By Dale McFeatters
North Korea is starving ― again ― at least according to the United Nations, private aid groups, former President Jimmy Carter and North Korea itself. The world agency is calling for 474,000 tons of food aid from donor nations to avert a famine. There are the usual stories of peasants augmenting their skimpy diets with grass and wild herbs.
South Korea says the North is exaggerating, if not outright lying, and that food production last year actually increased from the year before, when there seems to have been no food crisis, at least no worse than the usual shortages in the North's badly mismanaged agricultural sector.
Reports in South Korea say that the North's collective farms chronically underreport their food production so they can sell the unreported surpluses on the black market to raise money.
There is also the perennial suspicion that Pyongyang diverts international food aid to feed the military and the Communist Party elite. And this year there is a new suspicion: that Pyongyang is hoarding food in order to hold a blowout celebration in 2012, the centennial of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea. North Korea is fully capable of either or both.
The U.S. suspended food aid in 2009 after the North expelled the international monitors there to make sure the aid got to where it was intended. The South, once a large-scale provider of aid, says it will resume shipments only after the North apologizes for sinking one of the South's warships and for shelling one of its islands.
North Korea is likely betting that if the United Nations and assorted humanitarian groups tug at U.S. coattails long enough, Washington will give in and start shipping food with no or very few strings attached.
The U.S. should relent only if North Korea allows outside monitors to come in and, without interference, check the progress of the food shipments from dockside to the final distribution centers, ensuring that nothing is diverted to the military, the favored few or the Kim centennial celebration. It's little enough to ask.
We should not twist the South's arm to join us. The South has had its good intentions thrown back in its face too many times. Let Seoul decide for itself.
Carter says that withholding food from North Korea is "a human-rights violation." True, human rights are being violated, but it's not the U.S. doing the violating.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer of Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).