How food aid undermines Kim Jong Un
An undated picture of Kim Jong Un released by North Korea's Central News Agency on March 4, 2012.
April 15th, 2012
10:33 PM ET

How food aid undermines Kim Jong Un

Editor’s Note: Gordon G. Chang is a columnist at He is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter.

By Gordon G. Chang - Special to CNN

On Friday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced that after North Korea’s failed but highly provocative long-range missile test, the U.S. would not provide “nutritional assistance” to the troubled state as contemplated by an agreement announced February 29. The operating assumption in Washington is that food aid helps the regime now headed by Kim Jong Un.

In some ways, that assumption is correct. Aid, after all, is fungible. Every dollar of food assistance means Kim’s government can devote one less buck to lowland agriculture and one more to improving the obvious defects of its long-range missiles.

There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing to stop North Korea’s missile program, but refusing to feed hungry and victimized people is not one of them.

In the late 1990s, perhaps as many as 3 million of the country’s 22 million people starved to death. Now we may be on the verge of another humanitarian crisis as recent harvests have been insufficient. Last year, three U.N. agencies determined that over 6 million North Koreans were in need of food assistance.

There’s no question that the Kim regime misuses food donations. In the past, Pyongyang diverted assistance from needy recipients to the military. The Korean People’s Army once took 5,000 tons of food aid at gunpoint in front of U.N. World Food Program officials. Tinned food from America was even found in a North Korean submarine that had run aground in a mission against South Korea.

Kim Jong Il, the second Kim to rule the North, also channeled donated food to the Pyongyang elite, thereby keeping its loyalty in a difficult period. Other aid has been sold on domestic markets, traded for arms, or reshipped to Africa as assistance from Kim’s Korea.

So Kimist Korea puts the rationale for humanitarian aid to the test. Yet despite everything, there is one good argument to ship “nutritional assistance.” Food aid, if distributed properly, can undermine Kim Jong Un’s still-fragile grip. The three Kim rulers have maintained power by keeping the North Korean people sealed off from the rest of the world so that their propaganda would remain believable.

Food aid, if properly monitored, can help end this control on information. Food monitors, present in the country to ensure no diversion of aid, give the North Korean people an opportunity to meet outsiders and thereby get a different perspective on the world - and on their own society.

Foreigners, by virtue of their presence, test the limits of the state’s system of surveillance. There are simply not enough local minders to watch over foreign workers, doctors, and food monitors. So it is not surprising that there has been unsupervised contact between foreigners and North Korean citizens when government minders have let down their guard.

Perhaps the most subversive consequence of the foreign presence is that government officials accompanying foreigners have now traveled inside their own country and seen the extent of the failures of their own system. Foreigners in the North present an unintentional challenge that the regime cannot win, at least in the long run.

That’s why Kim Jong Il, who died last December, often rejected food aid from the United States and the international community. If he knew how dangerous it was to accept aid with monitoring, perhaps we should insist on giving such assistance to his son.

On Sunday, the young leader, in his first address to the North Korean people, said he was making the military his “first, second and third” priorities, thereby doubling down on his father’s songun - “military first” - policy. Obviously, improving agriculture is somewhere toward the bottom of his list of things to do.

He also called his country “Kim Il Sung’s Korea,” referring to his infamous grandfather. Yet North Korea really belongs to its people, and Kim Jong Un’s first responsibility is making sure they have enough to eat. Now, therefore, would be a perfect time to shame the young dictator by offering to feed his abused population - and at the same time undermining his rule.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Gordon G. Chang.

Post by:
Topics: Aid • Food • Military • North Korea

soundoff (95 Responses)
  1. Ihatedschool

    tell you what, I'll give a damn about Korea's starving when I'm not overwhelmed with taxes and I have a nice fat retirement to rely on. Until that cold day in hell they can stop trying to start a nuclear war and feed their damn selfs.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:13 am | Reply
  2. bill

    The one sentence "There are simply not enough local minders to watch over foreign workers, doctors, and food monitors" is difficult for me to believe. And if it is not true, then that means the whole point the whole artilcle is trying to make not valid.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:28 am | Reply
  3. Epidi

    How about feeding our own hungry here at home? It's awful that we give assistance to other nations before cleaning up our own house and making sure everyone's fed.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:56 am | Reply
    • Tired of Excuses

      You looked around lately? Our "poor" are morbidly obese. They don't need handouts, they need to get off their as ses.

