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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Politics of food

It is in the world's interests not to let North Korea starve

LET'S FACE IT: NORTH Korea may be the world's most obnoxious charity case. It comes across like an aggressive panhandler, who takes the handout and then spits at the benefactor. Such an attitude makes it hard to mobilize foreign concern, much less assistance. The United Nations World Food Program says its recent appeal for $95 million to buy 200,000 tons of food for the hungry nation is only about a third subscribed. Many outsiders even prefer to believe, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that North Korea's travails are an elaborate ploy cooked up by a devious and unscrupulous leadership in Pyongyang. The alleged aim: to split South Korea from its ally and protector, the United States. Against this background, pretexts abound for inaction:

• North Koreans are not really starving. That is the official position of the South Korean government, which has not provided much aid since 1995. The North is facing hard times, even food shortages, but not a famine, goes the argument. It is hard to confirm the worst reports since independent journalists, and sometimes aid workers, are denied access to the stricken regions. But there is growing anecdotal evidence from a range of sources -- including, most recently, several American congressmen and the International Red Cross -- that the situation, beyond Pyongyang, is dire. The North Korean authorities themselves seem to have confirmed the famine by broadcasting recipes for boiling grasses.

• It's all Pyongyang's fault, anyway. Largely true. History teaches that famines are usually man-made, despite the claims of leaders that they are the unavoidable consequences of natural disaster. This was true of the starvation that accompanied Stalin's collectivization drive in Russia during the 1930s and the famine that followed China's Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s. Yes, many parts of North Korea suffered serious back-to-back floods in the last two years. But the real reason for the country's inability to feed itself is its inefficient commune system. Since the Russians discontinued their huge subsidies in recent years, the economy simply has not been able to provide for the people. The flooding has given Pyongyang's leaders a plausible excuse to accept some outside aid without seeming to compromise their ideology of juche (self-reliance).

• Food would just be diverted to the army. A legitimate concern, but not a conclusive argument against more aid. For one thing, soldiers have to eat too. There are more than a million of them, and they cannot be easily demobilized in the absence of a functioning economy capable of absorbing them. Many also have wives and children. So the military makes up a significant portion of North Korea's 23 million people. The suspicion cannot be entirely discounted that Pyongyang may be stockpiling food for an attack on the South. But if North Korea really is preparing for a military offensive, it would need to stockpile a lot more than K-rations. Moreover, aid shipments can be monitored by officials and by satellite to prevent diversion.

• North Korea's leaders are a bunch of ingrates. Little argument there. Most parties who have tried to help have reason to feel snakebitten. South Korea shipped in 150,000 tons of grain. Its reward: commando raids. And Japan, another benefactor, is upset over reports that North Korean agents kidnapped teenage Japanese girls years ago. It is not hard to understand why South Koreans might steel their hearts to the North's plight when the top-level defector, Mr. Hwang Jang Yop, has said Pyongyang is prepared to pulverize them with "nuclear weapons, chemicals and rockets" to achieve reunification. Even so, it is one thing to finger "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and his cohorts as incompetent and perhaps nasty leaders. But the North Korean people, victims themselves, should not be punished for the sins of the regime.

• It is all a cynical power play by Pyongyang. Yes -- and by Seoul and, to an extent, by Washington as well. Regrettably, food aid has become something of a political bargaining chip. North Korea recently demanded more assistance as a precondition for its participation in four-way talks to establish peace in the peninsula. The South, in turn, has insisted that food aid be withheld until the Northerners agree to sit down at the negotiating table. The relevant parties must move food off their political agendas and onto another track. If any strings are to be attached, the requirement should be a serious effort by North Korea to decollectivize its agriculture and open itself to foreign investment. That is the best way to prevent the recurrence of food shortages.

A regime fails its people miserably by running the country into bankruptcy. It then makes irascible, unreasonable demands on the international community and places its own survival ahead of its people's. Under such circumstances, why should the world care? The answer is that allowing North Koreans to starve for political reasons is not only morally wrong, but also potentially destabilizing in one of Asia's most combustible regions. A serious deterioration risks provoking acts of desperation or recklessness by either the North Korean people or their rulers. It is in everyone's interests to ensure that Mr. Kim's hapless subjects have enough to eat.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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