Let Them Eat Kim

June 6, 2008

Let Them Eat Kim

North Korea is suffering through yet another self-inflicted humanitarian disaster. Why send food aid to Pyongyang when it will go straight into the hands of the country’s elites and strengthen Kim Jong-Il’s regime?

One day after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates publicly confirmed that Kim Jong-Il's regime had indeed been aiding Syria in its clandestine attempt to acquire a nuclear capability, an eleven-member team from four American nongovernmental organizations was working in North Korea. They were taking stock of the country's severe food shortage, with an eye toward getting more food aid from Washington-on top of the more than 500,000 tons of emergency assistance which the Bush administration said it would be sending last month.


But there's an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, which no one seems to be acknowledging: the roots of the crisis are man-made. That food is scarce again in the ironically named Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) should come as no surprise. Sung-Yoon Lee, a scholar of Korean politics at Tufts University, says it well:

North Korea has attained the status of the most "advanced" totalitarian state in the world-ever. The communist leadership has successfully carried out a dynastic succession, a unique feat in the world. All the while, over a million North Korean people have starved to death and more continue to die today, as the North Korean famine is now well into its second decade. The prolonged food catastrophe in North Korea is yet another singular North Korean achievement. No other industrialized, literate, peacetime economy in what we know as the modern world has ever experienced such a calamity.

The DPRK's ideology of rigid self-reliance (juche), pioneered by Kim Il-Sung, the country's dead but constitutionally "Eternal Leader," dictated the collectivization of agricultural production. This required increasing amounts of industrial inputs and power, resulting in massive environmental degradation. Yet despite his autarkic bombast, Kim père was entirely dependent upon a highly concessionary trade balance with other members of the Communist bloc, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. So Kim fils inherited this vicious cycle: a lack of foreign currency restricted his regime's ability to purchase materials necessary to manufacture export goods, an invaluable source of cash. Bereft of foreign exchange, the "Dear Leader" quickly ran out of the fuel, fertilizer and spare parts necessary to support the collectivized agricultural complex. North Koreans have been suffering the consequences for years.

What's more, the ongoing famine has more to do with access to food than simply the lack of it. Kim Jong-Il, like his father before him, treats his subjects according to their perceived loyalty and utility to the dynastic regime, distinguishing between an elite "core class" centered in Pyongyang, a suspect "wavering class" and a "hostile class" destined for lives of manual servitude in the rural hinterlands. Rations are distributed according to this caste system's fifty-one subcategories: the occupants of the lowest "hostile" rung subsist on a few kilograms of grain, begrudgingly doled out on "important" dates like the birthdays and anniversaries of the Kims. Thus the likeliest beneficiaries of U.S. aid will be the very regime supporters most responsible for the country's need for assistance in the first place. As the Washington Post noted just last month, "there have been numerous reports of the North Korean military and senior officials diverting as much as 30 percent of aid for their own use, including reselling donated commodities at steep markups."

The State Department insists that its new aid package, the first since 2005, is entirely unrelated to their hitherto-lackluster efforts to get Pyongyang to meet the nuclear benchmarks agreed upon in the six-party talks. But this denial rings hollow: the food-aid talks began, at the Bush administration's request, at the same time (last October) that the nuclear-disarmament discussions resumed. And historically, American negotiators representing both Democratic and Republican presidents have repeatedly used promises of food aid in failed attempts to achieve "breakthroughs" with Kim Jong-Il's envoys.

In these circumstances, protestations from Foggy Bottom notwithstanding, there is no possibility of aid being neutral, much less apolitical. By propping up the pillars of the same government that caused the humanitarian crises in the first place, any aid becomes, however unintentionally, a political choice to reinforce, at least partially, the existing system of oppression. State Department spokesmen may proclaim that this time they have commitments on how the food will be distributed and what oversight will be permitted, but the DPRK's track record on diplomatic accords hardly inspires confidence.

More importantly, the aid shipments have a distinctive effect within North Korea, and one not necessarily in U.S. interests. While some of the DPRK's neighbors have a clear interest in maintaining the status quo-despite its official rhetoric of unification, the government in Seoul knows that absorbing 23 million North Koreans would set the South Korean economy back by decades; the last thing Beijing's Communist rulers want is a unified and democratic Korea right on their border-America's wider strategic objectives are hardly served by the same policy.

Would some innocent North Korean civilians suffer if American aid was not forthcoming? Possibly. But it is also likely that most "innocent" civilians north of the thirty-eighth parallel are already largely without access to basic necessities. The real pinch from a continued moratorium on assistance would more directly impact the lifestyles of the military units and Communist party cadres through which the Kim family maintains its grasp on power.

As is well-known, the "Dear Leader" relies on both figurative and literal smoke and mirrors to augment his stature among those under his yoke. But even his most-loyal subjects probably wonder why someone born under a mystical double rainbow atop a sacred mountain-the author of six operas more beautiful than all others in the history of music and holder of the world record for a round of golf by twenty-five strokes (shot the very first time he visited a course)-can't provide his people with at least a daily bowl of rice gruel. In the long run, the North Koreans will eventually discover that they are better off without their wunderkind. When that day comes, other countries may be called upon to help Pyongyang come in from the cold. For now, while overthrowing the Kim government is not an option, neither is propping up the nuclear-technology-proliferating regime. Rather it is in the interest of the United States, while containing the destabilizing effects of the regime, to otherwise allow Kim Jong-Il's ability to buy the allegiance of North Korea's "core class" to weaken further.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.