      April 16, 2012 at 7:33 am | Reply
  4. Terrible_Ted

    North Korea, a backwards country ruled by a mental retard. No hope exists for the backwards citizens of this country.

    April 16, 2012 at 5:11 am | Reply
  5. jake

    How about Americans feed the hungry Americans first. Food aid to undermind a country that can't launch a stupid rocket while American kids go to bed hungry is pointless. Let China feed their lapdog North Korea. Let America spend our money getting our next generation.

    April 16, 2012 at 5:32 am | Reply
    • Jt_flyer

      It seems so logical to me too.

      April 16, 2012 at 6:42 am | Reply
  6. Sun

    It is not our place to be feeding another country. Take care of the homeless and hungry in America first. Remove our $$ from the so-called global joke, oh I mean economy, and take care of home first.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:07 am | Reply
  7. t-bone

    Fareed can hug a root!
    They are Kims people, Not Obamas.
    Its time America, took care of Americans first and not other nations.
    You want his population fed? Move there and help them in the fields.
    I am sick of you getting on your knees and appeasing all the liberals in this nation, your articles are socialist drivel!

    April 16, 2012 at 7:13 am | Reply
    • John

      T-bone–Fareed? Zacharia? This article was written by Gordon Chang.

      April 16, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
  8. Larry

    Face reality – Kim will use EVERYTHING he is given to remain in power, and until his people decide to rise up and remove him from power, we have no choice but to isolate them from the civilized world. Giving him "nutritional aid" merely keeps him in power, and to think otherwise is the epitome of foolishness...or just flat stupid.

    In your case, I believe the latter option is the most correct.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
  9. mike halter

    I would say " Let them eat cake " But it looks like little Kim ate it all.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
  10. t-bone

    If 22 million people starve to death, the US Army could just walk in and call it a day.
    Obama could go down in the history books as the guy who re-unified the Korean Peninsula without firing a single shot.
    Just sayin.... something to think about.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
  11. Jason

    This article is incredibly naive, out of touch, and ignorant. Sums up CNN the past couple years perfectly.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
  12. Daimoth

    Don't give NK food aid. They'll just claim responsibility and attribute any food actually given to the people (very little) as the benevolence and fruits of the great leader.

    The best thing for that country is for them to starve. No propaganda can cover that up.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:22 am | Reply
  13. John

    What they really need is an infusion of I-Pads, or even simple phones. Unstoppable communications is how you end dictatorships. That and a few soldiers unwilling to just let their own families die out for the greater glory of fat Fs in Pyongyang.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:27 am | Reply
  14. CamKor27

    Food aid is always shown as "tribute" in North Korean propaganda. The best thing to do is stop giving the aid.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:37 am | Reply
  15. Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

    Have you ever heard the phrase been there, done that? Every time NK does something that we consider provacation or an infraction, we threaten to cancel talks and lean towards racheting up more sanctions and isolating NK even more! And when all is said and done, we end up right back where we started decades ago with no progress! Let's face it, as the so-called leader of the free world, I find it ironic that every time America is called upon to lead, it stumbles and fails to do its job! The new North Korean leadership of Jung Un goes ahead and launches a ballistic missile that was planned by his late father's administration perhaps two years ago and all of a sudden we're acting childish and placing all the blame on the young leader for something his father's government planned! So why not cut the new leadership of Jung Un some slap and give him the benefit of the doubt and see he stands with improving relations with SK and the West? After all, didn't the American people give GWB the benefit of a doubt and re-elected him even though he f-up this country? America, why not act like the grown up in the room for a change and stop your silly whining and show some real leadership?

    If we really want to gain the trust of the young North Korean leader, we must be willing to be a little flexible and cut him a little slack! Therefore, cancelling the recent agreement to provide food aid to NK would not only be premature but it would also undermine any potential for real progres and it would subsequently prove counterproductive to our goals in the region! Let's face it, if we were to continue with the food aid to NK, we could always cancell it at any given point in time in the future if Jung Un decides to take the high road and continues in the direction of his father! But to shut the door to diplomacy prematurely and even before the young Jung Un has a full understand of the West's position I believe is a very big mistake on our part!

