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At first glance, it looks like humanitarianism on the cheap: Send the hundreds of tons of beef that are being discarded in Germany to North Korea, where millions of people are reportedly on the brink of starvation. But it is not that simple: Germany’s cattle are being killed because they might have bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, and the cull is designed to eliminate any chance that they might transmit Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a fatal degenerative disease for which there is no cure. The question raises serious moral issues that go beyond a mere balancing of risks.

Germany has agreed to participate in a European Union program to kill hundreds of thousands of cattle in an attempt to boost consumer confidence in European beef, which has been drastically eroded in recent months as a result of BSE fears. Although there were just 29 cases of BSE in the country through last year, German butchers killed only about half the cows they had killed the previous year because of the drop in the demand for beef.

In addition to reducing the risk of BSE transmission, the program is designed to prop up beef prices, a fact that has outraged animal-rights activists. They have threatened to sue the German farm minister for cruelty to animals. Others argue that there is no need to waste the beef; the German aid organization Cap Anamur has suggested that the beef be donated to North Korea to help fight the famine in that country.

The government in Pyongyang has reportedly told its German counterpart that it would accept the beef, and the two sides met Feb. 20 to discuss terms. Germany has insisted that the meat be distributed by an international aid organization, that deliveries be monitored and that an independent team of experts examine the North Korean food-aid distribution system.

The situation in North Korea is certainly grim. By some estimates, nearly 2 million people — almost 10 percent of the population — have died of starvation or related diseases since 1995. North Korea does not deny that the situation is severe, but says the total number of deaths is considerably less: about 220,000 people. No matter what the number, the country is in the grip of a systemic famine that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and blighted those of many of the survivors.

Aid is absolutely essential to help the starving North Koreans, but should assistance include potentially tainted beef, even if it is going to waste? It is pointless to expect the North Korean leadership to be acutely concerned about this particular dilemma. After all, this is the government whose self-indulgent policies and indifference to the fate of the majority of its population created the crisis in the first place. While Pyongyang may claim that mass starvation has been caused by natural disaster, the truth is that the root of the problem is economic mismanagement and disregard for its consequences. Typically, the moral burdens are being loaded onto the shoulders of others.

If we merely tote up the probabilities, then shipping the meat seems like the thing to do. For most North Koreans, starvation is far more likely than getting tainted beef and contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The likelihood of both is minute. Moreover, advocates claim that tests can determine whether the meat is safe to eat.

But the accuracy of those tests is unclear. The incubation period for BSE is still unknown, which means that tainted beef might get through controls, no matter how strict. Moreover, some aid groups say beef is of limited utility for starving people; they need staple foods such as rice, not beef. (If the beef becomes a substitute for other forms of assistance, then it is safe to say that the program is a mistake.)

Those are technical questions, however. The real issue is ethical: Is there something wrong with offering people something that you would not take yourself? Germany is killing cattle because the German public refuses to eat them; for perfectly understandable reasons, it deems the risk of contamination too high. Yet that same public appears willing to let starving North Koreans — people in many ways incapable of exercising the same unclouded judgment — court those risks.

To assert that the government in Pyongyang can make that objective judgment on behalf of its people is disingenuous: It has shown precious little regard for the interests of ordinary North Koreans in the past. Instead, this is a moral question the implications of which we must face squarely. If we are so concerned about the plight of the North Korean people, it would not take much to do much more. Real humanitarianism is not just about a sop to the conscience.

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