Nor is North Korea an easy government to work with. The government restricts the number and movement of aid workers, prohibits Korean-speakers from assisting in the distribution, and has shown little gratitude for the help. Due to the lack of a free market, some collective farms underreport their food production and sell the hidden surpluses on the black market. There are also legitimate fears that, even if the government doesn’t divert the aid, then the North Korean authorities will use any assistance to free up resources for other malign purposes, such as supporting their military.
And a new worry is that the regime is hoarding food to enhance the celebrations planned for next year’s centennial of the birth of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung. The government has said that next year will see North Korea become a ‘militarily strong and economically prosperous’ country. Current leader Kim Jong-Il may, then, use these events to consolidate the transfer of power to his son, Kim Jong-un.
South Korea, meanwhile, has been a long-time victim of its northern neighbour’s malicious behaviour, most recently with several brutal out-of-the blue attacks last year: the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March and the shelling of, Yeonpyeong, a civilian-occupied border island under South Korean control, in November. From 1998 to 2008, South Korea’s leftist governments had pursued a ‘sunshine’ policy of seeking to moderate North Korean behaviour through generous supplies of food aid, fertilizer, and other economic assistance as well as side payments (i.e. bribes) to Pyongyang’s elite. The aid and payments, supplied with little monitoring, did secure several high-profile North-South leadership summits. But they didn’t appreciably alter North Korea’s internal mismanagement or foreign maliciousness.
The current South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak has abandoned these sunshine policies and adopted a somewhat harder line since taking office in 2008. Unlike the pre-1970s South Korean governments, which refused to engage in direct dialogue with the North or recognize the legality of the North Korean state, the current government has stressed its eagerness to resume discussions on the major issues dividing the two countries. But it considers the generosity of the years immediately before 2008 a form of counterproductive appeasement. By rewarding bad behaviour, these policies only encouraged North Korea to resort to further provocations to secure more help.
Many Americans have been inclined to agree. In 2008, before the latest downturn in North Korea-US relations, Pyongyang had accepted a rigorous monitoring arrangement that provided greater assurance to US officials that the food would reach its intended recipients, namely needy women and young children. The relief workers could make advance assessment trips, deploy Korean speakers in the field, and make hundreds of monitoring visits to supervise the movement of food aid from North Korean ports to warehouses to the recipients. The hope is that the North Koreans might now also accept something as rigorous now that their desire for foreign food help has increased and the country has (so far) ceased conducting armed provocations against its neighbour or testing nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles.
The Obama administration, deferring to South Korean sentiment and wary of looking soft before its domestic critics, has thus far declined to offer extensive humanitarian assistance. It hasn’t, however, ruled out such help. And, like earlier US administrations, it has provided emergency flood relief as well as small amounts of medicine, equipment, and other health assistance.
The fact is that as with many policy questions regarding North Korea, there are no good options regarding the food aid question. But on balance, the best course would be for the United States and perhaps the South Korean government to modify their policies and render the food relief.
South Koreans for their part need to consider the additional problems they will face following reunification if the North Koreans that join a reunified country suffer from stunted physical and mental growth, vitamin and iron deficiencies, and increased diseases due to chronic maternal and child malnutrition. These problems are already evident in the large number of Northern refugees who flee to the South.
Furthermore, both Americans and South Koreans should consider that, while the current suspension of engagement with North Korea may be tolerable for another year, when the North Korean leadership will be focused on its political succession process, the stalemate is inherently unstable. Pyongyang could at any time resume testing its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Together, these capabilities could render the continental United States vulnerable to a direct nuclear attack. And the risk that further North Korean provocations on the Peninsula will escalate into a major war have increased due to South Korea’s new policy of retaliating more directly to further North Korean outrages.
The United States should therefore offer food assistance as a means of jump starting a dialogue with Pyongyang that eventually needs to extend to security issues. Official US policy is to separate humanitarian aid decisions from strategic considerations. In the words of the US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, ‘The United States policy is that when we provide assistance, humanitarian assistance, it is based on need and no political consideration should be involved. That’s the first condition.’