On May 20, as Ambassador Robert King and USAID’s Jon Brause were leaving for Pyongyang, Senators Lieberman, McCain, Webb, and Kyl sent a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting that the Obama Administration “rigorously evaluate” North Korea’s request for humanitarian assistance. They further requested that the Administration “closely coordinate” any response with South Korea and Japan, which are thought to be more skeptical about, if not hostile toward, the resumption of large-scale aid. In short, they want to put the kibosh on this initiative.
The letter makes a number of defensible points that we have made in previous posts. The WFP’s need analysis is speculative in nature since it is based on an expected shortfall of the spring harvest, not a documented fall in the far more important fall harvest. Pyongyang’s imports of grain on commercial terms have declined, but despite rising world prices this shortfall could be made up by redirecting expenditure from other priorities including the military. I am less convinced by their assertion that the regime is stockpiling aid for Kim Il-sung centennial parties next year—I think that it is more likely that any stockpiling is in anticipation of future missile or nuclear tests or simply an exercise of bureaucratic clout by the military. But that is a quibble and one that would even alarm the Senators further.
The real issue is what is the alternative to supplying food to a dubious regime when innocent people are in trouble? And while the Senators’ letter comes out against abetting bad behavior, it offers no answer to this ethical dilemma.