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HEARTS of the CITY | Navigating the Real World

A rotating panel of experts from the worlds of philosophy, psychology and religion offer their perspective on the dilemmas that come with living in Southern California.

May 21, 1997

Today's question: Even as many religious and humanitarian organizations from Los Angeles to New York collect food and money to help starving North Koreans, there is a debate among the donors about aiding a nation whose leaders have an ideology that they abhor. Reports out of North Korea speak of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans dying of starvation and desperate people eating roots of trees to stave off hunger. At the same time, potential donors say, the North Korean government spends tens of millions of dollars to observe the birthday of the late dictator Kim Il Sung. What ethical and moral standards should apply in giving in such cases?

John P. Daly

Director, Center for Asian Business, Loyola Marymount University

It seems clear from various sources that North Korea does indeed face a critical lack of essential foods. We would like to see it distributed, obviously, to those who are starving. Yet at the same time there is a suspicion that donated food might be given not to those most in need but to the armed forces possibly as a preparation for an attack on the south. Ideally, charitable, neutral groups such as the Red Cross, would be allowed in to supervise the distribution but, so far, the north is reluctant. However, one must conclude that donors have no choice; supplies of needed food must be sent as soon as possible. We then hope and pray that this will in God's province be properly given out.

Miriyam Glazer

Director, Dortort Writers Institute at the University of Judaism

"To save a single life," teaches the Talmud, "is as if to save a whole world." It does not add, "but first check the person's political ideology." Donor organizations might recall that the U.S. government was long the patron of Mobutu, rapist of Zaire, the ruthless (but capitalist!) oligarchies of Latin America, not to mention Duvalier of Haiti and the scarcely lamented king of all kings of Iran. And did American wheat deals with Communist Russia rescue the USSR? Does one have the capacity to feed the hungry, alleviate human suffering, save even a single life? Particularly in light of our own government's sordid history, that is the only moral standard that matters.

Tom Choi

Pastor, Los Angeles Korean United Methodist Church

The abysmal suffering of persons must always take precedence over any opinion of the political ideology of any nation's leaders. It is easy to reduce the populace of an abhorrent government into less than what they are: human beings like you or me. Withholding relief from starving and desperate persons because of the perceived wasteful spending habits of a government is suspect, as any government (including the United States) can be accused of doing the same. It would, however, be advisable for organizations to ensure that the aid is used solely for hunger relief.

Compiled by K. CONNIE KANG, Times staff writer

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