Another food crisis has spread across North Korea, caused by yet another poor harvest and Pyongyang’s disastrous currency manipulation scheme, which wiped out the savings many people had used to feed themselves. We do not know how many people are dying, but it is not as bad as the famine of the 1990s, which killed as many as 2.5 million people.
The Obama administration pledged 240,000 metric tons of food aid and nutritional supplements for children just as the president’s North Korean envoy, Steve Bosworth, announced that Washington would resume four-party nuclear talks. Bosworth acknowledged that the food aid would demonstrate to the North Koreans “that they are getting something in return for the freeze in their nuclear activities.”
Obama officials are repeating the mistakes the U.S. government made in the 1990s when it used food aid in the midst of famine to coax North Korea to the nuclear table. We all know the results of that effort: North Korea has probably six to eight nuclear weapons, and its poor continue to endure hunger and starvation.
U.S. actions have sent three unambiguous messages over the past year:
If you want to eat, build more nuclear weapons. Connecting the nuclear talks, which resumed last week, and humanitarian assistance gives North Korea’s government a major incentive to continue its nuclear program. The regime’s inability to feed its people is the greatest existential threat to its survival, and survival is the central objective of Pyongyang’s domestic and foreign policy. For two years, the U.S. and South Korean governments did not respond to the United Nations’ need-based humanitarian appeals. But both approved food aid when they wanted Pyongyang to return to nuclear negotiations. When North Koreans were starving we did nothing, but when we want them to sit for nuclear talks, we offer to feed them. What’s the message? Without their nuclear weapons, they won’t get aid.
If North Korea’s rulers give up their nuclear weapons, Washington may overthrow them. If the Obama administration viewed Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons as a priority, it should have thought twice before intervening in Libya to remove the one government that has voluntarily given up its weapons of mass destruction. North Korean leaders watched U.S. drones assist Libyan rebels in capturing and killing Moammar Gaddafi. It is immaterial whether Gaddafi deserved his fate. The North Koreans could see that giving up weapons puts you at risk. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said last March that the West’s effort to get Libya to give up its weapons of mass destruction was “an invasion tactic to disarm the country” and that “the Libya crisis is teaching the international community a grave lesson.”
You may do whatever you want with U.S. humanitarian assistance because Washington’s strategic interest is vested in nuclear talks. The North Korean government depends on the loyalty of its Communist Party cadres, its 1.2 million-man army and its internal security forces. A hungry army is a threat to the regime, so Pyongyang has incentive to divert any external food assistance to party cadres, police, soldiers and their families. Between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. Agency for International Development shipped food aid in monthly installments, and when the North Koreans violated the monitoring system — which happened twice — the next shipment was stopped. The North became enraged and shut down the program. But now the North Koreans might walk out of the talks if USAID enforces the strict monitoring protocols just negotiated, because they see the food aid as their reward for returning to talks — not as assistance to feed the poor and powerless.
So what should the next U.S. president do to get us back on track? Unlink food aid from the nuclear talks.
The purpose of humanitarian assistance under U.S. law and international humanitarian convention is to save lives and relieve suffering. It must not be used as a weapon of U.S. diplomacy and should not be manipulated by North Korean officials, military or secret police.
Aggressive monitoring is the only way to ensure that food aid goes to poor families. U.S. authorities should insist on expatriate monitors and translators, unannounced site visits and frequent nutritional monitoring. If monitoring agreements are violated, shipments of food aid should be stopped. Under no circumstances should U.S. food aid go through the Public Distribution System, which is a Stalinist means for Pyongyang to control the population and triage the powerless.
The latest nuclear negotiations are likely to yield what they have for 18 years: nothing. It is time to talk with the North Koreans about other things, such as their abysmal human rights record; the need for economic and political reforms; and health programs for children, many of whom face permanent damage from chronic malnutrition and preventable disease.
North Korea is dying. Its economic system is a wreck, and it cannot feed its people. Most North Koreans I have interviewed over the years privately admit all of this. Washington should do nothing to prolong the agony of the long-suffering North Korean people by supporting the existing system. But perhaps we can begin to push them toward reform.
By Andrew Natsios, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from May 2001 through December 2005 and the author of The Great North Korean Famine.