Answering North Korea’s Call for Food Aid

For many around the world, the past few years have been a struggle to provide for basic needs with no clear end in sight. Once again, North Korea faces a serious food shortage thanks to poor crop yields due to harsh weather. Despite spending much of 2010 posturing for open conflict, the communist government has once again come to the International Community for help. The situation is likely desperate as Western aid organizations were allowed unabated access to the closed society. On the other hand, North Korea’s relationship with the world is both toxic and untenable, so the current crisis must be addressed with a more long-term solution.

In spite of the Kim Jong-il regime’s reckless behavior, the International Community and the Obama Administration will likely ensure a humanitarian crisis is adverted. Humanitarian aid in the modern age cannot be morally, nor politically, held hostage to political or military preconditions. At most, relief efforts can hinge on security threats to aid workers and guarantees aid will not be diverted. It is, however, perfectly reasonable to deny aid to areas where a legitimate need does not exist. If North Korea behaved more like a proper modern government and member of the International Community, it would face higher import food prices, yet have plenty of access to food staples.

That said, the current reality can only be changed over years while the North Korean People are already eating indigestible “alternative foods,” such as grass. The problem with North Korea is that we find ourselves in a vicious cycle where the communist nation engages in destructive conduct, we react at a hefty cost to our treasuries, then Pyongyang begs for humanitarian aid in the wake of another food crisis before the North engages in even worse behavior. Continually enabling North Korea’s reckless behavior has only encouraged an escalation of its disruptive, self-destructive policies. As the impoverished nation advances its nuclear ambitions, the situation will only get worse.

Where offering humanitarian aid in other countries under various circumstances might garner support for our international order, the Kim Jong-il regime has socially engineered its People to view foreign aid as an act of submission and tribute instead of charity to a population suffering due to their government’s policies. Consequently, helping North Korea feed its People allows the regime to maintain order and satiate growing unrest. Given the potential for a new leader taking over the reins in the near future, the regime wants to ensure the relatively unknown Kim Jong-un demonstrates his strength as a military leader while disarming any movement that would reject his rule.

Meanwhile, the United States has sponsored round after round of economic sanctions designed specifically to encourage its citizens to pressure the regime. Simply giving North Korea the one thing its People cannot live without is counterproductive. Considering the sinking of a South Korean warship and the bombing of the Yeonpyeong Island by the North in 2010, we might draw a limited analogy to World War II as the last major traditional war. Had the Nazis or Japanese needed food aid, they would not receive it until they agreed to halt their aggressions. Although ending the Korean War would take too long for the current crisis, our two major goals of denuclearization and disarmament can be addressed.

Like all post Cold War US leaders, the Obama Administration now struggles with the humanitarian reality and the need for a tough stance against North Korea. Looking at the “oil for food program,” which admittedly Saddam Hussein did abuse, a solution may present itself. North Korea is a poor country in many ways, yet it is rich enough to sustain a massive military, which includes warships and an aggressive nuclear program. As such, it has the wealth to buy, or barter for, food. Given the fact the North costs the US and South Korea with its use of war machines, while they plainly owe the South a new warship to say the least, they can give up their hardware to feed their People.

It is time we break the vicious cycle Pyongyang has forced upon the world and its People. It is the responsibility of every government to provide for the basic needs of its citizens. Coupled with an agreement to resume denuclearization, a “weapons for food” program could help us push North Korea to start disarming while addressing the cyclical humanitarian crisis that undermines its society. Forcing the North Koreans to watch as we trade their battleships for food then casually sink them off their shores boldly illustrates our strength. Most importantly, it sends an important message to the regime and the North Korean People that their government must submit to outside pressures, even if a trivial amount of hardware is handed over in the first round of humanitarian aid.