Letting North Korea Starve

Despite Washington’s efforts to ignore it, the humanitarian crisis is not going away.

Last month, Congress denied food aid to a half-starved nation. Senators, mostly Republicans, tried to pass legislation blocking nutritional assistance to North Korea. A determined effort by Senators Kerry and Lugar successfully inserted an amendment allowing the administration to provide food if “the President issues a national interest waiver.”

But waiver or not, neither Congress nor the administration wants to give food aid to North Koreans when they need it—now. They concur it is too awful a state for such consideration. Adding an amendment allows the president to leverage aid in various future contingencies, similar to the current administration’s posture of trading food to win concessions from Pyongyang on its nuclear-weapons and missile programs.

North Korea has almost incessant food crises, although the nature and extent of them are often difficult to verify. Nonetheless, it is clear that the situation in many areas was bad last year, particularly for children, lactating mothers and the aged; reports from the UN suggest that nearly a third of children in North Korea have been showing signs of dwarfism caused by malnutrition. Long-term exposure to starvation and the breakdown of infrastructure have also led to a rampant spread of preventable diseases such as diarrhea, further deteriorating the health of children and other vulnerable members of society.

Most recently, there is the uncertain factor of drought conditions in southern North Korea, often called the “cereal basket” of the country. Daily rations in those provinces have been reportedly reduced to one or two kilograms (2.2-4.4 pounds) of corn to each household, and anecdotes of people starving to death are beginning to flood across the border. The 240,000 tons of food that the United States promised to deliver under the “leap-day deal” probably represents the current food shortage in the country.

Despite Washington’s efforts to ignore it, the humanitarian crisis in North Korea is not going away. The UN reported that its agencies need $198 million for their activities in the country this year, but less than 40 percent of this has been donated. A number of human-rights champions such as China and Russia stepped forward with donations, but the stated requirements of the agencies are still far from met. Meanwhile, the White House, immobilized by possible political backlash, refuses to budge on funds. Indeed, our human-rights envoy to North Korea noted that the food situation was no different from other years and that drought conditions have been mitigated by brief rain—hardly a comforting analysis. It is doubtful food aid is even being seriously discussed; official statements have put it out of the range of possibilities. Pyongyang’s brethren in Seoul show even less concern.

At the same time, U.S. representatives do not seem inclined toward negotiations, emphasizing that the leap-day deal was only a reaffirmation of UN Security Council resolutions to which North Korea is still bound—this notwithstanding that North Korea abrogated the agreement in April with its rocket launch. While cancelling food aid, Washington left open the possibility of using the leverage it has through the Kerry-Lugar amendment.

The present position seems to remove the responsibility of humanitarian assistance from Washington, whatever the depth and extent of the food problem. Washington also argues that the launch proves North Korea can’t be trusted to allow food to reach the needy. To further extricate itself from any notion of responsibility, Secretary Clinton and other high officials simply obsess, however true, about the depravity of the Pyongyang regime. The humanitarian community remains uncharacteristically reticent on the continuing disaster—something of a first.

By our own standards of human rights and humanitarian principles, the United States should stop stalling on the issue of food assistance and work toward a solution. If Washington is too uncomfortable dealing directly with Pyongyang, then the World Food Program and other UN agencies stand ready to communicate with North Korea on our behalf and find some way to get food to some of the North Korean people badly in need. Washington seems unprepared to take any steps—a remarkable performance for the world’s leading food donor.

Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: Joseph A Ferris III