Feeding a Failing State’s Hungry

This article appeared in the San Diego Union‐​Tribune on September 25, 2005.

North Koreans apparently are starving again. The U.S. is offering 50,000 tons of food aid, but the United Nations World Food Program hopes to raise far more. In the case of North Korea, however, less is probably better.

The so‐​called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea belongs on any list of world’s worst tyrannies. The Stalinist regime has created a human rights horror, mismanaged the economy, diverted precious resources to an over‐​size military and nuclear weapons program, and allowed hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people to die over the last decade.

It is hard to stand by when people are starving. WFP Asia Director Anthony Banbury worries that even after the U.S. contribution, “If no new donations come in, 80 percent of the 6.5 million people we are trying to help will be without our assistance and they will be in a desperate situation.”

Unfortunately, yielding to the temptation to help would strengthen the regime of Kim Jong‐​il and thereby prolong the suffering of the North Korean people.

North Korea is a true totalitarian state, perhaps the closest approximation of George Orwell’s 1984. Amnesty International lists a litany of violations of the most basic human rights: torture, executions, starvation, degrading imprisonment, controlled press.

Pyongyang also follows the Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China in enforcing political dictatorship through secret police and penal camps. Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician who spent 18 months in North Korea, writes of “mass executions, torture, rape, murder, and other crimes against humanity” conducted in the North’s prisons. Even more chilling are reports, unconfirmed but believable, of chemical and biological weapons tests on inmates.

How can so small a country imprison so many people? It is easy if almost everything is a crime. A recent report by the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea explains, “As in Stalin’s time, North Koreans are arrested for trumped‐​up ‘crimes,’ such as reading a foreign newspaper, singing a South Korean pop song, or ‘insulting the authority’ of the North Korean leadership.”

The system has always been murderous. But the prisoners’ status became immeasurably worse with economic collapse.

Moreover, the famine has spawned a newer set of facilities to hold and punish people seeking to flee their homeland.

Still, it’s hard for even the nastiest regime to cope when so much of its population wants to leave. To its shame, China rounds up desperate refugees and turns them over to the North.

The Chinese government also allows North Korean security forces to operate inside China. They are thought to have kidnapped Kim Dong‐​shik, a South Korean minister who was helping North Korean refugees, in 2000.

South Korea also is seeking to discourage flight from the DPRK, though for different reasons. A mixture of fear of North Korean military action and sense of ethnic comradeship has caused Seoul to pursue a policy akin to appeasement of Pyongyang.

Extreme sensitivity to the DPRK’s views is now evident in Seoul’s efforts to discourage refugees from the North. Last year 1900 North Koreans made it to the ROK. But Seoul apparently believes this is too many. In 2005 just 130 refugees had arrived through April.

South Korea has significantly cut its aid payments to newly arrived refugees. It also has attempted to restrict the activists who organize defections and prevent would‐​be refugees from breaking into ROK diplomatic missions.

Moreover, announced Chung Dong‐​young, South Korea’s Unification Minister, the “government clearly opposes organized defections. For the people in the North to live their lives in the North with their families is necessary both for individuals and for co‐​existence and co‐​prosperity.” Vice Unificiation Minister Rhee Bong‐​jo added that the government was tightening its screening procedures to “have a deterrent effect.”

Although there’s no reason for the South to go out of its way to antagonize Pyongyang, it need not cringe from raising human rights issues. Yet the ROK has abstained three years in a row when the UN General Assembly, hardly a hotbed of pro‐​human rights sentiments, passed a resolution expressing (in 2003) “its deep concern at reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights” in the North.

But South Korea does more than ignore refugees. Over the last four years Norbert Vollertsen has campaigned against Pyongyang and aided North Korean refugees. Alas, his work embarrassed the South as well as the DPRK. So Seoul sent him home in June because, it explained, his “political activities” violated his tourist visa. The U.S. has pressed China to change its policy.

Nevertheless, some administration critics, including Sen. Sam Brownback (R‑Kan.), who authored the NKHRA, don’t believe the State Department has done enough. But America’s influence remains limited despite its superpower status. Dealing with Beijing is especially difficult, since Washington also is seeking China’s help in deterring the North from developing nuclear weapons, reducing textile exports, and more.

Washington could do more to welcome anyone escaping North Korea’s hellhole, however. So far the U.S. has been strangely reluctant to accept North Korean refugees. Only nine North Koreans have been granted asylum since 2002.

The U.S. need not worry about being overwhelmed with refugees: most North Koreans understandably prefer to live in South Korea. Moreover, getting from the North to America is no mean feat. In fact, barely 100 North Koreans have reached the U.S. after passage of the NKHRA last year.

But none has successfully won political asylum. One, Ju Young‐​hak, has thrice held vigils outside the State Department. U.S. rules discriminate against North Koreans if they first went to a third country, such as South Korea. Thus, reports the State Department, new procedures are being considered that “would allow the United States to accept North Korean refugees who have a compelling reason for resettling in the United States rather than in South Korea or elsewhere.”

But why not accept any North Koreans who want to come for the simple reason that America is free and prosperous? That seems compelling enough. Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute movingly writes: “Against great odds, South Korea has become the home of freedom in the peninsula. Now the task is to extend that freedom to the North, if need be, one escapee at a time.” If the ROK won’t, the U.S. should.

Developing sensible policy towards the DPRK is not easy. America’s overriding goal remains to divert the North from its nuclear path. Thus, some assistance might be worth providing as part of a verifiable dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program. In that case, aid should not be made contingent on human rights improvements, as desirable as they would be.

Otherwise, however, the U.S. should focus on helping the North Korean people rather than the regime. Earlier this year ROK Unification Minister Chung essentially apologized to the North for the fact that its citizens had the temerity to seek freedom in the South: “North Korea takes the refugee issue as a threat to its regime,” but “undermining the North is not our policy.”

This is moral and practical bankruptcy. The U.S. and its allies should undermine the North’s totalitarian system. Not violently, since the cost of any war would be too high. But they certainly should not prop up the Kim Jong‐​il regime.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.