MATARA, Sri Lanka — Should countries that abhor North Korea’s system respond to appeals for food aid to keep its people from starving? It’s a question that arises whenever the dreadfully misruled country fails to grow enough food. In recent decades, that means every year.
Some years’ shortages are worse than others and manage to grab the attention of the global media. This week the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported that North Korean ambassadors in a number of countries have been begging for handouts. The United Nations’ World Food Program says the country’s food problems are very real.
Even in the United States and South Korea — both officially at war with the North since 1950 — the instinct used to be to help out, separating humanitarian concerns from politics. But over the years two things have become clear. First, donors are denied the ability to make sure the aid gets to needy civilians. Much of it in fact is siphoned off by officials who eat it themselves, supply it to the military or sell it to market traders.
Second, the regime has the effrontery to use the aid, judo-style, as a political weapon. It boasts in its internal propaganda that enemy countries give not out of charity but because the brilliant “general,” dictator Kim Jong Il, by turning North Korean into a nuclear armed, ferociously war-ready country, has frightened them into paying tribute.
The Pyongyang leadership has always seen both the giving and the receiving of aid in political terms. Until the nearly worldwide collapse of communism at the beginning of the 1990s, Kim’s father, the late President Kim ll Sung, played the Soviet bloc off against the China bloc to encourage competitive largesse.
Pyongyang meanwhile had become an aid-giver to Third World countries, seeking to woo them to its side in a contest with the South for diplomatic recognition and support in international bodies such as the United Nations.
In 1984 when South Korea suffered major flood damage to its agriculture, the North made a gesture its rulers later came to regret: an offer of massive rice aid to the South. The theory was that the offer would be rejected as humiliating by the strongly anti-North army generals then running the South. The Southerners dumbfounded the Northerners by accepting the offer.
According to defector testimony the rice aid stunt marked the beginning of the real ruination of the northern economy. Northern grain rations had to be reduced drastically to make up for the quantities sent southward.
Although just about everyone in the outside world now comprehends the depth of cynicism of North Korea’s leadership even regarding food issues, some people still argue in favor of aid.
Last summer Kim Dong Cheol, a North Korean who reports clandestinely for the Japanese news agency AsiaPress, captured on video some horrifying footage of a clearly malnourished North Korean woman, who gave her age as 23 but looked half that age. Emaciated, her eyes blank, walking as if in a daze, she was gleaning grass blades to sell to families who would feed the grass to the rabbits they raised.
The reporter (whose name is a pseudonym) was interviewed on video by his editor-in-chief, Jiro Ishimaru of Osaka, who showed that footage as well at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan late last year as part of his introduction of a book compiling reports from his underground correspondents in North Korea.
In the interview, the reporter was asked whether foreigners should provide food aid, even though much of it would be diverted. Yes, he said — because every bit of aid increases the country’s overall food supply and tends to bring down the price that civilians must pay in the markets.
The young woman Kim Dong Cheol had videotaped died later in the same year, Ishimaru said yesterday in an email exchange. “Kim filmed that footage in June, 2010 and we received it in July. Kim had a chance to visit the same location in November and found out that she died of hunger there. Her body had been left out in a cornfield for a week to ten days. Her body was half decayed, the eyeballs eaten up by rats or crows, according to people who saw her body.”
The woman was a victim of the regime’s disastrous currency redenomination of late 2009, Ishimaru said. “Business and distribution suddenly stopped. Her parents had to sell their house and the family became homeless. The parents had died of starvation before the daughter.”
Ishimaru said that reporter Kim had recently spoken with an officer in Kim Jong Il’s elite bodyguard service, who said even he and his men were getting only 300 grams of grain each per day, less than half the former rationing standard of 800 grams for uniformed personnel. “It suggests that the government does not have enough foreign currency even to buy enough food for its soldiers,” Ishimaru said. “I think North Korea spent too much for its recent military parade and fireworks.”
Ishimaru said his clandestine reporters have told him that “even in the capital, Pyongyang, the situation is deteriorating, as shown by worsening electricity shortages. Although food is available at public markets, it’s expensive. Fear is spreading among the people about what will happen come spring, the most difficult time of the year,” when much of the harvest will have been used up.
But even if there are valid reasons to consider charity, it needs to be borne in mind that North Korea is far from the only country where people are suffering. To heed its appeals ahead of those of equally needy or even needier people would essentially validate the regime’s propaganda claim that donors shell out because they tremble when contemplating the trouble the country could cause.
At the moment the World Food Program is busy with an emergency program for Sri Lanka. Still recovering from the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the country has just been hit by flooding that left hundreds of thousands of people reportedly homeless and 35 percent of the rice crop wiped out.
Bradley K. Martin, an Asia correspondent for more than three decades, is the author of “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.”