Making Humanitarian Aid Work in North Korea

North Korea is still reeling from what state media is calling the “worst disaster” since 1945.

Floods caused by Typhoon Lionrock at the end of last month have killed 138 at last count. Some 400 are missing, and 68,900 have been left homeless. The UN estimates 600,000 are in need of clean water and other essentials.

The wind and the rain have also split South Korean politicians and raised critical questions about humanitarian relief for horrific regimes.

On Monday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said, through spokesman Jeong Joon-hee, that Seoul would consider granting aid to the North only if it received a request from Pyongyang and that no such request had been received. Then he said that, even if North Korea asked for aid, it was unlikely the South Korean government would provide it. “God helps those who help themselves,” Jeong added.

Opposition lawmakers were quick to criticize. “We can no longer delay government and civilian support from the humanitarian standpoint,” said Rep. Woo Sang-ho, the floor leader of the main opposition party, Minjoo. “We should separately handle the North Korean authorities and the suffering people.”

Is it possible to separate ordinary North Koreans from their despot? As an initial matter, aid, even if provided in kind, is fungible. That means every won that goes to helping flood victims is one less won that Pyongyang has to spend for that purpose—and one more it can put into developing the world’s most destructive weapons.

Seoul, of course, understands that. Yet the story does not end there. If aid is delivered to people by soldiers or Pyongyang officials, Kim Jong Un’s position is strengthened. It is strengthened because people see their government providing assistance or because the regime boasts that other governments are paying tribute to the Kim leader.

If, however, the aid is delivered to flood victims directly by foreign volunteers, it will undermine the regime’s relentless drumbeat of lies, that, for instance, North Korea is the best society in the world. Kim family rulers know how dangerous exposure to foreigners can be, so over the course of decades they have allowed extremely few aid workers across their borders.

So what can Seoul do? President Park Geun-hye and her government now look hard-hearted, something voters are bound to remember in the next countrywide elections.

Perhaps the president should take a page from Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor and North Korea aid worker. Don’t cut off aid, he argues. On the contrary, flood the regime with assistance. “Food, medicine, whatever you like, millions and billions of dollars in a huge convoy of trucks, a whole train, in Panmunjom,” he said to me a decade ago, practicing what he would tell the authorities in Pyongyang. “Here, you can get it. Right now. Take it. Nobody has to starve anymore in your country.” 

There would be only one catch. In Vollertsen’s plan, journalists would accompany the aid into every home, kindergarten, nursery, and hospital. That would break the regime’s monopoly on information to its subjects, as well as its monopoly on information that reaches us. 

If President Park followed his line of thinking, Seoul would take the spotlight off its hard position and put it where it belongs—on Kim Jong Un, who would certainly turn down aid under these conditions. It would then be the regime that looks heartless.

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