When it comes to North Korea, it’s a dirty little Washington secret that the “humanitarian community” sometimes looks askance at the “human rights community” out of fear that the latter will mess up the former’s gig. Some of this concern may reflect genuine differences in priorities, though grubby financial and bureaucratic self-interest may play a role, even among the religiously inspired. In the case of North Korea, there is a history here going back nearly 20 years to the public acknowledgement of the famine in early 1995, and the attempt by some commentators and relief organizations (as well as the North Korean government) to depict the crisis as a product of subsequent natural disasters, rather than the culmination of 50 years of economic mismanagement. Apparently it’s easier to raise money to ameliorate the innocent victims of an act of God than the innocent victims of their own government.
In some sense the split within the “humanitarian community” today regarding the debate over reforming the food aid program echoes an earlier division among aid groups in North Korea during the period 1998-2000 when groups such as Oxfam, World Concern, and CARE withdrew due government interference with relief efforts, while other NGOs remained. Unfortunately, nowadays, NGOs have to worry more about North Korean military provocations than programmatic interference.
So in the context of both the food aid reform debate as well as North Korea’s ongoing campaign of provocations it was particularly disturbing to stumble across an article titled “Relief managers from Portland-based Mercy Corps say U.S. let North Koreans starve as retribution for missile launch.” Ken Isaacs, vice president of the NGO Samaritan’s Purse is quoted as saying “They [the Obama Administration] evidently decided that starvation is a foreign policy tool.” It is quite a charge. Jim White, a former vice president at Mercy Corps, and David Austin, the group’s program director for North Korea, are quoted in the piece supporting these allegations.
Setting aside the fact that the North Koreans would appear to have had enough resources to avoid widespread hunger by importing food on commercial terms, the story is more complicated than the simple morality play depicted by the Oregonian. To start with, the food aid that the NGO coalition was slated to manage was actually financed by US taxpayers. While the bulk of the aid was to go through the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), a portion was set aside for the NGOs to manage. In this context, both the WFP and the NGO consortium visited North Korea to assess the situation on the ground. When the NGOs returned home, they wrote up a report that documented serious need, but initially would not share it. Eventually, for the purpose the testimony that I was about to present to Congress on this issue, Jim White provided me with a copy of the report and put me in contact with David Austin, but requested that I not make the report available to anyone, specifically the press. This struck me as a really strange way to run a public awareness campaign, but I dutifully complied. Not surprisingly, there was no groundswell of support, and when the North Koreans fired a missile in April 2012, the deal fell apart. In the Oregonian piece, White, Austin, and Isaacs are reported to express incredulity that aid might be linked to diplomacy. If reported accurately, their reaction is utterly disingenuous or inconceivably naïve.
And herein may lie the true lesson of this affair: get into bed with the government at your own risk. Is it possible that the NGOs were played by manipulative government officials: dangled the prospect of managing a large-scale tax-payer financed program and sent out to do the spadework that they then were not permitted to exploit for their own purposes? Could be. If so, the NGOs willingly played an inside game which, from their statements today, seems to have backfired spectacularly.
That said, one has to approach this situation with a certain degree of humility. I empathize with anyone trying to accomplish anything on the humanitarian front in North Korea. The North Koreans are not the world’s most appealing clients. With the daily drumbeat of threats, abductions, etc. one has to expect that, apart from whatever the US government is doing, private donations to organizations like Samaritan’s Purse must be withering under the barrage of North Korean provocations. That said, I doubt that drawing attention to North Korea’s provocations by accusing the Obama Administration of using starvation as a weapon will be of much help in promoting humanitarian goals.