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Feeding the Starving Masses Doesn't Make for a Coherent Policy

May 04, 1997|Robert A. Manning | Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and Progressive Foundation, was a State Department advisor for Asia policy from 1989-93. He recently returned from a visit to Korea

WASHINGTON — 'One of the biggest humanitarian disasters in our lifetime" is how U.N. World Food Program Director Catherine Bertini's assesses the situation in North Korea. Even allowing for unknowable details, tens of thousands of North Koreans face famine in the coming months. Mass starvation, however, is the starkest symptom of a larger problem: a failing totalitarian state whose military remains a serious threat to South Korea as well as to 37,000 American soldiers stationed there. Unfortunately, U.S. policy still lacks the coherence to meet this important challenge.

North Korea's continuing food crisis sorely tests America's noble humanitarian tradition. Its food problem is not a one-time emergency, as was the case in Somalia and Sudan. Floods certainly triggered the country's food shortages, but four decades of agriculture mismanagement is the underlying cause. Any short-term aid will not alter the long-term outlook, an estimated shortfall of 1.8 million tons annually for the next several years. Even if its distribution is meticulously monitored, moreover, food given to starving North Koreans allows domestic production to feed its armed forces, which shows no signs of undernourishment.

Pyongyang also spends millions on shrines and birthday celebrations for its leaders; 25% of the country's gross domestic product goes to the military, which recently celebrated its 65th anniversary in a lavish goose-stepping performance in front of CNN cameras. And its leaders exhibit a prickly attitude toward donors, as Vietnam found out last week when they rejected its offer of food.

In such circumstances, the moral response of humanitarian food aid may only entrench the powers that created the disaster in the first place, keeping the Korean Peninsula a dangerous flash point, with the potential for either a military confrontation or implosion of North Korea. Either development would dramatically alter the balance of power in northeast Asia and affect U.S. interests.

One would think that given the stakes involved and the persisting turmoil, Korea would be high on the priority lists of top U.S. policy-makers. Certainly, the Korea agenda occupies scores of bureaucrats. But the worker bees operate in a vacuum. Astonishing as it may seem, six months after the presidential election, an Asia foreign-policy team is not in place: neither an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific nor ambassadors for South Korea and Japan have been nominated.

Accordingly, it's hard to tell who is in charge of what appears to be a confusing jumble of Korea policies, each running on its own track. On the humanitarian track, the administration has already donated $25 million in emergency food aid this year and, last week, said it would consider more. Then there are ongoing talks on this or that issue, among them, Pyongyang's missile exports and American MIAs from the Korean War.

In a moment of clarity, Clinton suggested last month that the purpose of U.S. diplomacy toward North Korea was "to work with them in restructuring their entire economy and helping to make it more functional again, and giving a brighter and better future to the people of North Korea." This was necessary, he explained, because Pyongyang needs "to lift the burden of a system that is failing them in food and other ways."

This is the heart of the problem, yet U.S. policy lacks the clarity of Clinton's insight. Since the demise of its patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991, the North Korean economy has shrunk by about 30%. Its industry is operating at less than 20% of capacity. Throughout, it has only flirted with economic reform, while other Asian nations have instituted bold, market-oriented changes.

U.S. policy, as Clinton outlined it, assumes that Pyongyang will defy its recent history and take the path of reform if offered the right incentives. But if the North Korean leaders see economic blandishments as a "poison apple," as they are wont to do, what can the United States and its allies offer to gain peace and lessen the chances for military confrontation?

For starters, North Korea must be presented with a clear choice. Toward that end, Clinton should appoint a special coordinator for Korea, a role similar to that played by Dennis B. Ross plays in the Middle East. Operating above the bureaucracy, he or she would be charged with devising and implementing a comprehensive strategy.

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