South Korea’s Humanitarian Dilemma by Victor Hsu

[The following article was written by CanKor Brain Trust member Professor Victor W. Hsu, Korean Development Institute School of Public Policy and Management & Former National Director for North Korea of World Vision International. A shortened version was published as an Opinion piece in the Korea Times. – Miranda]

Home visit in Popdong - photo E. Weingartner

On March 22, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification, Lee Jong-joo announced that “there are no plans for direct government-to-government humanitarian aid” to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). But the government is “considering when and how to resume humanitarian aid provided by South Korean NGOs.” This is certainly a step in the right direction given that in recent months the Republic of Korea (ROK) government officials have had to encounter enquiries not only by their own civil society but also by other governments and various United Nations officials. Officials from the World Food Programme (WFP) arrive this week to explore the possibility for the ROK to participate in a new round of food aid.

In the coming weeks the pressure is likely to mount on the ROK, especially after the WFP and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) release their findings from a February-March crop assessment mission. Already, Gerald Bourke, Senior Liaison Officer in the WFP Office of the Deputy Executive Director, indicated during a press conference in Beijing on March 19, that the DPRK will face serious shortfalls in the staple. “They’ve had problems with the potato crop, they’ve had problems with the germination of their winter wheat,” he said. The pressure comes in the form of several dilemmas which the ROK officials have to confront.

1st dilemma: Impending Famine

The first is the findings themselves presented by the UN assessment mission and an earlier United States NGO team. Both paint a very bleak picture about the humanitarian crisis looming across the 38th parallel of the Korean peninsula.

Among the key UN findings:

  • The harvested crop from 2010 will be depleted by end of this April.
  • The daily rations have been reduced to 360 grams a day when a healthy adult would need about 1900 grams.
  • Children under age five are being treated for malnutrition exhibiting signs of stunting and wasting,

This report supplements an earlier finding about alarming malnutrition in the DPRK by seven experts from five U.S.-based NGOs: Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision. The team traveled to the provinces of North Pyongan, South Pyongan and Chagang over a week period from February 8-15 this year. It found that:

Nursery in Munchon - photo EPD

  • Heavy rains and flooding in summer 2010 reduced vegetable crops by more than 50 percent in some areas, and adversely impacted rice and corn crops, the main staples of the country,
  • The coldest winter in 66 years, destroyed up to 50 percent of spring wheat and barley crops, as well as potato seedlings,
  • The total agricultural production for 2010 is reported at 5.12 million metric tons, well below the national food need of 7.93 million metric tons for a population of 24 million people,
  • Households in urban and mountainous areas – unlike farming households – rely on the Public Distribution System (PDS) for food. Many such families supplement the insufficient PDS rations by taking food gifts from friends who farm, consuming seed stock, and gathering wild grasses to add to meals.

Can the ROK government consciously and deliberately ignore the tragic plight of the majority of the DPRK people especially the most vulnerable children suffering from severe malnutrition? How can the ROK explain to the international community its rejection to extend a hand of generosity and compassion to the suffering?

2nd Dilemma: Elections

The second major dilemma for President Lee Myung-bak is next month’s elections. While his own Grand National Party appears to be confident of continued majority support of the electorate he is unlikely to reverse his previously and repeatedly stated position towards the North, prior to the elections. He and his cabinet have frequently stated that the DPRK must demonstrate sincerity and good will through concrete actions if it wishes to see a resumption of robust Inter-Korean ties and the Sixty-Party Talks.

3rd dilemma: Inter-Korean Tensions

The third dilemma that the ROK confronts is its unyielding position that improved inter-Korean relations, including humanitarian aid, will be possible only if the DPRK would “sincerely apologize” for the sinking of the ROK frigate, the Choenan, and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island. The anniversary remembrance of the sailors who died in the Choenan explosion just this month resurfaced the animosity of the ROK citizens towards the DPRK thus making any humanitarian aid to the North politically unpopular. At the same time, it is highly unlikely that the DPRK will offer to apologize for the Choenan sinking because it has strenuously and consistently denied any responsibility.

