Tony Hall and the NSC on North Korea, Starvation, Food Aid, and the United States



Former Congressman Tony Hall had a notable career as a legislator and activist on behalf of the world’s poor, and we have to confess, he has shamed us more than a bit. For those who don’t know about Hall, he served as a representative for Dayton for 24 years, and took a particular interest in world hunger. He was chairman of the Select Committee on Hunger from 1989 to 1993 and fasted for 22 days in protest when it was abolished. He subsequently succeeded George McGovern as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, which included the job of representing the US with respect to the World Food Program.  His travels took him to some of the world’s most destitute locations, including seven trips to North Korea.

So why has he shamed us? We have argued in some detail that the food problem in North Korea remains real. But when the February 29 agreement broke down as a result of the missile test, we knew full well that food aid—which had effectively been linked to the agreement despite all denials to the contrary—was dead. But of course the fact that this deal had collapsed had absolutely nothing to do with the situation on the ground in North Korea one way or the other; to the contrary, it was likely to make things worse and it is important to say so. Hall has, and is worth reading. We reproduce the piece in its entirety below.

But before we do, one illuminating aspect of Hall’s piece is something we had missed: a truly extraordinary statement by National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor emailed to reporters that " ... (M)illions of innocent people are starving to death because the regime spends all its money on weapons." It goes without saying that North Korea is remarkably opaque, and reasonable people can have serious disagreements about the basic facts. But if this statement “millions are starving”—not potentially starving, not at risk of starving—but “millions are starving” right now, present tense, is true, then it is very big news.  And if it is not true, why is the NSC spokesman of all people making such wild claims?

Dayton Daily News (Ohio)

May 11, 2012 Friday


847 words

White House wrong to link kids' food to nukes.

For the first time that I know, the United States has taken the public position that withholding food aid to innocent starving people is a legitimate policy tool. The White House made it clear that it would not provide nutritional assistance to starving children in North Korea because their government launched a rocket in violation of United Nations sanctions.

It is wrong to use starving children as a policy tool.

It is no secret that the North Korean regime has misguided priorities. The long history of human rights abuses, political gulags and broken promises towards denuclearization are widely known - and rightly criticized.

Likewise, it is well known the people of North Korea are underfed, malnourished and starving. We know they are powerless within their own country. For them to publicly assign blame, or advocate for change, will result in their own personal imprisonment as well as the arrest and imprisonment of up to three generations of their family.

It is because the people are innocent, powerless and starving that we choose to feed them, despite their government.

More than one year ago, a group of American relief agencies - among them Mercy Corps, World Vision and Samaritan's Purse - reported that there was a growing problem of severe malnutrition in the country and children were starting to die. That report was the result of a direct request by USAID (United States Agency for International Development) to verify whether there was a real need. During the next few months, three U.N. agencies, the European community and even a team of U.S. State Department and USAID officials verified first-hand that, indeed, there was widespread, chronic and growing malnutrition in North Korea.

According to Ambassador Steven Bosworth (the former Obama administration official responsible for North Korea), it has been known since last May that a food program was "very appropriate for children."

Despite the evidence, the White House delayed action on responding to the requests for many months and gave misleading statements to the press and public that they were analyzing those reports. It was revealed through the "Leap Day Agreement," however, that the administration used the growing needs of hungry children to leverage a political deal on uranium enrichment and missile tests.

Did the White House or State Department seriously think that tying the humanitarian needs of children to a policy of Korean denuclearization was in the interest of anyone, least of all the hungry kids?

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor squarely laid the blame on the North Koreans for putting missile tests ahead of hungry children in his recent emailed statement to reporters: " ... (M)illions of innocent people are starving to death because the regime spends all its money on weapons."

It is deeply concerning that the U.S. government recognizes that there are millions of innocent people starving to death, but is withholding food aid because of its own policy of making food aid conditional on the actions of a tyrannical regime.

Further, it is disingenuous for the administration to claim that there are no guarantees that donated food would reach the targeted beneficiaries if a program did go forward. Food currently donated to the World Food Program by the Europeans, Australians and others is absolutely reaching the hungry. There are no doubts about the food currently going in; the only problem is, that is not nearly enough. The administration knows this.

Further, the food aid offered in the recently canceled program was not food that would be diverted to the elite. The food was a porridge made from blended corn and soy beans mixed with vegetable oil and fortified with vitamins. It can only be eaten one way (boiled) and cannot easily be reconstituted into another product. Having eaten "CSB" (as it's called), I assure you that none of the political elite will eat this. However, starving children will because it saves their lives.

I have spoken to the leaders of the U.S. non-governmental organizations, as well as served as the U.S. ambassador to the World Food Program, and we all know that this food reaches the children and pregnant women who need it. If it did not, each of these agencies would report it and call attention to it - as they have done in the past.

It is a terrible precedent for the administration to tie humanitarian assistance to political objectives. I feel for those in leadership who made this bad decision because there will be political fallout for such a terrible policy. However, I feel much worse for the parents who have to watch their children starve because no government is intervening to assist them in their most desperate hour of need. While there may be little any government can do to make the North Koreans feed their people, it is simply not right for the U.S. not to help these people.

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