    April 16, 2012 at 7:52 am | Reply
  16. Bob M

    Your ideas for distribution and control are nice. However, you know they will never be enough. We need to encourage more cooperation from countries like China to influence the regime in No Korea. It is time to put an end to freebies from the US to support the workings of any humanitarian deficit political regime or country. Especially one who uses their people and starves them.

    April 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  17. MMMMM


    April 16, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
  18. house

    N. Africa within the past year has seen regime change by the hands of residents that occupy countries in that region. N. Korean government made an agreement with the U.S. and broke the agreement. If the people of N. Korea want change they will change their government. However u.s. citizens, over 20% are receiving food stamps and others seeking handouts should not compromise tax dollars for another country that would undermine Americans safety.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:38 am | Reply
  19. Benedict

    How does expect the world community to continue to fund the bullying North Korea via the provision of food aid?! It's good to talk about monitors but who really expects the Korean government to allow some foreigners to show them how to take care of it's people?!!

    April 17, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  20. Hahahahahahaha

    If Lil Dong Un stopped suddenly, he'd have 10 LARGE hats up his a$$. Hahahahahahahaha

    April 17, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply


    April 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  22. iraqi nori al haleki is criminal thug and a thief

    وردتنا معلومات من احد منتسبي الاستخبارات مفادها ما يلي :

    قامت مجموعه من مهربي المخدرات تابعين الى منظمة " بدر" يرأسة هادي العامري بادخال ( ثمانيه ونصف ) طن من المخدرات ( حشيشه ) من ايران وعبر مدينة البصره ثم الى الناصريه لغرض تهريبها الى المملكه العربيه السعوديه وجزء من الكميه تذهب الى محافظات الوسط ( كربلاء – النجف – الديوانيه – بابل ) لبيعها في هذه المدن

    تمكنت مفارز الاستخبارات في مدينة الناصريه من القاء القبض على المخدرات والمهربين وفورا تحرك المهربين للاتصال باللواء ( صباح الفتلاوي ) قائد شرطة ذي قار وتم الاتفاق معه على تسوية القضيه وعلى الشكل التالي ( بعد فحص كمية المخدرات وجدت انها حشيشه مغشوشه ) مقابل ( ٦٠ ) الف دولار تسلمها اللواء صباح من المهربين بغية اطلاق سراحهم من السجن وتسليم المخدرات ( المغشوشه ) ؟؟؟

    ارسلت الاستخبارات معلومات الى وزارة الداخليه حول كمية المخدرات وتفاصيل الاتفاق الذي تم ما بين اللواء صباح الفتلاوي والمهربين تم الاتصال من قبل وزير الداخلية وكالة " عدنان الاسدي " برئيس الوزراء نوري المالكي " القائد العام للقوات المسلحه واعلمه بتفاصيل القضيه وكان جواب المالكي لوكيله عدنان الاتي : ( صباح الفتلاوي" ابنه " اكتفي بنقله الى بغداد اما المهربين وهم من ( منظمة بدر) امر المالكي باطلاق سراحهم مخاطبا وكيل وزير الداخليه ( تعرف ذوله من جماعة " هادي العامري " ( حزام ظهرنه ) ..

    مع العرض ان المنظمه نشرت معلومات سابقه عن الخلاف الذي نشب بين اللواء صباح الفتلاوي شقيق ( لهلوبة المالكي ) بسبب قيام احد مرافقي " صباح " بشفط ( 80 ) الف دولار ارسلها بيده صباح الى اهله في محافظة بابل وهي مبالغ رشى المخدرات ولم يسترجعها له وهدده بكشف الاموال الطائله التي جناها شقيق حنان من تهريب المخدرات .

    April 21, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  23. Darriusu Uhrih

    I have to express some thanks to the writer for bailing me out of this predicament. As a result of surfing throughout the online world and coming across tricks which were not beneficial, I was thinking my life was over. Existing without the answers to the problems you've resolved by way of this short post is a critical case, as well as ones that could have adversely damaged my career if I hadn't come across the blog. Your capability and kindness in dealing with the whole lot was excellent. I'm not sure what I would have done if I had not come across such a thing like this. It's possible to at this point relish my future. Thanks a lot so much for your professional and effective guide. I won't hesitate to recommend your web sites to any person who should receive care about this issue.

    July 11, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Reply
1 2

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,028 other followers