Every so often, we are reminded that the Korean War is not over. Typically, jolts to the memory come in the form of heated spectacles or near-spectacles that flash into view and then fade away. Last year, we witnessed the sinking of a South Korean warship and an artillery exchange off the coast of North Korea. More recently, it has come to light that the South Korean military mistakenly fired upon a South Korean commercial airliner believing it to be of North Korean origin. For war-weary readers, these international headlines, while alarming, do not have the tug-and-pull of the latest news about Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, hot zones of current U.S. intervention. We might be tempted to reason: hasn’t volatility long been the substrate of intra-Korean relations? What does this constant “code-red” in Korea have to do with us, anyway?
As historian, Bruce Cumings, points out, the Korean War marked “the palpable birth of interventionist policy abroad and a state apparatus to go with it.” Inaugurating permanent war as a feature of our foreign policy, the Korean War serves as an ominous model for our current wars in the Middle East and North Africa. We are, to be clear, still at war with North Korea, yet stateside, we have little first-hand grasp of the impact of the unfinished war. Moreover, signs that the war is still actively being waged are not always visibly “hot.”
To wit: last week, we learned that the House of Representatives voted to bar humanitarian food aid to North Korea. Ed Royce (R-CA), the policy’s architect, has stated, “the aid we provide would prop up Kim Jong-il’s regime, a brutal and dangerous dictatorship.” Quoting a North Korean defector—a source of intelligence about which we, post-9/11, should be cautious—Royce has argued that giving food aid to North Korea “is the same as providing funding for North Korea’s nuclear program.” Royce doesn’t mention that the defector in question, Kim Duk Hong, offered the following recommendation during the Bush years: “If we really want to destroy Kim Jong Il, we should be brave. We shouldn’t be afraid of war.” The intention, here, is plain: through hard or soft means, regime change.
In stark contrast to advocacy for emergency food aid from the UN’s World Food Program and Mercy Corps, respected humanitarian relief organizations with longstanding on-the-ground programs in North Korea, this House amendment cynically leverages food to crush the North Korean regime. Having suffered devastating frosts and floods, with an estimated 50-80% of all winter crops lost, North Korea has taken the unprecedented step of asking the international community for food for its people. The current situation, according to David Austin of Mercy Corps, has gone from “chronic to acute,” with North Koreans resorting to “alternative food,” an admixture of wild grasses, twigs, straw, and corn gruel, to create a semblance of fullness in their stomachs. As WFP and Mercy Corps attest, food aid can be tracked from entry into North Korea to arrival at the household level. Indeed, the UN’s policy clearly specifies “no access, no aid.” Never a cause célèbre to begin with, however, humanitarian food aid to North Korea has been hampered by U.S. aversion to Pyongyang. We must be clear on this point: the miasma of unfinished war should not cloud our conscience.
Following a recent visit to North Korea, former President Jimmy Carter—who has described the deleterious impact of U.S. sanctions against North Korea as “fifty years of deprivation” in which “the people [have] suffer[ed] the most”—spoke out about the necessity of a moral distinction between politics and humanitarianism: “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.” Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, the head of Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief agency, also predicted that “there is going to be starvation, malnutrition. There will be death.” He reminded Americans that North Koreans “want to have peace yet we know so little about them.”
This June 25th marks sixty-one years of war with North Korea. After the “good fight” of World War II, no war that the U.S. has waged abroad has been triumphant, let alone popular. If these wars have stimulated the economy, the benefits have not been evenly or broadly felt. At a time when we are mired in several hot conflicts around the world, we must urgently envision peace as the only sustainable and ethical long-term option. To be clear: the people of North Korea are the collateral damage of any regime-change policy that wields food as a weapon. This is a pyrrhic victory of the worst kind.
*Christine Hong is a KPI fellow and a professor of Asian American and critical Pacific Rim Studies at UC Santa Cruz and a steering committee member of the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea.