The Skeptics

No Aid for Pyongyang

The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of the world’s poorest nations. An estimated 600,000 or more people died as a result of famine in the late 1990s. Malnutrition and even starvation reportedly again stalk this tragic nation.

The North Korean government wants aid. The DPRK’s embassies around the world are requesting assistance from host governments. The North’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations asked the U.S. government to restore food aid suspended two years ago.

Kim Jong-il’s regime also is seeking food on credit. Although the North welshed on its past international debts, the South Korean government reported that Pyongyang is “asking developing countries in regions such as Southeast Asia for food that it promises to pay back later.”

The DPRK typically has preferred to deal with the United Nations World Food Program. But the WFP warns that it is running out of supplies. “We’re certainly hopeful that new donations will be coming in the upcoming weeks,” said organization spokesman Marcus Prior.

It is a testament to Pyongyang’s desperation that it is publicly passing the tin cup. So far, reports the South Korean JoongAng Daily, no foreign government has responded. However, Ken Kato, director of Human Rights in Asia, complains that some Western nations have sent small amounts of cash assistance to the North in recent months: “Aid without condemnation is counterproductive and inhumane.”

Some of the North Korean government’s problems are beyond its direct control: destructive floods, a harsh winter, and an epidemic of foot and mouth disease among livestock. The North also has been hit by drought in the past. But many nations, including America, have suffered from similar difficulties without suffering similar disasters.

In contrast, the DPRK long ago collectivized agriculture and the rest of the economy. The system does not—indeed, cannot—work. Years of economic failure ensured that the slightest impediment to production would wreak humanitarian havoc.

Private religious groups and the UN Children’s Emergency Fund began giving food aid two decades ago. In 1995 Pyongyang first asked for international assistance. China, Japan, and Republic of Korea all provided food, the latter as part of the so-called “Sunshine Policy.” In 1997 Washington followed suit.

However, outside donors eventually tired of subsidizing one of the world’s most brutal regimes. The Bush administration reduced the amount of food shipments; two years ago the Obama administration halted the program when the North Korean government impeded efforts to monitor the assistance. The newly elected Lee government in South Korea also cut off food shipments after the North failed to moderate its behavior despite years of subsidies from Seoul.

UN Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe recently criticized limits on aid for political reasons: “These are human beings that need the food. It’s not the political system. This shouldn’t be argued in a political way.”

Of course, the North Korean people are the principal victims of the failure of the Kim dynasty. But strengthening the regime will make them even worse off.

To reduce outside scrutiny Pyongyang has restricted movement by independent monitors and sought to exclude foreign representatives who speak Korean. Nevertheless, employees of NGOs, diplomats, and defectors consistently report that the DPRK government has diverted donated food. Estimates of the share of food misused run from 10 to 50 percent. Beneficiaries of Western largesse include the military, regime elites, and the Kim government, which sells some supplies to private merchants. In this way aid intended for North Korea’s most vulnerable has been used to enrich North Korea’s most brutal. Observed John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea: “The regime doesn’t mind that much if the civilian population goes hungry. But if its core supporters and the military don’t get fed, then it starts to get nervous.”

So far the Obama administration has refused to respond to Pyongyang’s entreaties; the State Department recently announced that it has no plans to resume food shipments. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, insisted that any American aid is “actually received by hungry North Korean children and their families, rather than reinforcing the North Korean military whose care is already a priority over the rest of the population.”

Even assistance that goes to its intended recipients is problematic. The North Korean regime has never lacked funds when it comes to celebrating the birthdays of its pseudo-divine rulers, holding large-scale cultural and sporting exhibitions, and developing nuclear weapons. International aid frees up resources for other regime priorities.

Selig Harrison of the Woodrow Wilson Center recently complained that placing conditions on aid is senseless “because the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations whether or not there is outside aid. The present policy simply adds to the deprivation of the North Korean masses in urban centers.”

That may be true, but abundant assistance would make it even easier for the regime to ignore the needs of its people. American aid directly empowers the North Korean government, enhancing its domestic political position. Pyongyang, which routinely uses brinkmanship to achieve its political ends, also would see renewed food shipments as a political concession.