Should We Feed the Malnourished North Koreans?

March 30th, 2012

By Dan Miller

lucy_footballNo, not now.

Due to the impending launch by the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of (North) Korea (DPRK) of a “weather satellite,” the United States has “suspended” food aid recently offered in exchange for a promise by the DPRK to refrain from further nuclear and missile tests.  The impending launch should come as no surprise; the DPRK has never substantially honored an expression of willingness to be nice in exchange for goodies. This time, it dishonored its promise even before it had received aid from the United States. China, the closest ally of the DPRK, seems disappointed.  On March 14th, China had commenced

delivering $95 million worth of free food and other supplies that were promised last month. This is meant to help the new North Korean leader buy some more loyalty.

Kim Jong-unDuring the recent negotiations, the apparent ascension of twenty-eight year old Kim Jong-un to the throne of his father, Kim Jong-il upon the latter’s death in December, may have been misconstrued as raising a decent possibility of change for the better within the DPRK’s governing structure. It remains unknown, at least to those not deeply embedded in that structure, what actual powers beyond ceremonial young Kim may hold now or later. It appears that real power is currently held by a regency, consisting of Kim Jong-il’s sister, her husband, various military chieftains and others. There may be occasional shifts of power within the regency but we probably will not detect them until well after the fact, if then.

Having spent lots of time trying to figure out what was going on before and after the death of Kim Jong-il and writing about it here, here, here, here, here and here, I wrote this short piece:

My principal thesis, beyond that we don’t really know much about what’s happening there, is that Kim Junior will be controlled by a regency of close Kim relatives and senior members of the military.

Comfortingly, the White House assured us that

it has “no new concerns” about North Korea’s leadership after the death of dictator Kim Jong-il, but a spokesman for President Obama said he is “closely monitoring events.”

“I don’t think we have any additional concerns,” said presidential spokesman Jay Carney. “The issue here isn’t about personalities, it’s about the actions of the government. President Obama has been regularly briefed on the situation.” (Emphasis added)

alfred_e_neumanYeah, right. Except that in North Korea it is mainly about personalities, their interactions and the ways in which those within and outside the Kim Jong-un regency will seek to maintain and augment their own personal powers and statures. That’s what government is for in North Korea and that’s the way the government there operates; to ignore that reality is to proceed instead on the basis of unrealistic assumptions.

When I go to bed, I generally read novels until I doze off.  Recently, I have been reading Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth — a very strange place for which our experiences on the surface of the Earth would ill prepare us. In Verne’s fantasy world the Earth is hollow, with an inland sea and pleasant temperatures, is lit by electro-luminescence, has yummy stuff to eat and the remains as well as living examples of prehistoric critters can be found (or might find the traveler). As I dozed off, it occurred to me that we in the West are no more familiar with Korea, and particularly with North Korea, than we would be were we trying to understand and analyze goings on at Verne’s center of the Earth. We have never been to the center of the Earth, know very little about it and what we would encounter there would be very different from what we have experienced at home.

We probably recognize this. Yet we try to analyze what happens and is likely to happen in North Korea as though we knew as much as there is to know about it. We seem to look upon it as a small state in a mid western part of the United States.  It is not. Korea has a far longer history than does the United States and is extraordinarily different culturally, historically and in just about every other important respect. It is said that FDR tried to deal with Joseph Stalin before and during WWII as though Stalin were a Senator from the Georgia in the United States.  He obviously knew that Stalin was not, but nevertheless treated him in many respects as though he were. Give him the equivalent of a bridge, a road and other such goodies; then he will like us and do as we demand because that’s the way politics works in the United States.

Until we learn that people around the world are not necessarily the same as we are, don’t necessarily think in the same way and don’t necessarily appreciate the same things, we will continue to muck up foreign policy terribly. Our troops and those of our allies and enemies will continue to die unnecessarily, we will continue to spend money that we don’t have and continue to be impoverished in the process.  Are we stupid, naive, or just mistakenly well-meaning?

Getting back to “humanitarian relief,” it would appear from this DPRK propaganda video that North Korea should be giving, rather than begging for or receiving, humanitarian aid.

A few in tightly controlled Pyongyang, where residence is restricted to those of apparently unblemished loyalty to the Kim Regime, do live something like that. Life is rather different there.  However, very few outside that city can even dream of such luxury; mere dreams require at least some slight basis in experience.

mass_starvationHumanitarian aid might alleviate some of the suffering experienced by some of the many suffering people in North Korea.  North Korea could use it to feed her malnourished peasants but probably wouldn’t. Even with perfect monitoring and precautions to ensure that no aid could possibly be diverted to the military or sold to buy luxury stuff for the DPRK rulers — and perfection is very unlikely to be achieved — resources now permitted to trickle down to the peasants but no longer needed for that purpose would most likely be diverted to those in the power structure.

As I noted here, China — North Korea’s neighbor to the north — has ample reason to provide aid. China is where most North Koreans who try to escape try to go. With a regime collapse, many more would succeed.

The United States and her remaining allies, with different national interests than China, should decline entreaties and promises from the DPRK and should refuse to provide even minimal humanitarian assistance as well as to ameliorate existing sanctions; more of the latter should be imposed. We should maintain and even strengthen at least symbolically our military presence in the ROK [Republic of (South) Korea], an increasingly important trading partner. Perhaps Japan and the ROK should strengthen their own ties further; it’s time for that and concomitantly to try to diminish the Korean animosities toward Japan lingering from well before World War II. Efforts to do so are being made but should be increased. Modern Japan and South Korea have quite a lot in common.

The Washington Times presented this happy scenario:

The death of North Korea’s longtime ruler, Kim Jong-il, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to settle the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and bring North Korea into the community of nations. …

The challenges of dynastic succession provide the young Mr. Kim a historic opportunity to prove his leadership ability by embarking on a bold new course of openness.

Optimism is great, but if relied upon in the present context it is likely to result in disappointment or worse. The specter of North Korean hostilities, possibly or even probably involving nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, will be with us for the foreseeable future. We must deal with that specter realistically and in our own national best interest, something the Obama Administration has generally been incapable of doing. It is to be hoped that, after 2013, things will be very different and much better.

obama_unicornpeace_doveHope for change coupled with a lack of even rudimentary information, visions of happy unicorns flying gaily around and belief that all will, someday and somehow, work out for the best are poor bases for either domestic or foreign policy.  When attempting to look into a black hole such as the DPRK, relying on such insights as we hope we have gained but probably haven’t, it’s best to recognize that we don’t know what we are doing; we don’t. The best we can do is to rely on the past, at least the recent past, as predictive of the future. If things turn out to be better than anticipated, that will be unexpected and good.

(This article was also posted at Dan Miller’s Blog.)

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