Politics & Policy

Starve Them Out?

One way to deal with North Korea.

President Bush has made two statements on the matter of food and hunger. The first was that Kim Jong Il of North Korea has opted for national hunger by his single-minded policies aimed at weapons production. Mr. Bush is correct: Thirty percent of the gross domestic product of North Korea goes into the military. It was so in the Soviet Union, which dragooned 30 percent and more of its productive resources into the military, resulting in widespread misery. The second statement Mr. Bush made is arresting. He was talking now about U.S. food shipments to North Korea: “We’ve got a great heart, but I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks.”

There’s a mixture of realpolitik and Christian concern here, and the two need lives independent from one another.

It is undeniable that the poverty of North Korea translates to a shortage of food. And no one denies that the U.S. has been perhaps the primary food supplier for a nation in distress. But fast-moving events involving North Korea leave the Bush administration clinging to mutually exclusive propositions. The first is that one should feed people who are starving. The second, that we must retaliate against the North Korean decision to pursue the production of nuclear bombs.

Last summer, when we satisfied ourselves that the North Koreans were violating their commitments of 1994, the U.S. led a movement to suspend shipments of oil to Pyongyang. That oil had been our part of the 1994 bargain, on which Kim had defaulted. The oil-shipment freeze works the hardships intended, and they necessarily include the diminution of food production, and therefore more privation.

But it is now contemplated to increase the pressure by actively discouraging not merely oil, but grain. This leaves Mr. Bush with responsibility for enhancing starvation in North Korea, and this appears to run against the moral grain. Granted, the United States has never undertaken to feed every country in the world that is short of food, but to withhold grain as a matter of policy is something more merely than the question of acknowledging that in many countries food is scarce. Now outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has contributed the following: “Pressure and isolation have never been successful with Communist countries, even during the Cold War.” That is mostly correct, though isolation did serve to subdue Rhodesia, which, left alone, might have proceeded more slowly toward liberation by Mugabe. The attempt at economic sanctions against the Soviet Union did not work, but the Soviet enterprise was on a scale that doesn’t greatly

illuminate the problem of North Korea, whose 22 million people are more directly susceptible to economic strangulation.

So Mr. Bush has to straighten that out. Do we believe that a steady attrition in the food supply of North Korea will bring about a closing of the facilities engaged in enriching uranium? In straight-out wars, we happily engage in blockades. If it had been established in the fall of 1944 that more and more Germans were starving, we’d have put this down as a great achievement. Starving people to death is slower than bombing them to death, but still, it would have meant fewer Nazis to contend with.

But we are not at war with North Korea, and for that reason need to apply toward it different policy criteria. And here we have the growing disparity between the counsel of the South Korean public and that of U.S. hardliners. The South Koreans are moving toward ambivalence about the continuing U.S. role, which has dominated policy on the peninsula for a half-century. Protests against us mount, and the incoming president, Mr. Roh Moon Hyun, is an accommodationist who seems to want merely to live another day, and this is understandable inasmuch as the North Koreans, without using a nuclear weapon, could wipe out a quarter-million people in Seoul with a single fusillade from standing artillery.

Ah, and among that quarter-million are American soldiers. We have 37,000 of them in South Korea, strategic holdovers from when we fought hand to hand with the North Koreans to save the South. Is it wise to leave U.S. military there, at point-blank range of the North Koreans? Or will the new government in the South consider the presence of U.S. troops a part of the infrastructure of such security as they continue to have, against a North Korea starving for food, and covetous of the exercise of power?


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