Famine & Food Aid Fiskings Useful Idiocy

Is the paradigm shifting on hunger in North Korea? (Also, fiskings of Chris Hill and Selig Harrison)

OFK regulars should all know how much regard I have for Christopher Hill. So are my own preconceptions causing me to find something vaguely repellent in the way Hill frames the issue of food aid, or do others see things the way I do?

Would food aid help to ensure the survival of a state whose treatment of its own citizens is among the most abysmal in the world? If so, and if denying food aid would result in a famine that the North Korean regime could not withstand, what could such a decision mean for eventual relations among Korean peoples living in the northern and southern parts of a unified country?

In the coming weeks, South Korea’s government will confront one of the toughest choices that any government can face: whether the short-term cost in human lives is worth the potential long-term benefits (also in terms of human lives) that a famine-induced collapse of North Korea could bring. [link]

But of course, famine wouldn’t induce regime collapse, for the same reason it didn’t induce regime collapse between 1993 and 2000: because the last thing starving people are thinking about is overthrowing their government. What I think Chris Hill fundamentally misunderstandings about North Korea in this case is that the regime uses hunger to cow its subjects.

Hill is also partially correct. He’s right to suggest that food aid would be diverted to the army and the elite, and that it would be misused to prop up the regime. He’s probably also right that this year, hunger does pose threat to the regime’s stability. But that threat doesn’t rise from the prospect of expendable orphans and peasants dying en masse in front of train stations. Instead, it rises from what I see as a very consequential paradigm shift in the North Korean economy: for the first time ever, the economic balance of power seems to be shifting away from the regime and toward the common people. The commissary officer who carries nothing but won can’t outbid the trader with yuan or dollars. North Korea’s endemic corruption may even allow leakage of food from government and military storehouses into markets, where citizens with dollars and yuan remitted by relatives abroad become the favored buyers. All of this represents something of a reversal of fortune in the last few years.

I admit that I’m making some interferences here, based on evidence of (a) a decline in the regime’s buying power, due in part to international sanctions, (b) a hungry army, (c) a rise in remittances from abroad, and (d) multiple reports that the North Korean won has become a currency of last resort ever since the Great Confiscation. I can’t say definitively that I’m right about this, but my theory is the best explanation I can find for these changing trends. If so, the right policy should be to deny the regime aid, absent a monitoring network that addresses the regime’s long history of diversion and discrimination.

On the other hand, it’s unconscionable to see something as horrible as a famine as advancing the objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Especially when it doesn’t. Instead, our objective ought to be to find the best available way to feed and empower the North Korean people. My view of hunger and food aid is very different from Hill’s. As I see it, nothing would be so transformational for North Korea as the arrival of foreign aid workers to actually hand out food to the hungry and ensure that the intended recipients get to eat it. I’d go so far as to make the regime’s acceptance of food aid — delivered directly by international donors and supervised by WFP monitors — a primary objective of the financial and diplomatic pressure we’re exerting on the regime now. I wouldn’t exclude the soldiers from the feeding program, either. Let them look into our eyes and see how long they’ve been lied to.

Not that any of this could possibly happen, in which case, our next-best option is to quietly encourage remittances, food smuggling, the flow of information, and whatever else erodes the regime’s economic and political control. Of course, a lot of people are going to die waiting for that to happen, but even more will die if we just keep propping up the system.

Which is exactly what Selig Harrison would have us do, naturally. Writing from some parallel universe, Harrison tells us that starvation in North Korea is our next missed opportunity to cozy up to the very people who are causing all of this suffering. He says that “a long-term commitment” to feed the North Korean army would be just the excuse North Korea’s closet reformers have been waiting for to disarm. And when I say “feed the North Korean army,” I’m not twisting Selig’s words. Here he is on the topic of monitoring:

This is a hypocritical response to the present crisis, since Washington does, in fact, impose blatantly political conditions for participating in UN food aid by demanding that Pyongyang agree to more intrusive inspections to assure that the aid does not go to the armed forces. This conditionality makes no sense because the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations whether or not there is outside aid.

Harrison is willing to accept that our aid will be diverted to the army and allocated in a politically discriminatory manner. This is also repugnant, and completely contrary to the ICRC’s Code of Conduct, but give Harrison credit for not even bothering to conceal his motives, which turn out not to be very humanitarian at all. Oh, and Harrison knows this long-term commitment will advance America’s diplomatic interests because — get this — in 1994, during one of his innumerable visits to Pyongyang, “Kang Sok Ju, then Deputy Foreign Minister . . . persuaded Kim [Jong Il] in my presence to accept the proposal” for a nuclear freeze. You see, people? If you’d only done it my way!

But by now, even the Obama Administration is treating Selig like the crazy old uncle who lives in the attic, and Selig’s ego is not amused:

In contrast to the Bush Administration, which allowed me to host meetings for North Korean dignitaries at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Campbell has refused to let me convene a proposed discussion of US-North Korean policy issues to be addressed by Han in Washington. The argument is that this would look like “weakness” on the part of the United States.

