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.)
North Korea has a history of famine. From 1995-1997, it is estimated that at least 2 million people or about 8 percent of the population died of famine. Then, the world swallowed its distaste for the government’s economic mismanagement and its prioritization of the military over the public to provide food aid that helped avoid millions more deaths.
Today, however, the Kim Jong Un regime is considered even more reckless and irresponsible than the Pyongyang government that his father headed. Kim has ignored international warnings and sanctions in the obsessive and reckless pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. There has long been the fear that international assistance not only encourages the government to ignore the needs of its public and focus instead on military priorities — in other words, that it shields Pyongyang from assuming the responsibility for feeding its own people — but that such aid is diverted to the military and does not even reach the people most in need.
Reports that the North Korean economy grew 3.9 percent in 2016 — meaning that the government has funds to purchase foodstuffs on international markets, purchases that would not be subject to international sanction — further hardens some hearts. The North Korean government’s refusal to allow international monitors to accompany aid to ensure that it goes to the individuals most in need has further deterred many potential donors.
It is generally agreed that humanitarian aid and politics should not be linked, but the world has tried to link food aid to the state’s nuclear programs, to little if any effect. Last year, several governments (including the United States) and international organizations provided food aid to North Korea after it was hit by massive floods, but the scale of that assistance was reduced, and there were reports that some of the aid had been diverted to military projects.
Food aid generally to North Korea is being affected. The World Food Program, which currently provides nutritional bars to 190,000 North Korean preschool children and which satisfies two-thirds of their U.N.-recommended daily nutritional needs, has warned that it will have to shut down that program because of a lack of funding.
Nevertheless, the fundamental moral question remains. Even if North Korean priorities are misplaced, and even if some aid is rerouted, should the rest of the world do what it can to ease the suffering of a public that is battered by the indifference of its leaders and the vicissitudes of nature? The world’s moral compass should not be disoriented just because Pyongyang’s is. Indeed, lowering our standards to that of North Korea would offer that regime another, horrific, victory.