My wife and I are from North Korea, and here is my number one recommendation to the international community to avert a potential humanitarian disaster in North Korea: send food aid, specifically rice.
If sanctions against North Korea are aimed at the North Korean regime, sending rice is for the North Korean people. We need to maintain sanctions measures targeting those in positions of power in North Korea, but we must find ways to lessen the suffering of the North Korean people. The simplest way to save tens of thousands of North Korean lives is to send rice.
Rice is the basis for all market prices in North Korea. Indeed, rice contributes substantially and fundamentally to the economy in North Korea. When there is enough rice in the market, all prices become stable, but when there is not enough rice, the price of rice rises, and all prices rise. Rice is such an integral part of North Korean society that people fight for it daily. People live and die for rice. The struggle to survive is part of the daily chores of the North Korean people.
Understandably, there are valid concerns regarding the delivery of rice aid under the totalitarian rule of Kim Jong Un and the privileged class. However, the lives of Kim and his privileged followers will remain unchanged whether rice is sent by the international community or not. The elites of North Korea will have plenty of food, regardless of how much food there is for the ordinary people. The elites will eat even if North Koreans are starving. The purpose of sending rice will be to keep ordinary people from starving to death.
Some people worry that rice sent from abroad will only be used by the soldiers. Let us remember, though, that North Korean soldiers are also North Koreans. All North Korean men are required by law to complete 10 years of military service upon graduating from high school. No one wants to spend 10 years of their lives in the military, used as forced laborers, without pay and proper nourishment. But they don’t have a choice. In other words, North Korean soldiers too are victims of the Kim regime’s widespread, systemic human rights abuses.
The good news, in an ironic twist, is that due to widespread corruption in North Korea, and the universal shadow economy, based on bribery, rice will certainly still flow back into the market despite having been misappropriated by any particular group. Once rice reaches North Korea, it will circulate in the market and will be distributed to the people naturally.
Even if the international community provides only rice to North Koreans, at the very least, mass starvation can be prevented. It is time for the international community to take North Korea’s current situation seriously and act on humanitarian grounds. It must continue to try and get the Kim regime to accept rice aid.
The world often focuses on Kim Jong Un and the nuclear issue while forgetting the lives and human rights of the North Korean people. There is more to North Korea than Kim Jong Un and his regime’s nuclear weapons. Twenty-five million North Koreans live there, and they face daily hardships while being subject to heinous human rights atrocities. The international community cannot simply watch as bystanders as millions of North Koreans starve to death again.
As Dan Chung, the head of Crossing Borders, puts it: “If the world waits to verify that this [food shortage] is actually true, it might be too late, and tens of thousands of lives might be lost.”