforts. BBC Coverage.

  • 29 April 2004. After North Korea refuses to permit the aid to travel overland, the a shipment of aid from South Korea arrives by sea. South Korea also agrees to provide North Korea with further material, including televisions. BBC Coverage.

  • 30 April 2004. A South Korean plane brings 70 tonnes of emergency aid worth USD470,000 to North Korea, representing the first humanitarian flight between the two Koreas. BBC Coverage.

  • 5 May 2004. North Korea accepts USD100,000 worth of aid from the USA, provided through the Red Cross, stating that this act could help to improve bilateral ties. BBC Coverage.

  • 7 May 2004. Aid from South Korea crosses into North Korea by truck as the two countries agree on high-level defence talks. BBC Coverage.

  • 21 May 2004. Mercy Corps issues a press release:
             Mercy Corps Plays Role in Helping Improve US-North Korea Relations
             Portland, Oregon – Mercy Corps' Co-Founder and Senior Vice President Ells Culver leaves for his 20th trip to North Korea this Saturday, May 22 as the leader of a 12-person delegation from the Pacific Northwest who are accompanying him on a special peace-building mission to North Korea and China. The visit to North Korea is part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent people there, which over the past nine years has also made progress in helping to normalize relations with that country’s government.
             "Ells is making history with this visit," says Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer. "There are not many who would be granted access with a group of people to this country. Ells is a senior statesman who is an expert on North Korea and Asia, and he has worked hard over the years to gain the trust and respect of the North Koreans."
             This delegation marks one of the rare occasions when non-technical people have been granted access to North Korea. Their visit is welcome as part of a new effort by some in the North Korean government to get to know Americans better. Culver has led smaller delegations to the country in the past, which have included agricultural and fisheries specialists as part of the agency’s work to foster sustainable food systems crucial to long-term stability in this isolated country. Plans for this trip include visit to apple orchards that were seeded with Oregon apple tree root stocks, as well as meetings with government officials to discuss ways to expand the food aid projects.
             Mercy Corps originally began humanitarian assistance to North Korea in 1996 in response to severe environmental and economic conditions that resulted in three consecutive years of famine touching the lives of millions. Children’s malnutrition continues to be a major concern for families in North Korea. With support from the Northwest-based Gates Foundation, Mercy Corps is also delivering major shipments of medical supplies to needy communities.
             This trip to Asia also includes visits to Mercy Corps' China programs, which include a very successful microfinance project (supported by Nike) that offers small business loans to budding entrepreneurs as a method of stimulating economic development and thus alleviating severe poverty that exists in many parts of the country. The delegation also has three different meetings planned in Beijing with Chinese business owners, who are interested in learning from the Mercy Corps delegation members (all successful philanthropic business owners themselves) about the concepts of corporate philanthropy and social responsibility, which are new ideas in China.

    Mercy Corps used to explain, "Through our aid work, Mercy Corps plays a unique role in building a relational bridge between Americans and North Koreans".

  • 25 May 2004. North Korea and South Korea start high-level defence talks. BBC Coverage.

  • 2-5 June 2004. Germany's Goethe Institute, a cultural centre, opens a branch in Pyongyang, the two Koreas reach an agreement in principle on reducing military tension, and South Korea promises 400,000 tonnes of food aid to North Korea as the two countries agree to open land transport routes across their border.

  • 14-15 June 2004. North Korean and South Korean navies establish radio contact for the first time as part of the recent agreements. Border propaganda is dismantled on both sides and new high-level talks are agreed.


  • By Ilan Kelman (23 April 2004, sent to the Radix: email list):
             North Korea Disaster Diplomacy?
             Reports are still sketchy, but the horrific news escaping from North Korea suggests the strong potential for disaster diplomacy, although this sort of event--as with Bam and many other disaster diplomacy case studies--makes one wonder whether any ostensibly "positive" outcomes are worth the tragedy. Nonetheless, despite continually asking why we must wait for disaster to have diplomacy, it happens. Thus, we must investigate it, in particular to indicate that expectations of disaster diplomacy are often too high and could be damaging in the long-term.
             Regarding North Korea, casualties are apparently being sent to China and, if the number of casualties is anywhere near the 3,000 suggested, a strong potential exists that South Korean medical facilities might be needed too. As well, foreign teams with experience in explosion impacts and resources for treating burn victims could be invited if the devastation is so great that even North Korea admits that it needs help--as with the floods and famine in recent years.
             I am travelling until the first week of May, so I am unable to update the disaster diplomacy website. Also, due to limited web access, I cannot be entirely accurate or precise in what I have written above. Apologies for any vagueness, errors, or misrepresentations. Nonetheless, if anyone would be willing to monitor events and discussion and provide me with relevant material--and, even better, their analysis of the possible or actual disaster diplomacy in this situation--I shall catch up once I have returned and update the North Korea disaster diplomacy website https://www.disasterdiplomacy.org/northkorea.html
             Many thanks for any interest and help,

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Health Diplomacy for North Korea

For more general discussion, see also the specific webpage for Disease Diplomacy, which is a subset of Health Diplomacy.


  • Hotez, P.J. 2004. "The Promise of Medical Science and Biotechnology for North Korea and the Relevance of U.S. 'Vaccine Diplomacy'". Korea Society Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 15-18.

  • Yim, E.S., R.Y. Choi, and M.J. Van Rooyen. 2009. "Maintaining Health Sector Collaborations between United States Non-Governmental Organizations and North Korea through Innovation and Planning". Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 153-160.

  • Yim, E.S. and M.J. Van Rooyen. 2009. "Health and Disaster Diplomacy in North Korea: Ensuring Access and Accountability in Complex Political Environments". Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 294-296.

  • 18 December 2009 South Korea sends swine flu medicine to North Korea as "the first government-level assistance from the South to the poor communist North in nearly two years", BBC Coverage

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Mount Paektu


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