By: Selig S. Harrison
February 23rd, 2011
The National Interest
With North Korea facing an acute food shortage, the United States should offer a long-term food aid commitment to Pyongyang in exchange for denuclearization concessions.
Pyongyang’s United Nations Ambassador, Han Song Ryol, has proposed such a deal repeatedly to me in past years. But the US response has invariably been that food aid is given only as a humanitarian gesture, not for political purposes. Thus, the United States and other members of the United Nations World Food Program are resisting Pyongyang’s current pleas for emergency aid.
This is a hypocritical response to the present crisis, since Washington does, in fact, impose blatantly political conditions for participating in UN food aid by demanding that Pyongyang agree to more intrusive inspections to assure that the aid does not go to the armed forces. This conditionality makes no sense because the armed forces will get priority in North Korean food allocations whether or not there is outside aid. The present policy simply adds to the deprivation of the North Korean masses in urban centers.
Agricultural production varies from province to province in North Korea, with some areas relatively affluent. This was apparent in the uneven effects of the 1995 and 1996 famines. So the impact of the harsh winter and of a poor vegetable harvest this year has not affected the rich farm collectives in such productive locations as the Hamheung region. The same poor segment of the population suffers over and again.
While a food aid offer alone would be desirable, a better approach would be to combine offers of long-term energy aid and long-term food aid linked to denuclearization demands. Prodded by China, North Korea has already signaled its willingness to resume both bilateral US denuclearization talks and the six-party dialogue cut off at the end of the Bush Administration.
The present rigid US policy undermines the moderates in the Pyongyang leadership who were moved into key positions by Kim Jong Il at the recent Workers Party Congress. Not only his sister, Kim Hyong Hui, his brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek, and his favorite son, Kim Jong Un, but more important, Kang Sok Ju, long the leading advocate of improved relations with the United States, who was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister. When I proposed the concept of a nuclear freeze to the late Kim Il Sung in a meeting with him on June 9, 1994, it was Kang Sok Ju, then Deputy Foreign Minister, who persuaded Kim in my presence to accept the proposal. His acceptance set the stage for the October 1994 formalization of a North Korean freeze in return for promises of US normalization in the Agreed Framework—promises that were never fulfilled.
Under this agreement, North Korea suspended its nuclear program until the Bush Administration abrogated the deal in December 2002, regarding it as “too soft.” This only opened the way for a resumption of North Korean nuclear production that has now resulted in an arsenal of at least 36 nuclear weapons.
Kang Sok Ju’s position at the administrative helm of North Korean affairs offers an opportunity to the United States that should not be lost. The Obama Administration’s North Korea policy is in the hands of a Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, who was openly hostile to the concessions made by the Clinton Administration to Pyongyang and is now the key player responsible for Obama’s North Korea policy, which makes any US concessions dependent on North Korean concessions that will have to come first in the Campbell approach.
In contrast to the Bush Administration, which allowed me to host meetings for North Korean dignitaries at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Campbell has refused to let me convene a proposed discussion of US-North Korean policy issues to be addressed by Han in Washington. The argument is that this would look like “weakness” on the part of the United States.
But how can the United States look weak to North Korea when Washington has its nuclear umbrella over the Korean peninsula and refuses to disavow the first use of nuclear weapons? The United States squandered a North Korean turnaround once before; none of us can afford to let that happen again.