In my opinion, the recent guest column by Professor Stephan Haggard of the University of California is valuable as an encouragement to people to think about the principles and ethical dilemmas surrounding humanitarian food aid to North Korea.
As a young researcher on North Korea, I have read many of Professor Haggard’s perceptive past books and papers. From them, I have come to realize that he is a rare expert on North Korea (one focused on facts, objective materials and practices), and as such it is an honor to be able to critique his views on this issue.
However, while I deeply respect Professor Haggard, I believe there is a lot to say about his column.
Argument #1. “The situation in North Korea is not as bad as in the mid-1990s.” Professor Haggard regards this comment as odd, and points out, “Even if the food situation were not as bad during the ‘arduous march,’ the humanitarian community still might want to help.”
There are two points to consider here.
First, even if we do aid the North Korean people with food, we should not accept the employment of any method which ignores the diversion of food aid by the regime, a key cause of the people’s difficulties, or helps in the stability of the regime.
Therefore, it is very important to examine carefully why the North Korean regime has called for food aid, and how much need there actually is for this aid.
Naturally, If the current situation were indeed as dire as during the mid-1990’s famine, the humanitarian community would rescue the people of North Korea without hesitation.
However, in a situation where the people are still getting by, it is true to say it is improper to unconditionally send food aid to North Korea in the hope of lightening even a small weight of the burden of their difficulties. It might be possible and fair to do so if all the food in the world were free and the Kim regime actually shared the food aid it received with the people. However, keep in mind why the international community has donor fatigue after 15 years of giving.
Second, we must consider ways to expand the range of survival methods that the North Korean people employ. The economic policy of the North Korean regime is no different now from that of the days of the great famine of the 1990’s. However, the North Korean people were able to get out of that desperate situation by finding ways to survive by themselves.
What the North Korean people have discovered works best is simply the ‘jangmadang,’ a symbol of a free economy, albeit one in its infancy. The outside world should devise ways to expand this simple free economy that the North Korean people are trying to develop. This would be more helpful for their day-to-day lives.
We must think about ways to change the Kim Jong Il regime’s attitude to the people, too. This must include efforts to expand the market economy. If foreign aid is given too hastily, it may serve to constrict the jangmadang and be used by the Kim Jong Il regime to buttress anti-market reforms such as the currency redenomination. That is not aid for the North Korean people, it is aid for the regime.
Thus, we must analyze very carefully the diverse and varying reports coming out of North Korea in order to determine what the exact situation is.
According to sources, there is food in the jangmadang and food prices have actually decreased. If so, foreign food aid is being demanded for the purposes of improving the status of the Kim Jong Il regime, which wishes to control the nation’s traders and stifle fundamental reforms.
Professor Haggard also believes, “If we wait until the situation deteriorates dramatically, it could be too late.” However, the world can now cope with a more urgent situation. This is because information on the internal situation in North Korea now spreads relatively quickly compared to the 1990’s.
Argument #2. Professor Haggard puts forward, “The regime already has a stranglehold over the North Korean people, and shows no signs of collapsing soon” as an objection to the argument “We should not give food aid to North Korea because it simply strengthens the regime.” He follows this up by asking, “Would it be wrong to give if it also saved innocent civilians?”
It is important to realize that the North Korean regime supports itself with foreign aid. Economic crises are an important element which can be used to put pressure on the regime and contribute to the deterioration of the people’s loyalty to it. Because of the country’s economic crises, the Kim Jong Il regime has difficulty ruling the country and the people of North Korea grow agitated towards the regime, though it is true that there is still no sign of the regime’s impending collapse.
The most important political group for Kim Jong Il is the military. Because of this, Kim has put the military in the frontline under the slogan ‘Military-first Politics’ for the past 15 years. During that time, Kim Jong Il has elevated the position of the military by defining the Military-first period as ‘the period when the subject of the revolution is reinforced and its role is promoted by the People’s Army as the major army of revolution.” (Koh Cho Bong, ‘The Subject for Revolution in Military-first Period’, Pyongyang Publishing Company, p. 31)
It is a well-known fact that the Kim Jong Il regime relies heavily on security forces such as the Escort Bureau, National Security Agency and the People’s Army itself. Such a violent leader must provide the forces of violence with provisions and amenities on a preferential basis. We cannot focus solely on our desire to ‘save innocent civilians;’ we must realize that Kim Jong Il will let the whole population, including innocent civilians, suffer terribly in order to provide for the security forces.
Argument #3, Professor Haggard claims that the argument, “The North Koreans are seeking food aid…to stockpile it for 2012, the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth” makes no sense.
“The strong and prosperous state in 2012” is the most important national assignment for Kim Jong Il, and every seemingly irrational move including nuclear developments are part of this plan to show off the nation’s accomplishments in 2012. If the situation is still dire in 2012, it will seriously affect the people’s sentiment towards the regime, and Kim Jong Il knows this very well.
The Kim Jong Il regime, which has been claiming for years that in 2012 the “strong and prosperous state” will be revealed, obviously must be preparing very diligently. While the regime has boasted of the completion of a militarily strong and prosperous state with the success of nuclear tests and missile launches, the people are rightly raising questions about their own lack of electricity.
There is no doubt the year 2012 will be a decisive year for the third generation succession as well. The year is getting closer and Kim Jong Il is being driven into a pressing situation where he must present the people with some improvements they can feel.
Argument #4. Professor Haggard suggests that the argument “Food aid will simply go to the elite” is “almost certainly” wrong.
“Foreign food aid has the effect of providing increased rations for many citizens,” however, common sense, general knowledge and even simple arithmetic are not part of the Kim Jong Il regime mentality. If the Kim regime were a responsible, rational, and good government we would not be having this debate in the first place.
In reality, Kim Jong Il considers the elite class as the most important class and adjusts rationing for the elite according to his personal political logic. It is common sense for the North Korean people that Kim Jong Il’s priority is to provide Pyongyang citizens with rations, for example.
Argument #5. Professor Haggard insists, “We also need to accept that no monitoring system will ever be perfect,” and “The perfect should not be the enemy of the good.”
I cannot help but ask whether the current system of monitoring demanded by the international community is even close to being “perfect.”
North Korea has taken a passive attitude to international monitoring from the beginning, deviously disrupting it and even driving international monitors out of the country. Is it too much to call on the North Korean authorities to allow proper monitoring? Why has the Kim regime refused this?
Professor Haggard says, “The reason that the food aid issue is so hard is that it raises fundamental ethical dilemmas.” However, the real ethical dilemma is that although we must help the North Korean people, we may in the process be forced to close our eyes to the fundamental problems of the regime, and thereby allow a favorable situation in which the dictatorship can extend its life, leaving the people in a much more perilous situation.
This real ethical dilemma, which harasses us terribly, is not a matter that can be ignored in favor of a small incremental increase in the quality of the people’s lives, but one that could help the same Kim Jong Il regime which is creating these chronic difficulties for the people.
The universal ethical standard cannot be a society of terror, horror, and violence, but instead a society of freedom, rationality and fair working conditions. Our ethical standard in food aid to North Korea must meet this universal ethical standard and common sense as well.
For the last decade we have found that foreign food aid has helped North Korea get through its most difficult times, however we also know the regime has resisted all forms of change and maintained its politics and unfair pressure on the people.
At the same time, we know that the people have sought their own ways of surviving, and the regime has moved to suppress this free will of the people. This past experience offers us clear answers. We must consider the ethical and political costs which must be paid, costs incurred when policy ignores previous experience and universal standards
We should collect our thoughts on how to minimize these costs in better ways both ethically and politically.