Elephants in the Room
The Case for Humanitarian Aid to North Korea
It won’t bring the regime in from the cold, but it will save lives.
Since the impromptu meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un late last month, there have been signs the United States may be prepared to make major concessions—including, so the rumors go, easing economic sanctions—in exchange for a North Korean freeze on some weapons development. Negotiations between the two sides aren’t new. Both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations negotiated temporary halts to North Korea’s weapons programs, but both agreements ultimately collapsed when Pyongyang failed to keep its end of the deal. And just this week, North Korea indicated that it might soon resume nuclear weapons tests.
Clearly, Pyongyang would welcome any moves to ease economic sanctions, since news reports suggest that North Korea may once again be facing serious food shortages, and calls from the United Nations for the world to provide humanitarian assistance have grown. For U.S. policymakers, though, sending aid is far from an open-and-shut case. Historically, the United States and other democratic countries have provided help intended for the North Korean people. But such assistance has not always gone to those who needed it most, and Pyongyang strongly resists any kind of international monitoring to try to make sure it does.
Even so, the United States should open its pocketbook. U.S. aid will certainly not fundamentally alter the regime’s posture on security issues, nor will it resolve North Korea’s long-term problems without fundamental reforms to its system of government. But at its core, providing food and medical assistance is an issue of morality and humanity.
In May, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on the state of human rights in North Korea. The findings—which include accounts of economic desperation and detention under inhumane conditions in the absence of rule of law or due process—may seem shocking, but for those who follow the dismal state of conditions in the North, they came as little surprise.
The report focuses on the poor and declining standard of living in North Korea as a violation of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the cornerstone of international human rights law, includes many provisions that mirror the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights—freedom of speech and worship, among others. But it also includes a series of economic and social rights. Notably, Article 25 defines the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.”
The U.N. reports that North Korea falls far short of these minimal standards and places the blame precisely where it belongs: on Kim’s dictatorial regime. The simple fact is that a huge percentage of the North Korean population is living under horrific conditions. According to the U.N., some 10.9 million people in the country—approximately 43 percent of the population—suffer from food insecurity, and nearly as many lack access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Ten million North Koreans lack access to safe drinking water, and the U.N. estimates that 16 percent do not have access to basic sanitation. Meanwhile, UNICEF notes that while there has been some improvement in recent years, one in five North Korean children suffers from stunted growth.
Natural disasters have aggravated these conditions, but the sad truth is that much of this human misery is manmade. North Korea is a land rich in resources and human capital. Government policies and political ideologies, not droughts or floods, are responsible for the suffering.
The simplest proof of this is to contrast North and South Korea. The democratic, free-market South is the 11th most prosperous economy in the world. Recent data on per capita gross domestic product is estimated at $1,700 in the North, versus $37,600 in the South. Both sides of the border have similar geographies and climates. Although only about a fifth of North Korea’s land is considered arable, the country is reported to harbor a vast array of mineral resources. Pyongyang’s belligerence and autarky have limited its ability to utilize its comparative advantages and reap the benefits of international trade.
The Kim family’s ideology consistently privileges political control over economic rationality. For example, the juche or “self-reliance” doctrine historically motivated the regime to increase production not through innovation and trade with the outside world but through increasing the number of work hours for the population. The result of these political control strategies were worn-out people and infrastructure.
After the disastrous famine of the 1990s, known as the Arduous March, the state abandoned its promise to provide a basic standard of living to the North Korean people through the public distribution system. Legal and illegal black markets, known as jangmadang, rose up to address the gap. Today, the hundreds of markets are largely embedded in society and are tolerated by the government. Research conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that the vast majority of North Koreans rely more on the private markets for food security than on the state.
Meanwhile, state resources are largely directed toward the elites and the military under the policy of songun, meaning “military first.” While unverifiable official figures claim that approximately 15 percent of the state budget goes to the military, independent analysts believe the figure is closer to 50 percent.
World leaders and the international media rightly tend to focus on the North’s continuing efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them to targets in the region and beyond. North Korea’s refusal to stop its weapons development means that imports of any kind are limited by international economic sanctions.
The larger issue is the very character of the North Korean state. As long as Pyongyang fails to treat its people with dignity, including protecting their most basic rights, we cannot expect it to treat its neighbors or the wider world any better by reining in its nuclear program.
But providing humanitarian assistance shouldn’t be thought of as a lever to bring about political change in North Korea. While North Korea’s government may have a callous attitude toward its people, Americans believe that every life has value. Right now, lives are at stake. We can help to save them, and we should.
Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Twitter: @VictorDCha