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Aid to North Koreans? The idea has roots.

Shift in thought

South Korea’s offer of humanitarian aid to North Korean children and pregnant women, despite the North’s military threats, fits a trend to protect the innocent even in the midst of a conflict.

In this 2011 photo, North Korean farmers work in a field neare the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, North Korea.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

In a surprise move that seems at odds with Washington’s threatening stance toward North Korea, the government of South Korea announced Sept. 21 that it plans to resume humanitarian aid to its neighbor. This comes despite the North’s rapid-paced testing of longer-range missiles and stronger nuclear weapons. It also seems to contradict the ratcheting up of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council against the Kim regime in Pyongyang.

Yet South Korea’s move is not out of line with a global trend toward the idea that even enemies must recognize the innocence of noncombatants in a conflict and provide them with lifesaving care and immunity from harmful neglect.

The $8 million of assistance offered by President Moon Jae-in is aimed at helping close to a million children and pregnant women who are suffering from a recent drought in North Korea. The food and medicine will be delivered by international aid groups that are well practiced in making sure outside aid reaches those it is intended to help.

North Korea’s dictators have a long history of ignoring the extreme hardship of their people, such as a mass famine in the 1990s, in order to pay for a military buildup. But that cruelty should not diminish the rest of the world’s compassion to save innocent North Koreans. “Humanitarian action cannot be held hostage to political ends,” said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, recently.

Providing aid to civilians across enemy lines sends a subtle message that what unites people, such as a desire to protect the innocent, is far more important than what divides them.

A similar sentiment can be found in Israel, which revealed in July that its military has been assisting thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing war in their country. Called Operation Good Neighbor, the aid program is seen by Israel as a “moral imperative” even though Syria and Israel have been in conflict for decades. The Israeli army has given food and other supplies to Syrian refugees while hundreds of Syrian children have been treated at Israeli hospitals.

The world may be seeing a similar example soon in Venezuela, where the regime’s economic neglect and harsh crackdown on dissent have left millions desperate for food and other basic goods. International aid groups and members of the country’s political opposition are in talks on how to deliver foreign aid despite the regime’s resistance. President Trump even hinted at providing aid during a recent speech at the UN: “The Venezuelan people are starving, and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed. The situation is completely unacceptable, and we cannot stand by and watch.”  

No matter how severe international conflicts may be, they have their limits when enough people and nations recognize the dignity of all innocent lives.

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