Another day, another North Korean threat.
Just the other day the Kim Jong-il regime threatened to “wipe out” both the U.S. and South Korea if they started a war. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned: “I’m not convinced that they won’t provoke again.” Another day, another North Korean threat.
The Korean Central News Agency constantly spews forth vicious epithets to little effect. But North Korea’s uncompromising policy makes any negotiated settlement seem unlikely.
The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is perhaps the world’s greatest tragedy, a misgoverned, impoverished, oppressed hellhole, with 23 million people subject to the whims of an unpredictable communist monarchy entering its third generation. At the same time, the DPRK is developing longer-range missiles and nuclear weapons, largely impervious to threats or rewards.
Regime change is the preferred strategy for some. But neither Kim nor his associates will voluntarily dismantle their system of oppressive privilege. War would be necessary, when even the costs of victory would be horrific.
Sanctions are the second best response for almost everyone, but so far the regime has been willing to allow the DPRK population to suffer whatever hardships result. Sanctions will not be effective without Chinese support. Yet China has been unwilling to take action to further cripple the North’s already decrepit economy.
That leaves diplomacy. However, years of torturous negotiations between the North and the U.S., South Korea, and Japan leave little reason for hope.
The blame does not fall entirely on Pyongyang — the allied powers have not always lived up to their promises. However, noted long-time Asian analyst Larry Niksch writes, “North Korea’s negotiating positions have hardened considerably since” the end of the Six-Party Talks in 2008. And the more advanced North Korea’s nuclear program, the less likely the DPRK is to sacrifice the fruit of its manifold efforts. Indeed, the impending leadership transition will deter any dramatic change in policy.
Yet the status quo seems untenable.
The U.S. is being pressed to provide humanitarian assistance to the North. The chief victims of the Kim regime are North Koreans. At least a half million people, and perhaps many more, died of starvation during the late 1990s. Despite espousing a philosophy of “juche,” or self-reliance, Pyongyang has regularly banged its tin cup around the world, collecting food assistance from China, the Republic of Korea, America, Europe, and the United Nations.
However, donors have tired of the North’s continued belligerence and diversion of food to the army and party elites. The ROK and U.S. cut off aid in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently noted Washington’s continuing “serious concerns about monitoring” food distribution. The UN World Food Program has collected little money from other nations for similar reasons.
After a hard winter, floods, and outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease — on top of the inevitable failures of central planning — hunger again stalks the North Korean countryside. Official rations are being cut and, some claim, starvation looms. The DPRK took the unprecedented step of requesting that its 40 foreign embassies ask host governments, no matter how poor, for assistance.
In response, the WFP again is requesting donations. The European Union, citing “increasingly desperate and extreme measures…being taken by the hard-hit North Koreans,” agreed to send $14.5 million worth of food. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited the DPRK and declared that to not assist the Kim regime — which, of course, is largely responsible for its people’s plight — was “a human rights violation.”
But the American and South Korean governments remain skeptical of Pyongyang’s claims. Some Western observers believe that the problem is no worse than in recent years. In fact, the Kim regime may be exaggerating the problem in order to stockpile rice for national celebrations planned next year. Seoul’s Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said “there seems to be some political motivation behind North Korea’s recent plea for food aid.”
In any case, Washington has good reason to say no. The aid may be humanitarian, but Pyongyang would see it as a political concession. Worse, the food would strengthen the government. High-level North Korea defector Kim Duk-hong recently told the Wall Street Journal that food assistance “is the same as providing funding for North Korea’s nuclear program.”
While consciously attempting to wreck the regime by starving its people is a dubious strategy for both moral and practical reasons, Western governments should not bolster Pyongyang either. In fact, unconfirmed reports indicate that rations for the army have been cut and hunger has reached the army. Japanese journalist Jiro Ishimaru, who trains undercover North Korean reporters, observed that Pyongyang “used to put the military first, but now it can’t even supply food to its soldiers.”
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