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The Silent Famine in North Korea

Why Should We Care?
Guest Commentary by Andrew Natsios, a former Vice-President of World Vision

Click here for a North Korea progress update (June 1, 1999)

photo courtesy of World Food Programme

A nation of 23 million people has been starving, silently and painfully, for almost a year. Eighty-five percent of its children are malnourished and many Americans still ask: "Why should we care about North Koreans?"

Obvious moral and ethical answers do not seem to be sufficient. Skewed political considerations have thrown a clumsy cover on our national conscience. They have provided excuses for not upholding the American tradition of sending sufficient food aid to those who desperately need it, regardless of politics. Former President Ronald Reagan stated our tradition best when he said: "A hungry child knows no politics."

    While every famine is complicated by politics, it is fair to say that the North Korean famine is the most complicated politically I have witnessed in more than 15 years. Politics is killing people. Literally.

    Some critics have said that the Stalinist regime of North Korea is perhaps the world’s least deserving government. North Korea’s million-man army--pointed at our South Korean allies as well as at 37,000 American troops--dampens our desire to build a bridge of empathy across the seas and across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), one of the most heavily armed areas in the world. And failed agricultural policies made in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, have contributed more to the famine than floods or drought.

    Indeed, there are compelling political questions. But there are also legitimate answers. We can and should construct our food aid programs so that they minimize undesirable consequences. Here are a few examples:

    Why can't North Korea, which spent millions of dollars on its military, buy its own food?
      Some argue that the North Korean government has the resources to stop the famine by purchasing grain on the international markets if it would only reduce its military spending. In fact, the North Korean economy is crumbling and the government can not purchase anything on credit because of its poor credit rating. North Korea’s currency is not exchangeable on international markets so it can not be used to purchase food. Will food aid encourage the North Korean government to postpone needed agricultural and economic reforms?
      In the long run, more spending on agricultural improvements and general economic reforms are critical to avoid famines in the future; however, it is much too late to reallocate resources or to initiate economic reforms to affect the current crisis and save lives.
    Will the North Korean government divert food aid from those who are hungry to the military or the party elite? How can we prevent it?
      First of all, the military has a separate food distribution system. The United Nations and humanitarian aid groups are working within the general public’s food distribution system. Secondly, by shipping food directly to smaller east coast ports for delivery inland, food aid will avoid the capital and central government where it would be the most vulnerable to diversion. Thirdly, by shipping the least desirable of cereal grains, barley and corn, food aid will be eaten by those who desperately need it. Those who have a choice, the party elite and military, want only rice. This serves as a self-selecting filter for food aid. Lastly, a sufficient number of food monitors from the United Nations are in place in North Korea to ensure that the food ends up where it should. This is a condition that the United Nations, humanitarian groups and North Korean officials have agreed upon.
    Will food aid endanger peace on the Korean peninsula?
      Famines have profoundly destabilizing political consequences that are much less predictable than their early detection and prevention. Famines can be very dangerous to regional security in any region of the world but particularly in an already unstable region like the Korean peninsula.

      For example, there are reports of widespread population movements in the country, a nearly invariable part of famine as hungry people migrate in search of food. This hungry population could move toward the South Korean border. How North Korea’s or South Korea’s military along the border might react in such a situation is unknown.
    Will food aid maintain a government in power which has not conformed to international standards of behavior and regularly uses belligerent and threatening rhetoric toward its neighbors?
      Some people advocate using food as a weapon to ensure the collapse of the North Korean government, a dangerous and risky gamble given the unpredictability of the politics of famine. Famines breed chaos, not democracy. In the cases of Ethiopia and Angola, food aid set the stage for peace and better relations with the United States. While these political questions deserve consideration, that debate should not paralyze international efforts to prevent widespread deaths in North Korea. Legitimate concerns about accountability can be designed into famine relief strategies.
Moral and ethical questions also cannot and should not be avoided. For example, is it right to condemn millions of powerless people to physical and mental agony and death by starvation because of their leaders? The answer is clearly no. We must distinguish between North Korea’s authorities and its innocent people, most of whom were born under this regime and none of whom have the freedom to choose their leaders.
    Complex geopolitical posturing among the powers that be in Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang have compromised our moral grounding. Americans need to remember that we are a country founded in faith, a faith in our Lord who said, ". . . if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink....Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
      Famines are terrible events. I ran a half dozen famine responses around the world during the Bush Administration. No American would be asking, "Why should we care?" if he or she had witnessed the horrors of famines and understood the profound instability they unleash.
      Andrew Natsios is a former vice-president of World Vision United States.

      Here is an update on World Vision's relief efforts in North Korea. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view this file.
      Click here (or on the icon to the right) to get it for free.
      North Korea Quarterly Report: 1998 Agricultural Initiative Helps

      Copyright 1998 World Vision Inc.

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