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North Korean Aid and American Interests

Should the US supply food to the world’s worst regime, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? 

On February 29th, Washington announced it had reached an interim arrangement whereby, among other things, the DPRK, as North Korea calls itself, would honor a moratorium on tests of ballistic missiles and the US would provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid. 

On Friday, however, the North Koreans announced they would launch a satellite in the middle of next month. The State Department reaction was swift. “We do want to assist the North Korean people, particularly those who the regime has chosen to neglect,” said spokesperson Victoria Nuland at the Friday press briefing. “That said, a launch of this kind, which would abrogate our agreement, would call into question the credibility of all the commitments that the DPRK has made to us, is making in general, including the commitments that we’ve had with regard to the nutritional assistance, which go to the questions of monitoring and ensuring that any food that we would provide would go to the needy folks and not to the regime elites.”

Nuland’s explanation illustrates what is wrong with Washington’s policy toward North Korea. Her statement implies that America was on the verge of providing food without adequate monitoring to prevent diversion. In the past, the North has rerouted food aid to military storehouses, traded it for weapons, given it to the Pyongyang elite to keep its loyalty, and donated it to African nations. Tinned food from America was even found in a North Korean submarine that had run aground in South Korea.

Of course, the Kim family regime in Pyongyang is hardly to be trusted, but that does not mean the US should automatically back out of the commitment, in the so-called Leap Day deal, to provide food. Why? Feeding starving North Koreans, despite Pyongyang’s antics, is in America’s interest.

Food aid, if distributed with strict monitoring, can undermine the grip of the odious Kim family regime. The regime—now in its third generation with Kim Jong Un—has maintained power mainly by keeping the North Korean people sealed off from the rest of the world so that its propaganda would remain effective. 

Food aid, if properly monitored, can further erode regime controls on information. Foreign food monitors, present in the country to ensure no diversion of aid, give the North Korean people an opportunity to meet outsiders and thereby learn the truth about their own society and the outside world. Moreover, the presence of the monitors tests the limits of the state’s ability. There are simply not enough local minders to watch over foreign workers, doctors, and monitors. In fact, there has been unsupervised contact between foreign food monitors and North Koreans. 

Perhaps the most subversive consequence of the foreign presence is that government officials accompanying foreigners have traveled inside their own country and seen, many for the first time, the failures of their own government.

Need proof that providing strictly monitored food aid is a good idea? North Korea, this month, rejected humanitarian aid from private South Korean groups because they insisted on monitoring its distribution.

So let’s feed North Koreans, whether or not their government launches a missile next month, as long as we also send our monitors along with it.

 

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