You don’t say. So you mean to say that American diplomats see an appearance problem with hosting a function with a diplomat whose country just sank an allied nation’s warship and followed that up by shelling and killing its civilians? If that part of Harrison’s proposal sounds ridiculous, then wait until you see how he has defined the word “dignitary” down. The “Han” he refers to is none other than Han Song Ryol, who in a 2005 incident at a congressional office building accosted the founder of Free North Korea Radio and said: “You, bastard, you wanna die. Look at that son of a bitch ….” Fortunately, Han was with ex-Representative Curt Weldon, so no reputations were harmed. But this surely stretches the definition of “ambassador” and “diplomat,” much less “dignitary.” A man who comes to a congressional office building and threatens a witness to a hearing shouldn’t be sent an engraved invitation. He should be served with a restraining order.

Oh, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before. In February 2005, Selig Harrison alleged “that the Bush administration misrepresented and distorted the data” about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program to scuttle the first Agreed Framework. In August 2009, Harrison told an Associated Press reporter that, “Everything I’ve ever said about North Korea since 1972 has seemed at the time like screaming into the wilderness, and everything I’ve ever advocated has come to pass.

7 Comments

  1. Somebody lock up Selig Harrison in a funny farm along with Nurse Ratched. I would advise a frontal lobotomy, but it appears that he’s already undergone the procedure.




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  2. because the last thing starving people are thinking about is overthrowing their government.

    yup yup yup!

    The commissary officer who carries nothing but won can’t outbid the trader with yuan or dollars.

    excellent point

    Not that any of this could possibly happen, in which case, our next-best option is to quietly encourage remittances, food smuggling, the flow of information, and whatever else erodes the regime’s economic and political control.

    cell phones…internet…so they can hear what’s going on in the middle east




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  3. I recall Andrew Natsios in his The Great North Korean Famine talking about the importance of verification if there’s to be proper food distribution. Verification is precisely the issue in this case, and even though Selig Harrison is generally off his rocker, do you think he’s really that wrong to predict, cynically, that “the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations whether or not there is outside aid”? That’s the essence of the seon-gun policy, as I understand it. You write:

    “As I see it, nothing would be so transformational for North Korea as the arrival of foreign aid workers to actually hand out food to the hungry and ensure that the intended recipients get to eat it.”

    I agree, but you know as well as I do that this is never going to happen. Natsios talks about the frustration of aid workers in the past, who were never more than the first or second link in the supply chain, and thus were unable to verify where everything went. Why would the NK government change this policy, especially if controlling food distribution is, as you say (and I agree), a means of cowing the populace? I can see NK signing an agreement that would allow for transparent distribution of foodstuffs, and then reneging at the actual moment of distribution, when the aid workers would be surrounded and unable to stop soldiers from taking the food and doing what they wanted. You’re not going to get proper distribution without foreign military boots on the ground in NK, I think, and that’s not going to happen until after there’s already been a war.




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  4. Just on Hill’s comment, I think it is only repugnant due to the nature of the topic. I think I’ve said much the same here more than once and in somewhat more blunt language: No matter what collapse scenario we can realistically imagine, it is going to come with a death toll. It is easier to image rather high ones – including bodies in South Korea and possibly Japan and some GI bodybags included. At best, the bloodshed will likely be limited to the North.

    And the question is — and it is a very hard question — since we cannot control something like the chaos of a collapsing nation, and we know death is likely — but since we also know the North Korean regime is killing many of its citizens directly and through gross negligence and harmful national policy —- do we move now to help induce collapse and suffer the consequences in terms of short term deaths – or – do we watch the body count rise more slowly (and perpetually).

    The problem with food aid and other forms of aid is — it can’t stabilize the regime. We can never pump in enough aid to change NK’s mindset to produce reform, and without reform, all that aid is just a small bandaid on a huge, gaping wound.

    The Soviet Union and China learned that the hard way.

    So, ultimately, all the aid does in net effect is prolong the agony of the North Korean people. Which means, prolongs the bodycount.

    Is that really more humanitarian?

    Has the international community (SK, US, Japan, China, and so on) been more humanitarian to the North Korean people since the mid-1990s when the North started to accept material support from more nations?

    I can’t answer that question yet…

    It’s a Catch-22 situation. And it sucks.

    On Kevin’s comment on The Great North Korean Famine:

    If I remember correctly, one thing I found interesting in the book was the importance of allowing market forces to work — even with inadequate aid verification.

    As I remember it, one of his key points was that – hoarding of aid was more of a problem than lack of adequate verification.

    The idea seemed to be that verification was impossible, but, if the regime would not also crack down on private markets and transactions and would not officially confiscate the food aid, the black market would eventually lead to food distribution to more of the people and end the famine. But, due to the regime’s distaste for private enterprise and its crackdowns, people were unofficially hoarding large amounts of the food aid – preventing it from reaching the markets and thus people’s tables.

    The government confiscations was also a type of hoarding.

    I could be wrong in part of the above since it was a few years since I read the book…




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  5. Smuggle in Spam and Campbell’s soup. They are, by their very nature, subversive.

    In the past, the DPRK, if it distributed food, removed the USAID and other foreign origin marks. These two commodities come now with unremovable photolitho’ed pictures on their cans.

    In the past, the great bulk of “aid” was co-opted by the military for its own use, or possibly for stores. I’m now inclined to believe it was actually used. Cans of food are long-lived, and so a primary source for military theft if they are “donated.” So, to avoid the military use of these two items, they have to be introduced to the North clandestinely. That means through East Coast smuggling from the South, a difficult task — or through China.

    From my own experience, I know that empty soup cans have aftermarket uses. So the mere feeding of the blackmarket, the markets’ feeding of a population, and the population’s use of the cans subsequently all tends to illuminate the inadequacy of the official system.




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