4th dilemma: Call for Aid Resumption

The fourth dilemma is an influential ROK civil society segment that has been advocating for a resumption of aid. This influential group comprises not only NGOs but also public figures and academics. They continue to use the media effectively to make a strong case for providing humanitarian relief. While the NGOs plea mainly on traditional humanitarian principle of showing humanity to all those in need, many public figures and academics view a policy of engagement as ROK’s best strategy towards a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula. They do not believe that confrontation will bend DPRK knees. In fact, they fear that diplomatic brinkmanship on a highly militarized peninsula can lead to miscalculation and misperception about the other’s intentions with disastrous consequences for both sides.

5th dilemma: Role of International Community

The fifth dilemma is whether the international community which began its humanitarian fifteen years ago should continue to carry the burden of helping the DPRK, impoverished with chronic food shortage and suffering years of mismanaged farm policy and frequent natural disasters. Despite taking the advice of FAO by double cropping and by supplementing its staple with potato production the chronic food deficit there causes serious implications from a nutrition point of view. For example, according to Statistics Korea’s report released on March 22, the life expectancy of a DPRK man is now put at 64. This has decreased by three years, compared to pre-food shortage era, before 1995.

6th dilemma: Starvation as a Weapon

Finally, there is a less open debate among diplomats and government officials with regard to using starvation as a weapon to bring down the DPRK regime. They acknowledge that the people are suffering and that the children are malnourished. However, they blame the cause on an uncaring government which squanders resources on the military instead of feeding its people. People are unemployed because they cannot participate in decisions that affect their lives and draconian punishments await dissenters. They believe that the only hope to change the circumstances of the people is regime change.

The assessment report publicly released on March 24 called for 470,000 metric tons of international aid. For sure this will create further debates within the humanitarian community including traditional donors to the WFP and NGOs some of whom have spoken out against food aid to the DPRK because of its refusal to allow for unfettered access to the monitoring of humanitarian aid.

Nursery in Chonnae - photo E. Weingartner

Will donors respond? The largest donors of food during the “great famine” of the 1990s have been the USA and the ROK. Both have withdrawn aid and imposed draconian sanctions because of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme and military aggressiveness. Some in the ROK argue that new food aid will be diverted to the military, or siphoned off by the elite, or stockpiled for use during celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 2012.

“Would food aid help to ensure the survival of a state whose treatment of its own citizens is among the most abysmal in the world?” asked Christopher Hill in a recent article. He speculated whether “denying food aid would result in a famine that the North Korean regime could not withstand.” “In the coming weeks,” wrote Hill, “South Korea’s government will confront one of the toughest choices that any government can face: whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits—also in terms of human lives—that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring.”

To feed or not to feed is a reasonable question for the ROK to ponder. Those like me who have been most closely involved in humanitarian assistance to the DPRK know and insist that food aid is never the ultimate strategy to the chronic food shortage in the DPRK. Organic fertilizer deliveries produce far more food at a far cheaper price than food deliveries as currently practiced. Modernizing DPRK’s agricultural sector with appropriate technology, information sharing and capacity building would be better still. But these strategies appear to be impossible for now, because of existing sanctions and the accepted conventional wisdom that such assistance would help to stabilize the Kim Jong Il regime.

I have been involved in humanitarian aid to the DPRK since 1995. I have visited the DPRK since the 1980’s. I know that the first to die are what the Bible refers to as the wretched of the earth. In the DPRK context these are those in the remotest countrysides, the prisoners in labour camps, the families that depend on a depleted PDS, the elderly, the women and children.

It is my hope that the ROK, and indeed the entire humanitarian community, will not lose sight of their ethical compass. They would do well to remember that oft-quoted words of President Ronald Reagan, “A hungry child knows no politics.”

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One Response to “South Korea’s Humanitarian Dilemma by Victor Hsu”

  1. Lauren Says:

    You know Miranda, I actually wrote about this subject recently on my weblog. Your article has really provided me with some food for thought and I think you have made lots of important points. I really wish I’d seen it before I published my own article!
    Yours 8-),


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