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 70% of North Korea's population faces a food shortage.
A month later the Democratic People's Republic of Korea cited "the worst drought in 100 years." The Food and Agriculture Organization predicted domestic production may run only half that of last year.
Another famine is another 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 cut off general support after Pyongyang's military attacks in 2010: Aid fell from about a peak of about $400 million in 2007 to a low of around $13 million in 2012.
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 — between 1995 and 2005 roughly $1.1 billion worth, some 60% of which was food. 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.
Today the Kim regime is unlikely to abandon its core interests — preserving domestic power and international security — for a little extra food.
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."
But having succeeded in engaging the pariah states of 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, a bad idea it certainly would be. Pyongyang will treat official aid as support for the regime; any resources transferred inevitably free up resources for use elsewhere. The more aid, the less pressure for reform. U.S. support would increase popular hardship over the long-term.
But 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. Close to a third of agricultural efforts are estimated to be devoted to private production. And distribution of goods, including food, increasingly has shifted to private markets.
Indeed, that's how many North Koreans survived during the '90s 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 U.S. 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. In fact, so far almost everything has failed. Including providing government aid to the DPRK. If famine again does strike, the U.S. and its allies should tell Pyongyang no.