On April 28, former US President Jimmy Carter and three former European heads of state landed in Seoul after traveling to Pyongyang to help reopen dialogue between the two Koreas. Known as the Elders, they carried this message to the leaders of South Korea and the United States: “Chairman and General Secretary Kim Jong-il said he is willing and the people of North Korea are willing to negotiate with South Korea or with the United States or with the six powers on any subject any time and without any preconditions.”
Also on their agenda was North Korea’s current food crisis. According to a recent UN report, up to 6 million people are facing food shortages. This has raised concerns among many in the international community that the situation may grow into a full-blown famine like that of the mid-1990s which claimed the lives of up to one million North Koreans.
While many global leaders have returned from Pyongyang with similar messages regarding North Korea’s desire for engagement, the difference this time is the Elders’ understanding that North Korea’s food crisis stems from the unending Korean War, including over half a century of sanctions against the North.
“In almost any case when there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer least,” Carter said. “We believe that the last 50 years of deprivation of the North Korean people of adequate access to trade and commerce has been very damaging to their economy.” Mary Robinson, former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that North Korea is facing a “matter of life-and-death urgency” as a result of food shortages.
Pyongyang has reached out to Washington and Seoul for food aid, but not much food is forthcoming. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak says Seoul won’t send food to fellow hungry Koreans until political and military matters are resolved. And the Obama administration, which has been blindly following Seoul’s lead, says it’s still assessing the need, despite the major cross-team UN report which found that a quarter of North Koreans were in urgent need of food. Carter rightly held Washington and Seoul accountable by stating, “to deliberately withhold food aid to the North Korean people because of political or military issues not related is really indeed a human rights violation.”
There are several causes of North Korea’s food crisis, some unique to North Korea, others not. North Korea, like Pakistan, experienced unprecedented rains last August and September, which led to severe flooding and reduced their harvest by 44 percent compared with that of 2009. Like other countries, North Korea’s purchasing power of commercial food imports was significantly weakened by rising global food and fuel prices. In 2007, Pyongyang spent USD 62 million on 192,000 metric tons of grain. But because of rising food prices, despite doubling this amount in 2008, they could only buy and import 30 percent more grain.
Tensions over North Korea’s testing of missiles and a nuclear weapon and their alleged sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan ushered in more rounds of UN sanctions and a nearly complete halt in trade with two of its significant trading partners, Japan and South Korea. But more than trade has been cut.
Before the Lee regime came into office in 2008, South Korea sent 400,000 metric tons of rice to the North. That year, under Lee, rice aid dropped by 70 percent and then food aid was completely halted. Following Seoul’s lead, the Obama administration also stopped aid to North Korea. Although China, Russia, India and other countries have been sending aid, it has not closed the gap previously filled by US and South Korean aid.
In addition to halting government aid, the Lee regime has thwarted efforts by South Korean humanitarian aid groups, like the Korean Sharing Movement. Among South Korea’s largest and most influential humanitarian aid groups, the Korean Sharing Movement has for years sent food, medicine, construction materials to North Korea. They not only view North Korea’s development as a human right, they view exchanges between Koreans as crucial to building trust and fostering understanding towards peace and reconciliation. Yet their valiant efforts and others like them in the South have been stymied since the Lee regime took power. In 2007, the Korean Sharing Movement organized 2,962 South Koreans on 65 trips to North Korea. By 2009, only 84 South Koreans went on 25 humanitarian aid trips. And by 2010, the Lee administration began interrogating aid workers to threaten and deter others from reaching out to North Koreans.
As Carter noted, North Korea’s deprivation is also the result of “some problems they may have brought on by themselves.” Indeed, like all governments, the Kim regime is responsible for ensuring that its people have access to adequate food. They are also responsible for perpetuating an ecologically and economically unsustainable system of industrialized agriculture, which depends heavily on inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, which they must import. But as Carter and the Elders noted, sanctions and restricted trade are severely undermining the North Korean people’s development, which is a result of the unending Korean War.
Yes North Koreans need aid, but what they need more than food is an end to hostilities, the lifting of sanctions, and a genuine engagement plan that includes a formal resolution to the Korean War.
*Christine Ahn is the Executive Director of the Korea Policy Institute and a member of the National Campaign to End the Korean War.