According to its now classic articulation in the Fundamental Principles of the International Committee of the Red Cross, humanitarian action is above politics and concerned only with bringing relief to those most in need. Not only should aid be given without discrimination as to an individual's "nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions," but that decisions regarding assistance should be guided by need alone, rather than on distinctions between "good" and "bad" beneficiaries, much less collateral concerns. In short, the idea was that humanitarianism, by definition a "good," ought to be thoroughly depoliticized. Unfortunately, this theory, while morally edifying and psychologically satisfying, disregards certain verities about human nature. Man, as Aristotle once observed, is by nature a political animal. Any social arrangement that presupposes the contrary is, at best, unrealistic.
The current controversy over the "Oil-for-Food" program run by the United Nations Secretariat is, among other things, a salutary lesson on the risks run when a policy is depoliticized. The program, run by the UN from 1996 to 2003, was supposed to be a humanitarian undertaking, a means to feed the hungry children of Iraq until Saddam Hussein came to terms with the demands of the international community. Originally proposed in the early 1990s by then UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar, the "Oil-for-Food" scheme was authorized as a "temporary measure" by Security Council Resolution 986 in 1995. The UN Secretariat, then led by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, implemented the program on terms exceptionally favorable to the Ba‘athist regime in Bagdad-to say nothing of the UN which received a 3 percent commission (estimated to have been eventually worth $2 billion) on every barrel of oil sold. At least initially motivated by reports-subsequently revealed as exaggerated by Saddam's propaganda machine-that the international sanctions imposed on Iraq following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait were causing severe suffering among ordinary Iraqis, "Oil-for-Food" was regarded as a humanitarian program and, except for an occasional peek by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, went essentially unsupervised by the Security Council. The lack of political debate and scrutiny, as it turns out, led, in the words of Wall Street Journal columnist Claudia Rosett, to "not only the biggest but the most extravagant, hypocritical and blatantly perverse relief program ever administered by the UN."
While "Oil-for-Food" was ended last year when, after the fall of Saddam, the Security Council voted to lift sanctions on Iraq and several investigations into the program are presently underway, the same absence of scrutiny and discussion still characterize a number of international and national policies covered under the label "humanitarian." One of these-perhaps the one most in need of a more critical examination-is the one benefiting Saddam's fellow member in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil," North Korea's Kim Jong-Il.
When an explosion-apparently caused by the careless shunting about of wagons loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer in order to clear a path for the passage home of the country's reclusive "Dear Leader" from a trip to Beijing-shook the Ryongchon railway station near the Chinese border on April 22 and killed over one hundred civilians, the immediate U.S. response was to pledge some $100,000 aid. Speaking to reporters, Secretary of State Colin Powell even asserted that: "this offer stands on its own merits. This is a humanitarian catastrophe that has befallen the people of North Korea." The Secretary explicitly noted that he saw U.S. interests "separately and distinct from this humanitarian issue." This stance is, in fact, consistent with American policy towards the communist country since the Clinton Administration. Last year alone, the U.S. provided the country with over 100,000 metric tons in food aid.
That there have been food shortages in North Korea since the early 1990s, which reached famine proportions a few years later, is not news. Reports suggest that up to three million people died from starvation and related illnesses between 1995 and 1998. Despite the fact that the regime used heavy flooding in 1995 as a pretext to make an unprecedented appeal for international assistance, the roots of the crisis are man-made, not natural. The country's policy of juche, or self-reliance, pioneered by Kim Jong-Il's father, Kim Il-Sung, the country's dead but constitutionally "Eternal Leader," led to the collectivization of agricultural production into a leviathan that required increasing industrial inputs and power and contributed to environmental decay. Despite the rhetoric about self-reliance, North Korea was entirely dependent upon a highly concessionary trade balance with the Soviet bloc that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the country without access to international credit markets. In short order, the communist country found itself caught in a vicious cycle where lack of foreign currency restricted its capacity to purchase fuel and other materials necessary for the manufacture of export goods that would generate foreign currency. Without this foreign exchange, the state was cut off from the fuel, fertilizer and spare parts necessary to support the collectivized agriculture.
