Why are US and South Korea turning a blind eye to starving North Koreans?

Aid groups have a proven ability to monitor the way food is distributed in North Korea. So why is the US still delaying food aid when the need is so great?

Some items will certainly be high on the agenda of President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as they meet this week in Washington: a trade agreement, strategies for the global economic downturn, and a potential revival of the six-party talks with, among others, South Korea’s troublesome northern neighbor.

But there’s another agenda item that the American and Korean leaders need to tackle now: the revival of humanitarian assistance to North Korea’s starving masses.

There’s no time to waste. During a recent trip to North Korea, we were among groups who saw first hand that severe hunger is on the rise (compared to what we saw on a trip earlier this year). Many people – especially children, pregnant women, and new mothers – are suffering from dangerous levels of malnutrition. In one hospital, near-catatonic children were being spoon fed nutrient-rich therapeutic foods we had delivered, while others were listlessly hooked up to intravenous units and looked close to death.

The scene was tragic but not surprising; we’d been predicting starvation in North Korea for months. What is surprising is the lack of American response. While North Korean children are wasting away, the United States is turning a blind eye.

Last month, we co-led a team from five US-based aid organizations that traveled to North Korea to deliver flood relief supplies. Our weeklong trip took us to the provinces of North Hwanghae, South Hwanghae and Kangwon, the region that was most severely hit by monsoon-strength storms this summer.

We interacted with North Koreans in hospitals, orphanages, farms, schools, and even their homes. We saw that health and food security had deteriorated. Hungry children have been pushed over the edge by continued food shortages and diarrhea caused by dirty water and bad hygiene. While we were accompanied by North Korea authorities on our visits, the scope and severity of the hunger could not have been an orchestrated show. These were real children starving, and in some cases, on the brink of death.

The situation in North Korea today was portended by a trip our same group of organizations – Christian Friends of Korea, Global Resource Services, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision – made seven months ago. At that time, we conducted an assessment of the food situation, and observed malnutrition, food shortages, and people desperately foraging for wild grasses and herbs. These trends most severely impacted children, the elderly, the chronically ill, and pregnant and nursing mothers.

Soon after that trip, we strongly recommended that the US government support emergency food aid for these vulnerable populations. We were not alone in making this recommendation. Over the course of the past seven months, six teams from entities including the World Food Programme (the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm) and even the US government have visited North Korea and come to the conclusion that food aid is urgently needed.

Yet incredibly, the US government has failed to provide food for hungry North Koreans. Some experts – including recently the head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary source of American foreign assistance – have said that food aid cannot move forward because the North Korean government might stockpile aid or divert it to elites. We know that the South Koreans have shared similar concerns.

Yet we know that food aid can get to people in need. In 2008 and 2009, our same group of five organizations ran an aid program that fed 900,000 North Koreans over a period of nine months. We operated under a ground-breaking set of monitoring provisions. We had a team – including American Korean speakers – living in the provinces where food was being distributed. We saw that hungry people were eating, and their health dramatically improved.

Our team was very satisfied with our monitoring and oversight, and so was our generous funder: the United States government. We know that food aid can provide vital relief for North Korea’s poorest people, and we’ve seen that North Korean authorities are willing and able to make this happen.

With a clearly demonstrated need, and a proven ability to monitor the way food is distributed, we are baffled as to why the US is still delaying food aid. The politics of North Korea are complicated, and no doubt can be frustrating for Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee. But the humanitarian imperative is simple: Starving children need food, the US can provide it, and we need to act now.

A US-funded food aid program run by American aid workers could also have the positive side effect of thawing US-North Korean relations. With so little contact between the two countries and their people, the chance for Americans to live in North Korea, interact with normal citizens, and offer assistance and goodwill from the United States is a rare opportunity to improve the relationship. Both sides could claim a well-executed food aid program as a successful, cooperative effort.

In his 2009 inaugural address, Obama vowed to the people of poor nations that his administration would help “make your farms flourish” and “nourish starved bodies.” We hope that he and Lee can move forward with a plan to put these powerful words into action for the people of North Korea.

Jim White is the vice president of operations at Mercy Corps, and Matt Ellingson is the director of program development at Samaritan’s Purse.

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