No Foreign Aid for North Korea if Another Famine Strikes

SHENYANG, CHINA—North Korea is a major topic of interest in this provincial capital in China’s northeast. The “Hermit Kingdom” is just a couple hours away by car. Again, the North’s harvest does not look good. Observers warn that another famine may be coming.

The first reports of drought appeared earlier this year. The United Nations warned that 70 percent of North Korea’s population faces a food shortage.

Another famine is a grievous embarrassment. Several hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as two million, North Koreans died between 1995 and 1997 from a brutal, extended famine. The North since has been dependent on the generosity of others to feed its people.

The DPRK again has begun to bang its tin cup, seeking aid. The People’s Republic of China remains the North’s most important food supplier. The Chinese government almost certainly will continue to stand by its ally.

Between 1995 and 2005, Seoul provided nearly $1.2 billion in food and fertilizer alone. South Korea largely cut off general support after Pyongyang’s military attacks in 2010.

Still, the South remains willing to restart humanitarian transfers. In June, Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said: “If North Korea faces tougher situations, South Korea is willing to provide the necessary support.”

Japan has episodically provided food assistance, but aid generally has reflected the state of relations, which in recent years remains tainted by the controversy over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens. With the Abe government adopting a more assertive foreign policy, it is unlikely to come to the North’s rescue.

Washington has provided aid in the past—roughly $1.1 billion worth, about 60 percent of which was food, between 1995 and 2005. Since then, assistance has been only little and occasional.

Alas, Pyongyang has tended to take the money and, if not run, at least ignore its promises to behave better. In fact, in early 2012, the North almost immediately violated a new agreement negotiated with Washington trading aid for nuclear restraint with a new rocket launch.

So far the administration is saying no. The State Department’s East Asia-Pacific spokeswoman, Katina Adams, explained that “the U.S. has no plans to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea at this time.”

However, as I point out in National Interest, “having succeeded in engaging the pariah states of both Cuba and Iran, the Obama administration might decide to make another try with Pyongyang. And the threat of famine offers an obvious excuse for another aid effort.”

Of course, no one wants the North Koreans to starve. But famine is a self-inflicted disaster. The North has socialized its agriculture and used food to reward political loyalty. Moreover, Pyongyang has devoted scarce resources to nukes, other weapons, and luxuries for the nomenklatura that otherwise could be used to purchase food.

Tempting though it might be to try again, such an effort would certainly be a bad idea. Pyongyang would treat official aid as support for the regime; any resources transferred inevitably free-up resources for use elsewhere. U.S. support would increase popular hardship over the long-term.

However, Washington should allow truly private aid. Such assistance carries no imprimatur of political support.

Moreover, the North appears to be less vulnerable to disaster than two decades ago because farmers produce more food privately, which increasingly is distributed through private markets.

Indeed, that is how many North Koreans survived during the 1990s famine. Such a process will help distribute even limited food supplies to people today.

Refusing to provide aid does not mean Washington should not talk with the North. The United States just should keep its expectations quite low—and not pay anything for mere promises.

North Korea is a continuing tragedy. There is no easy or simple policy guaranteed to end confrontation on the peninsula.

Almost everything the United States has failed so far, including providing government aid to the DPRK. If famine again does strike, the United States and its allies should tell Pyongyang no.