A few days ago on November 8th, the South Korea government decided to resume humanitarian aid to the North for the first time since the Cheonan incident of March, 2010. The Ministry of Unification announced that $6.94 million in funding that had previously been frozen due to the sinking of the Cheonan, part of a total of $13.2 million that had been donated to the WHO in 2009, is to be released to the North.
The resumption of aid by the South appears to represent a response to deteriorating medical conditions in the North, Pyongyang’s appeals for assistance from international organizations, and the poor state of inter-Korean relations.
But it is also a display of sitting Minister of Unification Ryu Wook Ik’s much-vaunted “policy flexibility.” Ever since Ryu took office he has been advocating this “flexibility” with such regularity that it has earned him a catchy nickname, “the flexible minister”. Previous incumbent Hyun In Taek was seen as a fairly unforgiving hardliner; the decision taken by Ryu this time round certainly signifies a gentler approach.
Irrespective of its benefits, one may, and probably should, argue that the consistency of the May 24th Measures has been compromised by this; and that pressure on Pyongyang to take responsibility for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island has been reduced. Therefore, there is now the need for the South to step back and clarify what it is aiming for.
It is clear that if humanitarian assistance like this can provide concrete benefits for common North Korean civilians, then we must move swiftly to minimize political variables so that help may reach its intended target. This ought to be a constant of government policy, stemming not only from our brotherly affection for the North Korean people, but also from a sense of responsibility and from the fact that aid could even plausibly provide a solution to resolving conflict between North and South.
But humanitarian assistance should also take into account policy consistency and political environment. Under the former Roh Moo Hyun administration, the provision of large amounts of food and fertilizer to the North was even resumed within days of a nuclear test. Providing large scaled humanitarian aid like this, without ensuring effective monitoring, was little more than “paying the Danegeld”. It only served the purpose of sating Kim Jong Il’s appetite, after which incidents like the Cheonan attack still continued to occur.
Thus, it is the government’s absolute duty to formulate measures to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people, but while also taking into account appropriateness of time, scale and method. Humanitarian assistance should be employed with care, and expanded step-by-step. Following WHO aid this time round, there is certainly the need for large scale TB assistance. This could be next, but it must be thoroughly reviewed and carefully targeted.
At the same time, if South Korea does not in some form deal with the issues of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island, North Korea’s spirit will be strengthened and internecine South Korean domestic conflict will certainly ensue. Beyond the transparency and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance, should Ryu’s flexibility lead to the withering of the May 24th Measures, it may result in the whole Lee Myung Bak administration North Korea policy also being deemed a failure. That must also be kept in mind.