Food aid for hungry North Koreans?

A severe food shortage in the North opens a door for the South to provide aid and perhaps nudge progress in stalled talks on denuclearization.

North Korea's Kaepoong town is seen from an observatory in Paju, South Korea. North Korea is suffering its worst drought in nearly four decades.

For a young leader – with a nuclear arsenal at the ready – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has enjoyed the high prestige of meeting an American president twice in the past year, not to mention summits with the heads of Russia, China, and South Korea. Defiant of global sanctions and determined to display his power, he continues to test ballistic missiles and defy demands to denuclearize.

Despite all this strutting on the world stage, however, Mr. Kim has a new problem. The United Nations estimates 40% of North Koreans will suffer severe food shortages in coming months, a result mainly of bad weather as well as too much spending on armaments. The last time North Korea saw mass famine was in the mid-1990s. Hundreds of thousands of people died. And the Kim family regime had to allow unofficial food markets to take root in a strict socialist economy that is one of the poorest in the world.

This time, Mr. Kim must decide whether to accept the food aid. The regime admits that annual precipitation has been at its lowest since 1982. Food production is also at a 10-year low and could fall another 12% this year. The government has reduced food rations to extremely low levels.

Despite the crisis, North Korea criticizes plans by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to provide $8 million in food aid. The aid is being considered by Seoul out of humanitarian concerns but also to nudge the North toward concessions on denuclearization. The United States says it does not oppose such aid as long as it is distributed to people in need rather than the North Korean military.

In the end, Mr. Kim will probably accept the aid, as the regime has done in the past, both for its own survival and in hopes it might lead to an easing of economic sanctions by the U.S. The last time that South Korea provided food assistance was nine years ago.

Under international sanctions, such aid is allowed, and for good reason. Not only is it necessary to keep innocent people alive, it is part of Mr. Moon’s strategy of making “small steps” toward trust-building between the two countries.

The South’s generosity serves as a strong counterpoint to the North’s many provocations. Food aid sends a message of unity between the two Korean people. It highlights the universal desire to protect the innocent despite political differences.

It also points out the contradiction between the regime’s claim to greatness and the reality of everyday life for North Koreans. The people there cannot eat nuclear weapons. But they can be sustained by South Korean compassion.  

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