Is it right to reject aid for NK?
When Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, suggested last week that South Korea ``positively consider” food aid for North Korea, the reply was NGOs, yes, but government, no.
Was it the right one?
Once upon a time, help for the North was figured in power terms: If by giving aid we can persuade, entice, embarrass, or otherwise manipulate the North, let’s do it. Otherwise, let them starve.
This is, of course, how governments interact, by the pursuit of national interest. To put this in perspective, the Sunshine Policy of engagement championed by the previous two administrations, and the significant increase in aid that accompanied it, was a change of strategy from the past also made in the national interest. It was considered a sacrifice on the South’s part but justified in terms of a possible future outcome.
But democratic governments have an additional factor to consider in their pursuit of perceived national interest. That is that their people may wish to give aid simply to be decent. If the poor in even an enemy country are starving, we want to help because it is good thing to do.
Such a sentiment is not always convenient. It may lose the government leverage and it may even be seen as counter-productive, especially if there is suspicion that the aid will be diverted to the black market or the military. But it is there nevertheless, reminding us that despite differences between countries, people in their better moments feel part of a human family.
How does a government handle this? Often, there is a battle.
To take a similar case involving another issue, during the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003), the government tried to block defectors and activists from criticizing North Korea for fear that Pyongyang would halt inter-Korean initiatives. It did so, even though there is free speech in South Korea.
The government was successful in keeping some defectors quiet, but not so successful with the press. At one point, officials had to explain to their northern counterparts that they couldn’t stop negative articles in the newspapers and couldn’t block certain newspapers from covering North-South meetings because of free speech, a claimed helplessness that the North Koreans may genuinely have failed to understand and certainly not believed.
At such times, a democratic government must act in accordance with its values and may push and shove within its own legal and political confines. These differ from country to country. Asked by a foreign reporter whether he could accompany the prime minister on a state visit to Moscow, a Swedish official responded, ``Of course. I have no right to stop you.”
As much as a government may wish to stop its country’s NGOs from doing what they do, it is usually not able to.
But herein lies both a frustration and a convenient strength. The government may wish to pressure North Korea with food aid, but can’t because NGOs may still send it. On the other hand, the government may wish to send food aid, while pressuring North Korea. Do what we want and you’ll get a lot more aid.
The private/public sector difference also allows us to dance around another sensitivity.
As a diplomat and a Korean, Ban doubly loses face if his own country gives him the bird on a Korean matter. As the head of the U.N., he can hardly ignore reports of an imminent food crisis in a member country. With the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Program and UNICEF calling for 470,000 tons of international food aid to North Korea, Ban has to follow suit.
Although it appears like a no, the foreign ministry could position it thus: ``We have positively considered your request and are allowing NGOs to send food. The government, however, is waiting for an apology over the deadly attacks by North Korea last year before agreeing to aid.”
That makes sense all round.
Michael Breen is an author, former foreign correspondent and the chairman of Insight Communications, a public relations consulting company. He can be reached at email@example.com.