Here we go again. Amid warnings about an impending “food crisis” in North Korea, the U.S. administration is working its way around to sending yet more massive subsidies, in the form of free food, to the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Il. Apparently, President Barack Obama’s lofty promises for the Middle East last week, about America supporting universal rights, do not extend to the people of Asia.
Not that American aid will be packaged as help for Kim Jong Il. This week the Obama administration will be sending its special envoy for human rights in North Korea, Robert King, along with a team of U.S. Agency for International Development “food experts,” to evaluate North Korea’s need for food. That sounds all very charitable and humanitarian, and there is no question that the people of North Korea could benefit from more humane treatment, and more food.
But North Korea’s real problem is not a food crisis. It is a totalitarian crisis. If, indeed, a grinding and chronic situation of state-enforced deprivation can be called a crisis at all. We usually think of a crisis as a time of intense trouble that represents a deviation from the norm. In Kim’s North Korea, famished misery is the norm. Behind the endless reports of extraordinary floods and crop failures is a brutal command-and-control system that guarantees any natural disaster will be amplified to lethal dimensions, crops will fail, and people will go hungry. Somehow, on the same Korean peninsula, just south of the demilitarized zone that divides impoverished North from thriving South Korea, the vagaries of nature are not threatening to produce famine. The difference is not a function of quantities of food aid, but of totalitarian planning versus democracy and markets.
The problem with sending humanitarian teams to North Korea on the erstwhile neutral mission of evaluating the need for food, is that these teams become de facto partners of the North Korean regime — proposing to try to make up for the grotesque failures of the North Korean government. The failure here, by the way, does not consist of North Korea’s government failing to feed its people. It consists of North Korea’s government running a system so self-serving and restrictive that it does not permit North Korea’s people the freedom necessary to feed themselves. The same rigid North Korean system has repeatedly diverted food aid from the intended beneficiaries to the military, refused to allow effective monitoring of international handouts, cheated on every deal it has ever made with the West, and carried on pouring resources into missiles and a nuclear weapons program while children die of malnutrition and neanderthal medical care. These are among the reasons the Obama administration cut off the free food pipeline in 2009.
If the U.S. administration now wishes to become a consulting partner to Kim Jong Il in the matter of procuring food for North Korea, the place to begin is not with an evaluation of food needs. Better to start with an evaluation of what North Korea’s regime is spending on its out-sized military, its missiles, its nuclear program, and the lavish lifestyle of Kim Jong Il and his family. Surely, were Kim to trim these budgets in seemly fashion, there would be resources enough for North Korea to buy its own food on the world markets — as a stopgap while making market reforms that would allow North Koreans to start earning enough to feed themselves. Surely the expert evaluators of the U.S. aid bureaucracy, with a little help from the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence services, could put together a handy report itemizing the spending and the potential savings of such a shift by North Korea’s rulers — and wrap it up with a bottom line number of just how much North Korea’s regime could scrounge up to help its own citizens, were Kim to make nutrition, instead of nukes, his first priority for North Korea.
Of course, Kim’s regime would not take kindly to such an evaluation. North Korea’s government has never made food for the people its main goal. The official policy is known as songun, which means “military first.” If American officials, during their highly guided tours of North Korea, start suggesting that policy needs to change, it’s a good bet they’ll be kicked out faster they you can say “Jimmy Carter is a shill for Pyongyang.” But so what? If the real U.S. concern here is the welfare of hungry people in North Korea, then why not spell out for the entire world the real nature of the problem? Playing along with Kim Jong Il’s Potemkin concern for hungry people amounts to playing patsy for yet another round of subsidies that ultimately help sustain the regime. Millions of North Koreans face horrible deprivation, not only of food, but of heat, light, and freedom. The real answer is not aid to the current regime, but an entirely different system of government. Before sending another dime’s worth of food toward Pyongyang, why shouldn’t the evaluators of the Obama administration sum up the real problem, with budget figures attached — and let Radio Free Asia and its cohorts broadcast that kind of information into North Korea? That could be a genuinely useful gift from the American people.