Should North Korea Receive Assistance?

A worker unloads sacks of U.S. wheat in North Korea in 2008. In recent years both the U.S. and South Korea have cut off all aid to the country.

Even with our lack of credible North Korean intelligence, one thing remains clear: the country’s people are starving, and have been for decades. After the terrible famine in the 1990s left hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Koreans dead, the regime has proved itself incapable of providing basic sustenance to the majority of its surviving citizens. According to a recent estimate by the U.N. resident coordinator in the DPRK, Jerome Sauvage, some “16 million people [in North Korea] continue to suffer from chronic food insecurity, high malnutrition rates, and deep-rooted economic problems.” With a population around 24 million, that means close to two-thirds of the country is severely underfed.

With the recent drought and floods this summer worsening the condition of crops in North Korea, combined with an almost nonexistent DPRK economy and infrastructure, there is little doubt that North Korea desperately needs international assistance. The larger question when dealing with the Kim regime, however, is: should the international community do anything about it?

In most cases of underdeveloped starving countries, there is typically unanimous agreement that developed countries and nonprofit organizations should step in to alleviate suffering to some extent. The question in such cases is usually how much aid is needed and what the international community can afford (or is willing) to donate — the focus is not on whether or not the world should help, but on how much help is reasonable.

North Korea is different. With an aggressive regime that uses state-managed resources for political control — fueling unspeakable human rights abuses — the worry is that international aid helps support a violent regime. What’s more, there have been concerns that aid given to the North doesn’t reach the people who need it most. The high level state officials tightly control any incoming resources, and so any aid that does reach the starving populace (often through corrupt illegal transactions) usually comes at a high price. In recent years major regional powers (South Korea, Japan, and the U.S.) have stopped donating aid for these reasons.

The Case for Aid

It has not always been this way. One of the most famous attempts at large-scale unconditional aid to North Korea came from its southern neighbor. During the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) South Korea attempted what is now called the “Sunshine Policy.” Throughout this ten-year period, South Korea took a liberal economic stance in the hopes that overt generosity would pave the way for harmonious relations. Some government estimates place the total amount of aid to North Korea from the ROK during the Sunshine decade at close to $3 billion.

The main idea behind the Sunshine Policy was that generous assistance would help some starving Korean poor, who are innocent in all this, and would simultaneously warm inter-Korean relations. An editorial in the Korea Times last year sums this perspective up nicely:

“Imagine a hunger-stricken family in your neighborhood oppressed by a violent, despotic patriarch. This villain often threatens you and even hits you sometimes. Would you let the poor children, the biggest victims, starve to death for having a tyrant father, then? Especially when they were once your family members, who are currently alienated but should be reunited in the end? … food aid to the North is killing three birds with one stone: retaking the initiative in improving [the] relationship; winning the hearts of numerous North Korean residents under transparent distribution; and a boon for South Korean farmers suffering from rice overproduction.”

Sunshine advocates emphasize a separation between politics and humanitarian aid.  They acknowledge that the Kim regime is a brutal one, but insist that their wrongdoing shouldn’t stop the flow of aid to starving civilians, who should not be punished for the actions of their leadership. Even if the assistance only reaches a small minority of the people who need it — they would say — isn’t that worth it?

At the same time, according to this perspective, aid would help “win the hearts” of these North Korean people, who would witness the generosity of their southern cousins. An editorial by Gordon G. Chang even went so far as to suggest that international aid, if properly monitored, could undermine the control of information in North Korea by giving the people there “an opportunity to meet outsiders and thereby get a different perspective on the world – and on their own society.” According to this line of thought, foreign aid would not only be the morally right thing to do, it could even lead to the collapse of the terrible Kim regime.

The Snag

The problem is that the North’s leadership is well aware of the effect that interactions with foreigners could have on its people. As a result, North Korea has traditionally held firm on incredibly strict conditions for foreign aid, eliminating all transparency and accountability, while limiting and monitoring communication between foreigners and North Koreans. According to Korean expert Victor Cha, North Korea “was completely inflexible” with regard to assistance from the U.N. and the World Food Programme (WFP):

“[D]espite the fact that the WFP 1998 appeal for 680,000 tons of food for the DPRK was the largest in history, the regime only allowed twenty-four monitors for the country the size of Pennsylvania … They denied entry to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, even though the United Nations was responsible for feeding easily one-third of the North Korean population … And for nearly ten years … the regime denied entry to any Korean-speaking WFP staff, in order to minimize contact with the population.”

While under ideal conditions, foreign aid would be able to reach people in dire need, and allow for intercultural meetings that could dispel North Korean propaganda myths, the DPRK government would never allow aid under such conditions. One of the key terms for any foreign assistance, according to Ambassador Robert King, is to “ensure transparency in aid distribution ‘to be certain that aid we provide goes to those who are most vulnerable, those who are most in need.'” So far, North Korea has been hostile to most basic transparency or monitoring measures.

But what about warming relations through unconditional aid? Surely North Koreans would at least notice the generosity of donor countries and organizations, right?

Wrong. Instead, as the Sunshine Policy years have shown us, the DPRK twisted the facts through its propaganda machine. The North Korean public was made to believe that the aid was not generous assistance given by its wealthy southern neighbor to its impoverished northern brethren (i.e., the truth), but that all the donations were merely “gifts” from its weak neighbor that recognized the “greatness” of the DPRK leadership.

The clearest example was when former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was able to organize an historic summit with former DPRK leader Kim Jong-il in 2000. While heralded as proof of the Sunshine Policy’s success, and earning the ROK president a Nobel Peace Prize, it was later revealed that the South paid $500 million in bribes to arrange the meeting. Thanks to the tight control the DPRK has over any information in the North, any form of unmonitored aid, like the payments for Kim Jong-il’s presence in the 2000 summit, plays right into the DPRK leadership’s hands. Even worse, most of that money goes straight to military developments.

So, What to Do?

It may be that in North Korea there are no right answers, only varying degrees of bad ones. To ensure that food reaches those who need it most, any foreign aid to North Korea should at least adhere to basic transparency and monitoring guidelines. Ideally (in the U.S. and South Korea’s wildest dreams), foreign aid would also come at the cost of an economically open and denuclearized North Korea. The problem is that current DPRK leadership will never accept even the most basic transparency conditions for foreign aid, as it could reduce the regime’s stranglehold on its people. So, any food assistance — under the North’s terms — would only further bolster a corrupt, violent regime.

The crux of the issue, then, boils down to this: either give aid to North Korea with almost no conditions to help alleviate some of the short-term suffering at the risk of supporting long-term human rights abuses and military developments; or refuse unconditional aid and worsen the current plight of starving North Koreans in the hope that long term benefits will arrive from a potential regime collapse. In the words of former Ambassador and lead negotiator in the six-party talks Christopher Hill, this is “one of the toughest choices that any government can face.” Perhaps precisely because there is no right answer, only two unsatisfactory ones.

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