Comment on Hsu article by David Straub


[CanKor readers are already familiar with the article referred to in this commentary 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. An excerpt is provided below. To read the full article, please click here.]

South Korea’s Humanitarian Dilemma, by Victor Hsu

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.

Commentary on Hsu article by David Straub

[former Desk Officer for Korea at the State Department, now at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Center] reprinted here with permission from the Nelson Report – 4 April 2011

“Thank you, Chris. Professor Hsu has written an informative and balanced article.

The plight of hungry people in North Korea is heart-rending. For me, the issue is humanitarian and the question–a sincere question–is: is the food situation in North Korea worse than the food situation of scores of millions of human beings in other places in Asia and in Africa today?

If it is, and if we have the food available, and if Pyongyang allows standard monitoring, the United States should provide emergency aid. If, however, the situation there is not worse than elsewhere, then our providing food aid to North Korea would be providing it preferentially to that country. As State’s Korea desk director, I found myself unable any longer to advocate U.S. provision of food aid to North Korea when I learned in 2004 that the North Korean food situation at that time was no worse than in many other countries.

The only reason I have heard adduced for the United States’ providing food aid preferentially is that it might help to create a better political atmosphere and that North Korea might be less inclined to attack South Korea militarily. For reasons too lengthy to go into now, I do not find such an argument morally or politically supportable. I have not yet seen any public discussion of this comparative aspect of the issue.

U.S. policy has long been to provide food aid on a purely humanitarian basis, based on need, competing needs elsewhere, and availability of resources. If the Obama administration decides to provide food aid, I hope it will clearly explain how and why the food situation in North Korea is worse than in other countries whose people are also in need. And if the food situation in North Korea is as severe as reported and if that is indeed worse than elsewhere, then we should act quickly to provide emergency assistance.

The issues and questions for our South Korean ally are more complex and difficult. South Korea does have large stocks of rice that it could share, and a powerful reason for South Koreans to provide food aid, even preferentially, to North Koreans, is that they are fellow countrymen.

But most South Koreans are still quite understandably angry at the North Korean regime for its unprovoked attacks last year, and South Koreans are divided as to whether to provide emergency food aid, with conservatives still opposed. That of course raises the issue of whether the United States should encourage or discourage its South Korean ally on the emergency food aid issue. My view is that we should make our own decision about our own resources, and let the South Korean government and public opinion factor that in into their debate, without our pressing Seoul one way or another.

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