[Analytics] How should the world respond to North Korean hunger?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the Kumsanpho Fish Pickling Factory with his wife Ri Sol Ju in South Hwanghae Province, North Korea. This undated picture was released by the North’s Korean Central News Agency on August 8, 2018 via KNS and AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Aid increases the North Korean’s overall food supply and tends to bring down the price that ordinary people must pay in the markets. Bradley K. Martin specially for the Asia Times.

If you despise North Korea’s system, should you nevertheless shell out food aid to keep its people from starving?

It is a question that must be addressed whenever the horribly misruled country fails to grow or buy enough food. As Asia Times reported yesterday, this appears to be one of those years.

According to a pessimistic new report this month from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, “widespread undernutrition threatens an entire generation of children, with one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition.”

We hear from them that, due to drought, “production prospects for the 2018/19 early season crops – to be harvested in June – are unfavorable.” Cereal import requirements in the 2018/19 marketing year (November/October) are estimated at 1.59 million metric tons, with commercial imports officially planned at 200,000 tons and food assistance already received or pledged of about 21,200 tons,

For any Scrooge who’s failed thus far to open his wallet, there’s more.

“Food-related coping strategies are widely adopted, including reducing consumption by adults for children to eat and reducing meal sizes. Urban households who typically rely on relatives in rural areas to access food and diversify their consumption are no longer able to do so to the same extent, as also rural households increasingly face food shortages.”

In the United States and South Korea, both officially at war with the North since 1950, often the instinct when such warnings have appeared – including this time – has been to help the hungry, separating humanitarian concerns from politics.

However, over the decades two things have become clear.

First, donors are denied the ability to make sure the aid gets to needy North Korean civilians. Much of it in fact is siphoned off by officials who eat it themselves, supply it to the military or sell it to market traders.

Second, the regime has the effrontery to use the aid, judo-style, as a political weapon – not even bothering to disguise or replace containers identifying the food as having come from enemy countries. Pyongyang has boasted in internal propaganda that enemy countries give not out of charity but because the brilliant dictator, by turning North Korean into a nuclear armed, ferociously war-ready country, has frightened the world into paying tribute.

The Pyongyang leadership has always seen both the giving and the receiving of aid in political terms. Until the nearly worldwide collapse of communism at the beginning of the 1990s, the founding ruler, the late President Kim ll Sung, played the Soviet bloc off against the China bloc to encourage competitive largesse.

Pyongyang meanwhile had become an aid-giver to Third World countries, seeking to woo them to its side in a contest with South Korea for diplomatic recognition and support in international bodies such as the United Nations.

In 1984 when South Korea suffered major flood damage to its agriculture, the North made an expansive gesture that its rulers later came to regret: an offer of massive rice aid to the South. The theory was that the offer would be rejected as humiliating by the strongly anti-North army generals who then ran the South. The Southerners dumbfounded the Northerners by accepting the offer.

Preservation of Northern face demanded carrying through with the donation plans. Northern grain rations had to be reduced drastically to make up for the quantities sent southward. According to testimony by highly placed defectors, the rice aid stunt marked the beginning of the real ruination of the northern economy.

While much of the outside world has come to comprehend the depth of cynicism of North Korea’s leadership even regarding the stomachs of its subjects, some people have continued to offer moving arguments in favor of aid.

In 2010, a North Korean who reported clandestinely for the Japanese news agency AsiaPress captured on video some horrifying footage of a clearly malnourished North Korean woman, who gave her age as 23 but looked half that age. Emaciated, her eyes blank, walking as if in a daze, she was gleaning grass blades to sell to families who would feed the grass to the rabbits they raised.

The intrepid reporter (who went by a pseudonym, Kim Dong Cheol) was interviewed on video by his editor-in-chief, Jiro Ishimaru of Osaka. In the interview, the reporter was asked whether foreigners should provide food aid, even though much of it would be diverted. Yes, Kim Dong Cheol said – because every bit of aid increases the country’s overall food supply and tends to bring down the price that ordinary people must pay in the markets.

That was a purely humanitarian response, and of course charity is generally to be lauded.

Are there exceptions? Some who abhor the North Korean regime would argue that the people of the country might be better off in the long run if their food supplies dropped to the point of inciting revolution.

I haven’t bought that argument since a 1984 conversation with Swami Agnivesh, a deep-thinking activist working (then and now) on behalf of India’s bonded laborers. In view of his country’s terrible poverty at that time, I asked the holy man, what might be the prospects for a revolution?

Swami Agnivesh replied that the poorest people were eating so little they had no energy for activities beyond simple survival and reproduction – forget about revolution.

But even if there are valid reasons to consider charity – and few good reasons to reject it – it needs to be borne in mind that North Korea is not the only country where people are suffering. It ranked 109th on the 2018 Global Hunger Index, with ten even worse-off countries rounding out the rankings from 110th to 119th.

To heed its appeals ahead of those of equally needy or even needier people could essentially validate the regime’s domestic propaganda claim that donors shell out because they tremble when contemplating the trouble the country could cause.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Share it

Exclusive: Beyond the Covid-19 world's coverage