Former President Jimmy Carter recently made a three-day visit to assess North Korea’s continuing food shortage. He returned charging the U.S. with worsening the shortage by withholding food aid to millions in North Korea. Carter sees this situation as a human rights violation. Understandably, the former president would not want any person to starve. Unfortunately, many critics want to keep economic sanctions in place and food shipments minimal. They believe that repressive governments such as North Korea’s should not be given aid. But peanutman Jimmy Carter sees it in a different light; millions should not have to suffer for the North Korean government’s actions.
Currently, 3.5 million of the 24 million people in North Korea are classified as “very vulnerable” to critical starvation, as evaluated by a recent United Nations study. Poor yields from crops, flooding, and a harsh winter have led to these dire conditions. The United Nations World Food Program stated that the government food supply will dwindle, with the average amount dropping from 1,400 calories per day to only 700. Despite worsening conditions, many countries, including the U.S., are joining South Korea in restricting food aid from the North. Currently, European countries continue to assess how to act, and North Koreans continue to starve.
But sympathizers of North Korea should know that food aid delivery may hold political risks. Critics of food aid purport that since North Korea has an inherently unproductive economy, the country may rely on international assistance to avoid addressing economic reforms. Moreover, the food imported to Pyongyang — meant to feed the starving millions — may instead be redistributed by North Korean officials to troops. But these concerns can be mediated by close inspection of food transport.
Does North Korea deserve pity? Not at all. Kim Jong-Il has been living in luxury, centralizing the nation’s wealth to himself and government officials instead of revitalizing the agriculture budget for North Koreans. Jong-Il has not relaxed the North’s nuclear weapons program and welcomes weapons sales. Just last year, North Korea allegedly sank the South Korean Cheonan warship, killing 46 sailors. And six months ago, Pyongyang forces shelled the Yeonpyeong Islands. The North Korean government has certainly committed terrible atrocities, but citizens should not be held responsible for their government’s crimes.
We need to keep in mind that humanitarian efforts should be kept separate from foreign policy. Help should be available everywhere. Japan, Syria, Libya, and any other disaster-stricken country needs and deserves aid. Inclusion of our politics in humanitarian assistance decisions will only prevent needed aid from reaching certain countries — there is nothing humanitarian about that.
In 1995–1996, the U.S. was the second leading contributor of aid to North Korea, after China. Back then, the U.S. sent aid because North Korea had suffered from flooding, internal industrial decline, and breakdown in food distribution. The flooding destroyed over 350,000 hectares of arable land, approximately 1.5 million tons of grain, and displaced 500,000 people. The flood also destroyed bridges, roads, and homes, with total damages estimated at $15 billion, according to official estimates. The disaster heralded a nationwide famine that lasted nearly a decade. After the flooding, food rationing went from 458 grams to 200 grams — the equivalent of only a handful of food. Some remote areas of North Korea did not receive any food supply at all. The death toll of the famine is anywhere from 900,000 to 3.5 million.
To deprive the millions starving in North Korea from food aid today would be to make that same mistake again.