More than a decade and a half of humanitarian relief initiatives for North Korea have been financed by well-meaning but essentially clueless bureaucracies in the international community oblivious to, or unwilling to face, the ugly realities that account for North Korea’s hunger problem today. To no great surprise, these clueless programs of supposed humanitarian relief have been a resounding failure. Or to be a little more precise: they have done a wonderful job of nourishing and supporting the North Korean regime — they have only incidentally and episodically mitigated the distress of the victims for which they were intended. Thus the unending calls for more food aid for North Korea — a pattern that in itself should awaken us to the basic bankruptcy of our current approach.
Is there a role for international humanitarian assistance for North Korea? I believe there is — but it must be completely different from the hapless programs we’ve underwritten to date. I’d call my approach ‘intrusive aid.’
Very briefly: intrusive aid would require North Korea to provide detailed internal data pertaining to health and nutrition throughout the country — death rates, heights and weights of children, and the like — and not just the sort of obviously falsified data that the World Food Programme and others have meekly accepted in the past. Intrusive aid would also require free and unconditional access by large numbers of Korean-speaking outsiders to the country as a whole, so that they could conduct their own independent assessment of need. Further, intrusive aid would be administered by the representatives of the aid organizations themselves, not simply handed over to North Korean officials to use as they promised, or saw fit: trusting the good intentions of the Kim Jong-il regime wouldn’t be part of the program. Finally, and not least important, in consonance with the two basic principles of humanitarian relief — impartiality and non-discrimination — the program would demand access to all of North Korea’s people: including the ‘hostile’ classes, and yes, the prisoners in Yodok and other dreadful concentration camps.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The program of intrusive aid would be indivisible and non-negotiable: that is to say, no haggling, ‘salami tactics’ or official interference allowed with any aspect. If Pyongyang agreed, the aid program would go forward. Otherwise the mission is scrapped — because Pyongyang refused to accept the conditions under which genuine humanitarian aid might have worked.
I am aware that my modest proposal for intrusive aid will be unpopular with many ‘aid professionals’ and those who advocate continuing the failed approaches of the past, and will be regarded skeptically by other specialists and policymakers as well. How, critics may reasonably object, can we believe that Pyongyang could possibly agree to such conditions on outside aid? My reply is simple: we will never know unless we are bold enough to ask. We have seen what nearly two decades of timid, supine humanitarian aid has brought the North Korean people: food insecurity without end. Isn’t it time to fashion an aid program as if the North Korean people really mattered?
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, and serves as Senior Adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle. This is an edited version of an article published by the East Asia Foundation's Global Asia.