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Punishing North Korea's people

The Obama administration never should have linked food aid for North Korea with the military actions of the regime.

April 22, 2012
  • A worker covers rice sacks intended for North Korea on a pier in the South Korean port of Ulsan.
A worker covers rice sacks intended for North Korea on a pier in the South… (AFP / Getty Images )

North Korea is threatening "retaliatory measures" for a decision by the United States to withhold 240,000 metric tons of food promised as part of an agreement announced less than two months ago. Never mind that the cancellation followed Pyongyang's failed launching of a missile designed to put a satellite into space, an operation the U.S. considered a violation of that same agreement, not to mention U.N. Security Council resolutions. The regime's chutzpah and hypocrisy know no bounds.

At the same time, it's dismaying that the people of North Korea will have to suffer for the duplicity of their unelected leaders. When the so-called Leap Day agreement was announced, we expressed uneasiness about the idea of bartering food for diplomatic concessions. As a general policy, the United States should do its utmost to alleviate starvation and malnutrition without regard to geopolitics. Food aid should not be promised or withheld for political, diplomatic or strategic reasons.

The Obama administration says that's not what it is doing. Indeed, it is not characterizing the suspension of food aid as tit for tat for the bungled April 13 launch, which the U.S. sees as a violation of Pyongyang's promise to refrain from long-range missile launches. Rather, it argues, a regime that can't be trusted to abide by understandings about its military activities likewise can't be relied on to allow efficient distribution of food to the needy. The administration also says that, in light of North Korea's provocative behavior, it is concerned about the well-being of Americans who might be sent to that country to aid in food distribution

Those arguments are not terribly persuasive. Though it's true that shipments of rice and beans to the North have in the past been diverted for the use of the military and their families, the suspension of food aid last week seems more like retribution for the attempted launch than a reaction to concern that the food might not get safely to its intended recipients.

The underlying problem is that food aid was linked to North Korean compliance in the first place. Had it not been, proceeding with the aid after the missile launch wouldn't have looked like a sign of weakness on the part of the U.S. And what of the future? White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week that if North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons program and abides by its international obligations, "there is an avenue available … to allow them to better feed and educate their people." Put another way, that means that hungry children will continue to be held hostage to the machinations of a rogue regime. Finding a way to feed those children remains a moral imperative.

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