Feeding North Korea

I saw this point raised a few months ago on a TV show and thought it might make for an interesting debate here (unless perhaps it’s been done already and I missed it?)

I’m going to use North Korea as a concrete example. One might quibble with the details here, but even if you think this isn’t a good example, the question can be abstracted and asked in the general sense.

The People’s Republic of NK has a seemingly perpetual problem with feeding their population. This is a legimate humanitarian disaster: there are millions starving, trying to live from eating tree bark and insects, and so on. It’s not pretty.

The PRNK is asking for outside humanitarian assistance, inviting reporters in to see how bad it is, etc.

On the other hand, the PRNK spends, by most estimates, about 30% (+/- a few %) of its GNP on its military. This is quite atypical. In comparision, South Korea spends about 3.2%. The USA is 3.4%. Canada is 1.2%. UK is 2.5%. Most countries, rich and poor alike, seem to spend between 1 and 5% of their GNP on a military.

It seems that the PRNK could, if it reduced it’s military expenditure to be in line, %-wise, with other nations, come pretty close to feeding its people. Depending on the exact numbers you use, it would have perhaps $275 to spend per capita per year, which buys a significant amount of rice even at US grocery store type prices. Of course the situation isn’t quite that simple, but let’s pretend it is for now.

The question then is this. To what extent should relief organizations require that a country at least try to feed its people, before stepping in and doing it?

One one hand, outside humanitarian aid can pretty well be viewed as funding the PRNK’s army. On the other hand, there is a real humanitarian disaster going on, and people really are dying.

peas on earth


This might tie in with the other thread a bit bant, we need to feed ALL our own before we think of feeding another nations, especially an enemy nation. Their problems are self induced and it is ultimately up to THOSE people to rise up and overthrow that regime. The World should help in that regard first.

It is said that an army travels on its stomach. I think we do not want that army to travel, since its first destination would be south.

The truth is generally seen, rarely heard. Gracian.

Just a minor quibble: It’s “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

And a pet peeve: “It’s” is not a possessive, “its” is.

Now that those are out of the way, time to address the OP.

The leadership of North Korea isn’t really all that interested in reducing the military expenditure. One option for alleviating the starvation is to attack the South and thus negate the so-called threat from the Republic of Korea. So providing humanitarian assisstance in the form of food, as the South has done, is a pretty good defense move for the ROK.

Why? Have they run out of dogs?


This will tell you everything the CIA wants you to know about the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

This is similar to the situation with AIDS in sub-saharan Africa. The situation is horrific, in some countries 25% of the adults are HIV+, there are millions, maybe 10’s of millions, of orphans. But what can the rest of the world do? What should they do? It’s only recently that african american leaders have stepped forward (a few at least) and admitted what everyone seems to know, sexual practices in Africa have to change or entire coutries will be de-populated. Sure we can send aid, but do we want the extend the life of an HIV+ man who will spread the disease until he dies?

This situation will come up over and over again, it’s the state’s rights issue on a global scale. Does a sovereign country have the right to kill its people? How can they be stopped without force? How much force can be used before you are essentially conquering the country you’re trying to help.

Isn’t it a question of feeding North Korea versus feeding North Koreans ?

Call me soft-hearted if you like (and I’m sure you will), but I don’t like the idea of telling starving people to basically bugger off and die because their dictators chose to use the money on guns. The average guy on the street was not asked.

Use the opportunity to spread what counterpropaganda you can - get whatever concessions you can from the regime. And hope that the people you help feed will remember you when they finally decide to revolt.

Well, whoever said it would be simple ?

Frolix8: A sovereign country does NOT have the right to kill off its own people. It’s called a crime against humanity.


Worrying is the thinking man’s form of meditation.

Yeah - I actually do know, but it’s one of those things I screw up all the time anyway. Thanks for pointing it out :-). One day I shall learn.

peas on earth

And let’s just take a look at all the times that sanctions have achieved success in altering authoritarian regimes’ calculcations on domestic policies…

Cuba, Iraq, South Africa, Afghanistan, USSR, PRC, Burma/Myanmar, Iran, Libya… the list could go on, but outside the possibility of South Africa (if you are being generous) none of these cases really give a good example of sanctions as an effective means to change a state’s repressive policies.

Aside from simple humanitarian concerns about the seriousness of the famine (ie, hundreds of thousands already dead, millions with substandard calorie intakes), sending food to the DPRK is an attempt to draw the regime more into the international system so that it will be more responsive to international pressure. For the most part, the DPRK’s only links to the outside world is with Russia and the PRC: Russia being essentially unable to provide appreciable assistance, and the PRC has actually been alienating itself from the DPRK over the last few years by normalizing relations with Japan and South Korea.

Ironically, Japan and South Korea have actually been bearing the burden in terms of aid given, and there have been small signs that Kim the younger is realizing the value of those tenuous links, such as developing a limited tourist industry and accepting technical assistance in developing a free port somewhere up near Wonsan.

Basically, food is a very cheap way to attempt to change North Korea’s incredibly repressive regime. Why stick to embargoes to try to change it when the policy hasn’t worked in decades?

I will stick my neck out here and generalize the issue presented. Attempting to isolate and demonize states does nothing to solve the problems their existence creates. Only through open exchange of ideas and commerce can a state that behaves badly truly be brought to change its ways.

Please do not offer Libya as an example that this is incorrect. It has simply painted over the spots in the hopes we will think it a reformed jaguar.

While sending food aid to North Korea can be viewed as propping up the government, letting the inhabitants starve is unlikely to result in a change of government, which would be the only reason to refuse the aid. When the Kim family can feel that they are safe from losing their personal fiefdom in the near future, then the country will slowly fade to another ordinary third world nation.