February 18, 2006 | The Wall Street Journal

Food for Nukes?

In North Korea, it's Western chumps to the rescue

It's bad enough that North Korea's Kim Jong Il is starving his people while building nuclear bombs. But why are we helping him?

In theory, we're not. But the U.S. has been by far the largest donor to the aid appeal under which the U.N. World Food Program has shipped $1.7 billion worth of rice, corn, wheat and sugar into North Korea over a decade. Last summer the regime declared itself self-sufficient in food, ordering the WFP to wind down operations by the end of the year. But North Korea also let the WFP know that it would be happy to start receiving aid for state-run development projects. Obediently, the WFP has come up with a plan, awaiting approval from its executive board this coming week, to “work with the Government to support its strategy of moving towards development and away from humanitarian assistance.” The “Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation” has a $102 million budget to deliver food and “transitional assistance” for Pyongyang's “strategy for recovery.”

What Kim hopes to recover is his grip on a population that, despite North Korea's secret police, gulag and public executions for “crimes” such as trying to flee the country, has been slipping ever so slightly out of his control. Last fall, Pyongyang shut down the private grain exchanges that over the past three years had offered some crude semblance of market activity in the world's most rigidly ruled society. Now Pyongyang is trying to put back together its old state-run public distribution system. The WFP, which never actually closed its office in Pyongyang, is there to help.

But is North Korea's idea of “development” friendly to the interests of the free world or its own people? For the past 20 years, the regime has played a canny game of hinting that it is about to reform — only to extort whatever it can, and clamp down again, pursuing its ballistic missile and nuclear bomb projects along the way. Optimists point to China's market reforms, and such North Korean exploits as Kim's semi-secret train trip last month to China. They forget that in China reform began only after Mao's death in 1976 allowed a change in leadership.

Since North Korea's inception as a totalitarian state in 1948, Pyongyang has had only two rulers — Kim Il Sung (installed by Stalin) and his son, Kim Jong Il, who took charge after his father's death in 1994. The junior Kim's record over the past dozen years is not one of reform, but of brutality, duplicity and blackmail.

What brought significant Western aid to North Korea in the first place was a nuclear-freeze deal proposed in 1994 by Jimmy Carter. Kim cheated on the deal, pursuing nukes while starving to death an estimated two million North Koreans — using the state distribution system to decide most expeditiously who would die. Foreign aid workers found themselves up against the policy of songun, meaning the army gets top priority. Some left: Médecins Sans Frontières pulled out in 1998, having concluded that “its assistance was not reaching the most vulnerable people, and was, on the contrary, helping to feed the regime oppressing them.” MSF instead devoted its efforts to helping North Koreans who fled the country.

The WFP plowed ahead, trying to outmaneuver the regime on its own turf. North Korea siphoned off aid to the military and the party elite, refused to allow snap inspections, and prohibited the WFP from bringing in native Korean speakers — leaving them dependent on the regime's translators. In response, the WFP expanded its international staff in North Korea from two to 46, eventually setting up five field offices outside Pyongyang, running a number of food factories and food-for-work programs while bringing in grains less favored than rice in the hope that this would cut down on state diversion of supplies. By mid-2004, the WFP was boasting that it had “gained greater and greater access to the country.” To try to stop the regime from diverting aid, the WFP refused to send food to areas where the government barred access.

Since Kim turned up his nose last year, the WFP has been concocting a menu more to his liking. The new WFP proposal states that in compliance with North Korea's wishes, “monitoring will be significantly reduced.” There will be no more field offices. Inspection visits will be allowed only four times a year. The government will handle all internal storage, transportation and distribution. The WFP will pay Kim's regime for the favor of storing the free goods, reimburse it for fuel used in transport, and on top of everything else, provide a tip in the form of $3 million for travel, office rent, communications, vehicle maintenance and North Korean “consultants.”

If the WFP's new plan goes forward, Kim will be in the pleasant position of receiving free goods, enjoying plenty of control over who gets what, and taking credit for the handouts. Part of the WFP plan, for example, is to provide supplies for food-processing factories where the government will hire the workers, operate the plants, and in some cases — how many is not clear — “transport the product to the beneficiary institutions.”

There is no question that many people are hungry, and, as the head of the WFP office in Pyongyang, Richard Ragan, described it in a recent interview, “living on the edge.” In the field of good works, one of the worst dilemmas is what to do when a tyrant holds hostage his own population — trading on their deprivation to lever out of well-meaning donors whatever it is he really wants. But in North Korea, the WFP — America's main conduit for aid into the country — is losing whatever leverage it ever had. Big brother China and eager-to-appease South Korea are shipping substantial aid with few strings attached. Meanwhile, the U.S. is trying to corral Kim over matters as mortally important as nuclear bombs. This new program whipped up by the WFP to suit Kim's palate sends just one message: Yes indeed, we are chumps.

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-resident with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.



North Korea