How do you help those who will not help themselves?
This is the conundrum – albeit, on a national, rather than a personal level – facing free and prosperous South Korea as it seeks to assist unfree and poverty-wracked North Korea.
Clearly, it is an agonizing task.
An official from Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, who briefed foreign correspondents on Wednesday on his ministry’s humanitarian and human rights efforts, made clear the frustrations facing his ministry as it seeks to dispense food aid to vulnerable populations in North Korea
Given the stone wall Seoul is facing as it seeks to assist the populace of a state whose government is focused on politics rather than humanitarianism, a non-governmental organization told Asia Times that experience has taught it to bypass official channels when dealing with Pyongyang.
There may be no two neighboring countries on earth divided by such stark economic disparity. North Korea’s poverty has had a dire impact on vulnerable populations: According to South Korean Unification Ministry data, North Korea’s infant mortality rate is five times higher than the South’s while material mortality is seven times higher.
While official stores and a network of free markets offer goods for the elite, for a nascent middle class and for those with cash or goods to trade, many North Koreans in rural areas lack access to such basics as food, drinking water and healthcare.
In March 2019, the UN released a statement asserting that 11 million North Koreans – over 40% of the populace – lack nutritious food, and 20% of children are stunted from malnutrition. Making matters worse, in September this year, the country’s agricultural sector was hit hard by Typhoon LingLing.
Yet, North Korea is refusing to accept food aid being offered from south of the DMZ.
“The basic stance of the South Korea government is that at-risk, vulnerable people… should be decoupled from political and military conditions,” the Unification Ministry official said. “We initiated food support through the World Food Program, but the program is discontinued. We are talking with North Korea to check their official stance on this issue.”
Seoul has offered Pyongyang 50,000 tons of rice support, to be disseminated via the WFP.
“North Korea confirmed it would accept it, but in late July, because of joint military drills between the US and South Korea, North Korea refused to take up our offer,” the official said. “Since then, they have not expressed any opinion on this issue and we are awaiting their reply.”
North Korea has not suddenly accessed adequate food supplies. Judging by official pronouncements and state media bulletins, Pyongyang is simply angry at Seoul for the political and military reasons cited by the official.
With denuclearization talks with the United States dead in the water, Pyongyang is accusing Seoul – which is unwilling to break sanctions for fear of rousing the wrath of its ally Washington – of failing to live up to previous commitments on economic cooperation.
The rejection of the South’s offer “expresses a complaint about negative outcomes with the US, and tries to place a burden on South Korea and push South Korea further,” the official said.
Seoul may now be starting to lose patience with its northern counterparts.
Though he said that Seoul is “talking with North Korea to check their official stance,” the official warned, “If North Korea continues to remain silent and does not express an official opinion, we will have to finish this project.”
“North Korea is in a very awkward situation, as this program is through an international organization,” the official continued. “It is difficult to reject an offer from an international organization, but as it is very clear that the food is from South Korea, so it will be difficult for them to accept it.”
And matters look unlikely to get any better anytime soon.
Last week, Pyongyang announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the demolition of South Korea- built buildings at the Hyundai-funded tourism resort in the scenic Mount Kumgang. The resort has been in near near-total disuse for over a decade, after a South Korean woman was shot to death by a North Korean soldier there, apparently in a case of mistaken identity, in 2008.
Seoul’s requests for dialog on the matter have also been met with silence.
Food as weapon, seeds as gifts
It would be wrong to assume that Pyongyang’s power will be weakened by rising malnutrition among its rural population. On the contrary, one scholar accused the Kim regime of undertaking policies that are lethal in their cynicism.
“The elite have no interest in improving the lot of the peasantry; in fact, keeping them on the edge of hunger has become a tool of social control,” said Craig Urquhart, a Canadian graduate student studying the development of the North Korean state. “The peasants are useful only as an easily exploited, compelled labor force…. Plantation owners don’t generally worry about improving the lot of their workforces.”
A Seoul-based American Christian philanthropist, who assists North Korean defectors in their escapes to South Korea and who also dispenses aid, agreed.
“I am not at all surprised by what North Korea is doing,” regarding its rejection of South Korean food aid, said Tim Peters of the charity Helping Hands Korea. “They do not prioritize their people.”
For this reason, the charitable efforts of Peter’s group have been clandestine. “We are bypassing the North Korean structures and the distribution channels of the government deliberately, so our humanitarian aid has continued unabated,” Peters said.
Using sources and contacts in China and Russia, Helping Hands Korea unconditionally gives gifts of food, medicine and seeds to North Korean workers and smugglers who are returning to their own country. The charity also distributes through the country’s underground and greatly-at-risk Christian network.
Seeds are particularly valued, Peters said. As part of the cautious economic reforms implemented since the death of second-generation North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2011, North Koreans have been able to obtain small allotments on which to grow their own food.
“We are providing various kinds of seeds to thousands of people at the lower end of [the North Korean class system],” Peters said. “The whole world is well aware that the North Korean government distributes along loyalty lines, but we distribute along vulnerability specifications, so we bypass official channels.”
Still, Peters’ approach is small scale – and is an impossible one for the South Korean government or for UN agencies to emulate. Even so, Peters said that he has held brainstorming sessions with “larger organizations” in order to “think up creative ways to reach larger numbers of people.”
Meanwhile, the Seoul official – despite his earlier statements – expressed hopes that North Korea would, in time, respond appropriately to Southern offers of aid, leading to an ever-widening virtuous circle.
“The Moon Jae-in administration has proposed several very genuine support programs to North Korea,” he said. “I believe the South Korean government’s sincere attitude will eventually lead to responses from North Korea and inter-Korean relations will improve, and this will help North Korea and the United States build more amicable relations.”
Urquhart differed. Citing the centrality of improved inter-Korean relations to the Moon administration, he accused Seoul of analyzing Pyongyang inaccurately.
“The Blue House is ideologically fixated on deliberately misunderstanding the nature of the Northern regime,” he said – accusing that regime of “the systematic abuse of North Korea’s population by a tiny faction of hereditary aristocrats.”