Abba Eban on the DPRK: The North-South Aid Game

September 19, 2012 7:00 AM

The natural disasters to which North Korea is prone have periodically offered opportunities to break through political and humanitarian stalemates, at least temporarily. Most famously, the floods of 1995 provided the political cover for the regime to belatedly seek humanitarian relief from the great famine. In the fall of 2006—despite tensions over missile launches—and again in the fall of 2010, the South Korean government lifted aid freezes in response to floods. And in late 2011—in the context of US-DPRK talks that ultimately led to the ill-fated February 29 freeze agreement--the Lee Myung Bak government offered a modest aid package, which the North ultimately refused, to be channeled through UNICEF.

Yet just as often, natural disasters generate North-South posturing and gamesmanship, further complicated by the politics of aid within the South. Following the flooding in August of this year, the LMB government initially blocked private humanitarian assistance to the North, informing the 51 NGOs on the Korea NGO Council for Cooperation with North Korea (KNCCK) that no private—let alone public—food aid would be allowed in the absence of a clear distribution plan. This stance was in line with the conservative government’s general aversion to providing aid at all—with which we disagree—and its more sensible claim that food aid should be appropriately monitored.

As the extent of the flood damage became more apparent, even Saenuri politicians were saying that aid was needed and the government relented, allowing 1500MT of wheat flour to flow North through NGO channels. On September 3, the South Korean government made a formal offer of government assistance. Seoul proposed the following day that it would provide 10,000 tons of flour, instant noodles and medicine worth a total of 10 billion won (US$8.88 million). The government also said it was open to negotiations over what would be sent, the official said.

After a week of silence, the North responded that it would consider the South’s proposal, but wanted clarification of what was on offer; this response triggered hand-wringing that the North Korean regime was seeking rice and cement and had no interest in foods that would be attractive to vulnerable populations. That hand-wringing proved warranted. The DPRK ultimately rejected the aid on offer, saying that “such assistance is not necessary.”

Unfortunately, biting the hand that feeds you and diverting aid seem to be a pattern with North Korea so the LMB government’s concerns are warranted. In 2006, a relatively large humanitarian aid package was followed by the first nuclear test. In 2010, Seoul provided rice and cement only to watch the North shell Yeonpyeong. And we all know the fate of the freeze, which had been a quid pro quo for the very much larger US aid program, a whopping 250,000MT. Lost in the collapse of the larger aid deal was the fact that the North Koreans had also turned their nose up at the South Korean humanitarian offer. The proposal consisted of medical kits, nutritious meals for infants and toddlers, snacks and ramen. The North rejected it because it was too small and the South did not offer capital equipment that the regime wanted for flood reconstruction—or building houses for party members in Pyongyang.

How to solve this conundrum? One way is simply to be liberal with respect to what NGOs can do. If NGOs in the South want to give aid, let them give aid; they ultimately have to be accountable to their private donors. At the same time, the government can stick to the high ground of requiring monitoring protocols, in line with its responsibility to be accountable to taxpayers. Needless to say, the North is not interested. As the DailyNK reports, not only was the content of the package controversial, the North even refused to meet with respect to the issue, suggesting all details could be managed by FAX.

Translation: just give us our tribute and leave us alone.  Is it that surprising that the LMB government has stuck to its guns on the aid issue? As Abba Eban said of the Palestinians, the North Koreans rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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