Warnings that North Korea may soon encounter its worst food shortages in decades raise three interconnected questions for the rest of the world. The first is what those other nations can do to alleviate suffering in North Korea. The second addresses the strategic dimension of assistance, or the degree to which any aid affects, or more specifically undercuts, international efforts to force North Korea to honor its international obligations and quit threatening the peace in Northeast Asia. The third concerns the morality of linking the two — the humanitarian dimension and the security problem. In an authoritarian state like North Korea, is it right to make the public suffer for decisions for which it has no input and when its government seems indifferent to the hardships that it imposes on them and which it does not share?

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned last week that North Korea is set to endure its worse drought since 2001, and without more rain, the country will face "significant decreases in the main 2017 cereal production season." Rainfall in five provinces that account for about two-thirds of the production of the nation's staple crops has been estimated at about one-quarter to one-half the long-term average, levels already below that of 2001, a year of historically low cereal production.

In a country where 70 percent of the population is reckoned to lack a sufficiently diverse diet, the cereal shortfall will severely impact diets and food security. The FAO also estimates that 20 percent of herds, including cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry, have been severely affected. Moreover, the FAO is warning that if and when rain does come, it may create flooding that washes away soil from the little arable land that is available. (North Korea is 85 percent mountainous, so farm land is at a premium.)