At Large

The Land of Bad Options

No aid for North Korea so long as it threatens the South. And that's just for starters.

By 12.21.11

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Kim Jong-il is dead, but little is likely to change in the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea. There will be an intense struggle for power, but the North Korean people will continue to suffer. 

Last week American and DPRK officials met in Beijing to discuss the possible resumption of U.S. food aid. Pyongyang has been banging its tin cup as the North's population faces hunger and malnutrition. 

One newspaper headline read "U.S., N.Korea Discuss Food Shortage." Another paper ran a story titled "Private Groups Ask U.S. Food Aid for N. Koreans." A magazine story reported "Time Runs Out for Pyongyang to Avert Massive Famine."

Actually, these three articles were published in 1997. In the ensuing 14 years the North has continued as communism's latest self-inflicted catastrophe. 

Pyongyang's collectivist, state-run economy is a wreck. At the same time, Kim Jong-il pursued a "military first" policy, developing nuclear weapons, producing missiles, and maintaining a large conventional military. Along the way his government repeatedly threatened the Republic of Korea with death and destruction -- even sinking a South Korean naval vessel and bombarding a South Korean island last year. 

Pervasive hardship and suffering has had no impact on North Korean policy. The regime survives on handouts from China.

Now, again, the DPRK's population faces hunger. Earlier this year Pyongyang had its 40 foreign embassies ask host governments, including in poor developing states, for help. 

But the North has other options. North Korea's new rulers could open up the economy, as even Beijing long has urged. The Republic of Korea has the world's 13th-largest economy. It succeeded by relaxing state controls, encouraging entrepreneurship, and trading globally. Even more modest reforms would enable North Korea to feed itself. 

However, Kim undoubtedly feared that relaxing his economic grip would cost him political control. He relaxed state restrictions only at the margins, such as allowing private flea markets. 

Pyongyang also could reduce the extraordinarily high share of resources going to the military -- perhaps a third or even more of GDP. Redeploying a significant amount of money and effort even in such an inefficient system could prevent the North Korean people from starving. But the military is an important tool of social control. It also has become the most important political foundation of the regime. Finally, only the DPRK's destructive military capabilities -- conventional and nascent nuclear -- cause other nations to pay attention to the North.

Thus, the "Dear Leader" consciously wrecked the economy and squandered his people's resources on the military. Next year could be worse, as Kim's death makes it even more likely that North Korea will implement plans to present itself as "a powerful and prosperous country" to celebrate the 100th anniversary of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung's birth and the enthronement of Kim Jong-il's successor. The result almost certainly will be the prodigious waste of scarce resources on showy public displays.

So it comes as no surprise to find that much of the North Korean population apparently is hungry. Outside aid agencies warn that the country is short hundreds of thousands of tons of grain. Arif Husain of the World Food Program said, "The situation is precarious."

Nevertheless, the United Nations reports an increased harvest and the North doesn't appear to face mass starvation and death, as during the late 1990s, when at least a half million, and perhaps many more, North Koreans died. Indeed, some observers are skeptical of Pyongyang's claims even now: South Korea's unification minister, Yu-Woo-ik, declared that the situation was "not seriously urgent." However, hardship and malnutrition appear to be real.

Thus, aid groups such as the World Food Program are attempting to round up food donations. In support of their efforts, Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation decried the Obama administration's refusal "to provide help." He dismissed administration concern over the potential for diversion and misappropriation with the observation that "huge amounts of American aid go to an Afghan government permeated by graft and corruption." 

Of course, Washington has reason to worry. Warned the Congressional Research Service earlier this year: "Pyongyang has resisted reforms that would allow the equitable distribution of food and help pay for food imports. Additionally, the North Korean government restricts the ability of donors to operate in the country. Multiple sources have asserted that some of the food assistance going to North Korea is routinely diverted for resale in private markets or other uses."

In fact, the administration ended food aid two years ago because the Kim government interfered with outside monitoring. And abuses elsewhere, such as Afghanistan, which in part reflect the ongoing war, should make Washington more, not less, careful in the future. 

Nevertheless, Abramowitz is right to believe that politics likely is influencing the administration's decision -- as it should. Tragic as is the plight of the North Korean people, it is a political crisis. The Kim regime consciously disabled the economy and wasted much of the government's resources. By seeking aid abroad while preaching "juche," or self-reliance, at home, Pyongyang is asking other nations, including some routinely targeted as enemies, to deliver it from its self-created difficulties.

Moreover, the DPRK sees assistance from other governments as political acts. Were the North Korean problem merely an abundance of well-intentioned bunglers, the West could provide assistance with less concern. However, Pyongyang's policies are conscious and calculated, and always were intended to benefit the Kim dynasty. 

Thus, official food aid would indemnify Pyongyang for its disastrous economic and military policies. Assistance also would help keep the Kim family in power, to the deadly detriment of the North Korean people. Moreover, subsidizing a regime that constantly threatens its neighbors effectively subsidizes the threats, and the means to carry them out. High level North Korea defector Kim Duk-hong told the Wall Street Journal that food assistance "is the same as providing funding for North Korea's nuclear program."

Aid would relieve what little pressure the regime faces. For instance, there has been some evidence that rations have been reduced for North Korea's military and the privileged residents of Pyongyang. Feeding more people today may strengthen the yoke of oppression tomorrow.

American food aid also would relieve the burden on China to support its client state. The Kim regime survives largely because Beijing provides substantial energy and food assistance. For its own reasons, the People's Republic of China has refused to place meaningful pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program -- in contrast to getting the North to attend talks on abandoning its nuclear program. 

Since the PRC is committed to the survival of a communist North Korea, let China feed the North's population. Chinese policy has helped make a starving yet nuclear-armed DPRK a reality. The problem should be placed in Beijing's lap.

Of course, humanitarianism still understandably appeals, so the U.S. should not block private aid agencies which want to work in the North. Their work, at least, avoids placing an official imprimatur on Pyongyang's decisions. The greatest human needs might be met while limiting the DPRK's political advantage. But Washington needs to avoid doing harm while trying to help.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).