The problem with the North Korean famine, as has been well documented by relief organizations like Médicins sans frontières (MSF) and Action contre la Faim (ACF) that withdrew from the country in the late 1990s because of barriers that the regime erected to their humanitarian action, was that ongoing starvation, once the world became aware of the plight, had more to do with access to food rather than lack of it. Kim Jong-Il treats his subjects according to their perceived loyalty and utility to his regime, distinguishing between a "core class," centered in Pyongyang, holding strategic positions in government, the military, and industry, and a "hostile class" destined for lives of manual servitude in the rural sticks. Rations were distributed accordingly, with occupants of the lowest rung of the "hostiles" receiving, even during the height of the famine, barely a few kilograms of grain on "important" dates as the birthdays of the Kims père et fils. In short, despite the apolitical rubric under which aid was given, by propping up the very government that caused the humanitarian crisis to begin with, it became a political part of the system of oppression.
The tragedy was compounded by the fact that it occurred despite the largest aid operation in the history of the UN, one that the former Executive Director of the World Food Program (WFP), Catherine Bertini, called "an absolute success." The fact is that neither Bertini nor anyone else can account for where the food went. From the moment the food was unloaded from cargo vessels at the dock, North Korean officials controlled its handling, transportation, storage and presumed distribution. Aid workers were not allowed to accompany the food, relying exclusively on government declarations and an occasional staged visit to "verify" that the aid had reached those who needed it. In the end, the feeble defense that International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRCRC) put up to justify its continued collaboration was typical. One IFRCRC report, while conceding that the aid system might have been manipulated by the regime, asserted that it was "for a good purpose because…the humanitarian agencies, be it the UN, the Red Cross or NGOs…have made an incredible contribution to creating that bridge…our presence has greatly assisted in making possible the continuation of dialogue." Whether the aid facilitated the on-again-off-again dialogue that the international community has been trying to engage the North Korean regime in is debatable, as is the very utility of those negotiations. What is uncontested is that the aid gave the otherwise crippled regime a vital leg to hobble forward on.
Unlike the relief agencies and Secretary Powell, the foreign policy of sovereign states like the U.S. ought not be primarily concerned with questions of humanitarian aid. The U.S. has important political and diplomatic issues to work out with North Korea: in addition to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that earned it a place on President Bush's watch list, the world's last Stalinist bastion also has a million-man army permanently mobilized just across from some 37,000 American troops. Internal political upheaval, especially anything that would unleash a flood of refugees into China (there is already a constant flow) or the North Korean army across the demilitarized zone, would wreck havoc across the region. How is any of these concerns addressed-or not addressed-by a policy of providing "humanitarian aid" to the regime?
It is clear that the U.S. as well as several of its most important international allies and interlocutors-including Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China-have a significant interest in developments on the Korean peninsula. How events should unfold, including whether the eventual demise of the Kim Jong-Il regime ought to be a "soft landing" or a "hard" one, is essentially a political question that ought to be debated in the same manner that other questions of policy, including North Korea's nuclear ambitions, must be engaged (see Ted Gale Carpenter's essay, "Living with the Unthinkable: How to Co-Exist with a Nuclear North Korea," in the Winter 2003 issue of The National Interest). In this context, humanitarian aid is a very political activity. One can proclaim impartiality in giving, but aid itself is not neutral: it immediately changes variables in often complex geopolitical and strategic equations. The provision of aid affects the political economy of a recipient, potentially fueling conflict or dampening tensions. Likewise, aid is conditioned by domestic political considerations in donor countries: witness the fact that different emergencies are treated differently, some receiving more or less attention and succor than others. Consequently, all these issues need to be addressed-something that does not occur when the "humanitarian" label is used to remove the question from public political discourse, as is the case with its use in the North Korean case to get around U.S. legislative restrictions on aid to state sponsors of terrorism.