Imagine a hunger-stricken family in your neighborhood oppressed by a violent, despotic patriarch. This villain often threatens you and even hits you sometimes. Would you let the poor children, the biggest victims, starve to death for having a tyrant father, then? Especially when they were once your family members, who are currently alienated but should be reunited in the end?
This may be a way too simplistic comparison if for no other reason than a family cannot be a state however overblown in scale. But that somehow is the impression one can hardly shake off when watching the dispute over sending food aid to North Korea.
The North seems desperate now to secure food: The reclusive regime recently allowed international organizations to visit even regions where outside aid groups had been denied access mainly for military reasons. Pyongyang has sent an unprecedented order to all its embassies to appeal to foreign governments for food aid; and the North’s latest barrage of dialogue proposals is apparently aimed at winning the South’s aid to help ease the aggravating food shortage.
All this is of little surprise. The latest dispatches say even soldiers, the North’s privileged class, are deserting units in search of food, and an Army captain killed himself in despair after his parents death through hunger.
President Lee Myung-bak once said the North Korean leadership could feed a million residents with the money spent on nuclear and missile tests. Few would dispute this logic, except the military-first regime has not followed this route, and is unlikely to do so as long as it thinks its safety has yet to be guaranteed.
Lee’s aides also are doubtful that the food problem in the North has reached a crisis stage, while suspecting Pyongyang might be stockpiling food to prepare for a big celebration next year or even more provocations and consequent tightening of international sanctions. Whether the looming famine is real or faked at the state level, however, will make little different for residents if past experience is any guide.
President Lee and his aides should know three points in this regard.
First, few can deny the food crisis has considerably deepened by exacerbated inter-Korean relations, for which the Lee administration is at least partially responsible.
Second, food aid to the North is killing three birds with one stone: retaking the initiative in improving relationship; winning the hearts of numerous North Korean residents under transparent distribution; and a boon for South Korean farmers suffering from rice overproduction.
Third, they should recall how the great famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century, and England’s cold-shouldering of it left historically incurable scars on both sides.
Only one thing keeps Seoul from moving in this direction: the Lee administration’s failure to differentiate the North Korean leadership from its people, abetted by ― and abetting ― its hawkish supporters.