Sunday, January 31, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: To Give, or Not to Give?

Mr. Joo Seong-Ha of Nambuk Story wrote a very compelling post laying out the dilemma of providing aid to North Korea. Below is the translation:

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Yesterday on this blog, a commenter quoted one of my articles and demanded that I make my position clear. I do not respond to every comment because I am busy, but in this case I felt that I had to, since the commenter said he is also a defector who does not even know if his family in North Korea is dead or alive. I myself have experienced this, so I know that pain better than anyone.

The commenter was outraged at this sentence in my article: "Personally, it does not look great on the part of Lee Myoung-Bak administration to be on a high horse of North Korean aid while only giving 10,000 ton of corn."

Before I explain my position, I will first provide a more fundamental explanation. I have always said that there is no one answer to North Korea. I believe it is a matter of choice. A mountain has only one peak, but there are many paths to reach it. One cannot say this path is the only correct path, and not that one.

Opinions regarding food aid to North Korea in the end divide into "give" and "not give". I believe that both opinions are persuasive in their own way. I have always said we should give, but I don't think the opinion of "not give" is wrong. If we do not give, we do gain much. If the rationing stops, North Korean regime's control over its people will loosen up, and the people will be freer. Of course this is a big advantage.

In spite of that, I have my own reason to promote food aid. I wrote an article previously on this topic, so I will not repeat too much. My view is that stopping food aid may be correct for now, but there might be a different answer if we considered 20-30 years into the future when Kim Jong-Il is dead and we would be judging what we did today. Let us not fixate on Kim Jong-Il regime here and now, and set our sights beyond that.

There is a third opinion that says we may provide aid as long as transparency is guaranteed. I believe this is no more than a wordplay. Defectors know what I am talking about. Every day, I saw the North Korean soldiers changed into civilian clothes and changed the license plate of the military car to fool the United Nations watchers and take the food. I have also seen the officials pretending to provide ration when the UN watchers are monitoring, and take them away when the watchers were gone.

Defectors need to respond the opinion of food aid with transparency. How would one guarantee transparency in a country like North Korea? Is it even possible? How? Everyone insists upon transparency but I have not seen anyone who provided an answer about the way to actually achieve that. Personally, I don't believe there is any way to achieve transparency unless the watchers go into every house and see the food going over people's throat. The officials will just take them away if the watchers leave. But obviously this will take several thousands of watchers, which Kim Jong-Il will never tolerate.

In other words, transparency is just a wordplay; this is a matter of giving, or not giving. Of course, if we do give, we must insist on transparency. But that is no more than a matter of occupying moral high ground in order to mentally satisfy ourselves. Sending watchers to North Korea is no more than a formality, and North Korea is only pretending to be watched. The food can go anywhere the North Korean regime wants it to go.

I previously said that we had to provide food aid even if it goes to the military. The vast majority of North Korean soldiers are children of laborers and peasants. The majority of male defectors who are now in Korea must have served their 10 years in the military as well. It would be simple to understand if you put yourselves in their shoes and think you are currently serving in the North Korean military.

I do not want them to starve. Even the soldiers will be North Korean people once they finish their service. The effect of starving in the teenage years lasts the entire life. I believe the Kim Jong-Il regime will probably continue for another ten years at best. In that case, I don't want the generation that will support North Korea after the unification to be weak and dumb because of starvation. In a society like North Korea, there is no way to distinguish the military and civilians. Do you think it is humanitarian to provide aid to children? Do you think those healthy children will not report to the military? Providing aid to North Korean children is essentially investing into the future of North Korean military.

I have also previously said that it would be a good idea to invest in North Korean infrastructure, because by the time the roads and railroads are complete in about 10 years or so, Kim Jong-Il will be dead.

Then why did I say it does not look good to grandstand over 10,000 tons?

To repeat, North Korean aid is a question of giving or not giving -- and I believe that if we are giving only 10,000 tons, we might as well not give anything. If we chose a path, we should be faithful to that principle. Now we are violating the principle (that we set for ourselves) of "no aid without reform" just to give 10,000 tons. Was Korean government's principle on North Korean policy was so cheap that it would give way to an aid of 10,000 tons? Think then about how North Korea would mock South Korea, and how North Korea would consider South Korea to be cheap. "Cheap" was the first word I thought of when I heard about the 10,000 on as well.

I think we should either give a lot more, or not give anything at all.

Some said providing corn instead of rice would make it more likely that regular people would receive the aid, but even this is suspect. Do you think North Korean officials don't eat corn? How many spoiled North Korean officials are there who refuse the ration because it's corn? Or have you seen reports that said North Korean military swore to only eat rice? That's just not true.

From South Korean perspective, rice should be easier to send up. Rice, not corn, is rotting away in government silos; it is costing South Korean government millions of dollars to keep the rice in storage. [TK note: South Korean government buys all rice that is over-produced in order to subsidize the rice farmers.] I do not really care if it is rice or corn, but maybe corn is marginally better since more quantity goes up for the same price.

At this point, there is no way to stop the 10,000 tons from going up at any rate. And we do not know how much more aid will be provided in the future.

But let's call a time out here, because there is one more thing to consider. Although I have said we should provide food aid to North Korea, but now is not the right timing. I hope we will give that 10,000 tons, and hold out for at least another six months while only saying we will provide aid.

Why? Because right now, there is a power struggle between the regime and the market forces since the currency reform. North Korean regime is trying to cut off the chain of food and household items supply that was previously dominated by the market forces, and is trying to take over that chain itself. So the regime is now trying to shut down the marketplaces, supply goods through government-owned stores and provide ration. In order to do this, the regime needs a lot of food and goods. If the regime cannot guarantee the supply, the market forces will win. There is already chaos in the marketplace.

One might hope that North Korean regime might try to re-establish order and engage in reform, but that hope is not credible. The easy way is to help the market forces win in North Korea. In order to do that, there should be no aids in goods to North Korea, as it is essentially rooting for the market forces to lose. For now, we should wait and see -- and later (the battle will be over in about half a year or so) when the market forces emerge victorious, we can send a lot of food at that point. This is how we provide North Korean aid in order to achieve our goals.

Of course we need to demand transparency with our aid. It is doubtful that our demand will have any real effect, but it puts us at a moral high ground.

North Korean regime is in a real bind since the currency reform. I think that is reflected in the fact that they are now reaching out to receive that 10,000 tons, which South Korea previously offered but North Korea did not even bother to respond. At least South Korean government is sending it into the remote port of Cheongjin, which I believe is a good idea.

This post got a lot longer than I intended. I am sure there are many who disagree with me, but it is a matter of differing opinions, not a matter of right or wrong. Any opinion can be correct as long as one takes the attitude of recognizing differences.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Thank you for posting this. I cannot say I am well-informed on the subject, but it is a subject I would like to know more about, so I appreciate your time in translating and posting this here. I agree with the author - there really is no right answer, and everything we can do has consequences that are not always what we would have hoped.

  2. Did you go through all of the trouble to translate this yourself?? That's amazing; thank you so much!!

    North Korea is probably my #1 political issue at this point so I devour any information I can get about it. Thanks again.

  3. Thanks for translating these posts for us. These are things that are impossible to access for non-korean speakers. This is an area in which I am very interested.

  4. THANK YOU for this post. As AnnMarie above mentioned- I too am not well-informed on this at all. Thank you for sharing this information.

    Keep up the great work! I look forward to your posts every day :)


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