Editor’s Note: Gordon G. Chang is a columnist at Forbes.com. 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.