"Principled" Hawks Risk North Korea The Obama administration has recently come under fire for standing by its decision to refuse North Korea emergency food aid, despite Pyongyang’s requests for help and emerging reports of malnutrition within the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea’s formal name). Selig Harrison, writing in The National Interest, claims the administration’s policy “simply adds to the deprivation of the North Korean masses in urban centers” and calls for “a long-term food aid commitment to Pyongyang in exchange for denuclearization concessions.” Harrison specifically targets Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell; he blames Campbell for the administration’s policies and for refusing to allow Harrison to convene a proposed discussion of U.S.–North Korean policy issues (in the interest of full disclosure, Campbell co-founded the Center for a New American Security, the home organization of the two authors).
While the decision to deny North Korea food aid at a time when malnutrition appears to be rising is certainly a painful one, the Obama administration is doing the right thing. It has been widely reported that any food aid that arrives in North Korea is diverted away from ordinary citizens and doled out to key constituents, especially in the military. It is precisely for this reason that Pyongyang refuses to allow aid workers the ability to conduct routine monitoring of humanitarian aid delivery. And it is precisely for this reason that the international humanitarian community insists on monitoring assistance, to ensure that emergency aid goes to those facing the humanitarian crisis. As presently controlled by arguably the world’s most autocratic regime, humanitarian assistance and food aid are no more than subsidies to sustain the reign of the Kim Family regime. For those of us who are proud of America’s generosity when it comes to humanitarian aid, we would far prefer that our assistance went to others in need rather than to have it stolen by North Korea’s elite.
Americans should also keep in mind that the plight of the North Korean people is not simply an act of nature or the result of too little outside assistance but directly and indirectly caused by the decisions of its government. Wanton mismanagement, near-perfect isolation, and a reckless lack of investment by the government in Pyongyang is the root cause of its people’s poverty. Kim Jong-Il has consistently spurned South Korean, American, Chinese, and other economic models of sustainable economic development. To be sure, North Korea flirted with some economic reforms, but in the end the regime tightly circumscribed their ability to create sustainable markets. Indeed, a recent report in South Korean media pointed out that last year’s harvest in the North was among the best in two decades, and that food shortage is being caused by government and military hoarding in preparation for 2012, when Pyongyang plans to declare itself a “powerful and prosperous nation.”
Today, food relief is more like medical IVs that provide a direct infusion into the regime’s leadership and elite. For instance, among the more than 45,000 North Korean workers allowed to work in the Kaesong Industrial District run by South Korea, the workers are all from elite members of the Korean Workers’ Party, one of the reasons Pyongyang keeps the factories running even during times of tension, because the benefits go directly to Kim Jong-Il and members of the top one percent of North Korea’s government. Until North Korean leaders change their policies, the DPRK will be perennially incapable of feeding its own people. Pyongyang understands this very well, yet has not made any serious move to reverse its fortunes.
Furthermore, Selig Harrison’s proposal for a long-term food aid commitment in exchange for denuclearization concessions ignores North Korea’s well-documented history of violating its promises and commitments. Indeed, it has become clear that as the United States transferred food and fuel to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization concessions in the 1990s as part of the Agreed Framework, North Korea was clandestinely building nuclear weapons and their related infrastructure. Moreover, North Korea has already agreed to fully denuclearize itself; there is no reason why the United States should, in the words of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “buy the same horse twice.” But that is precisely the negotiating gambit that North Korea has used time and again to extract concessions from the outside world in exchange for pretending to be serious about doing something this time. We must learn from the past.
Yet the North Korean people need not starve as Washington and Pyongyang attempt to stare one another down. Instead of a grand “food for nukes” bargain that mirrors past attempts that have left both sides feeling cheated, why not a simple agreement on North Korea’s side to allow international aid workers to ensure that food delivered to the North Korean people ends up on their plates and not in a North Korean government warehouse? Surely, it must be easier for Pyongyang to allow foreign aid workers into the country than to abandon a nuclear program it has vigorously pursued since the 1970s. Lest critics think this unfair, this is what is required in all emergency food aid programs administered by the United Nations World Food Program.
Because Americans genuinely want to do good in the world, they are vulnerable to actors who would prefer to defraud the system. In Zimbabwe we found ways to work with civil society in order to minimize propping up the repugnant regime of Robert Mugabe. But in North Korea, there is no civil society; there are also no truly academic exchanges or free-thinking seminars. Washington must always remain open to dialogue, and we should never stop searching for a way to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need. Quite separate from the food issue, we may also need to “make the first move” in order to reinitiate a meaningful denuclearization process. But one thing we should not do is to feed Kim Jong-Il’s military while his regime allows ordinary people to starve.