In The News

Humanitarian Aid to North Korea Should Continue

May 26, 2010

In spite of their appropriately firm responses to North Korea over the sinking of the South’s naval vessel in March that left 46 dead, both the United States and South Korea have left open the door for humanitarian assistance to the North, especially aid to vulnerable populations. This is a positive signal in the midst of a dangerous crisis and escalating rhetoric. Continuation of aid, especially by South Korea, is justified both on humanitarian grounds and as a means of maintaining a channel for contact between opposing camps. History indicates that it is a safety valve that both the South and North have made effective use of in past crises.

In 2002 a serious naval clash took place between the South and North in the West Sea of Korea near the same place where the Cheonan was struck. A South Korean ship was destroyed and six South Korean sailors lost their lives. All official contact between South and North Korea was halted while tensions mounted. Nevertheless, after a brief period of interruption, South Korean NGOs were able to resume deliveries of food, medicine, and other much-needed assistance. The same pattern was repeated in 2006 following the North’s missile and nuclear tests that resulted in UN Security Council sanctions against the North.

In some cases, South Korean NGO representatives initially met with their North Korean counterparts in China to discuss aid project plans, but visits to Pyongyang to monitor receipt of supplies resumed fairly quickly.

The North’s need for aid is probably even greater now than at the time of these earlier breakdowns in official contact. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report just released on May 21, 2010, on food production in the North warned that this year’s harvests will be seriously diminished by unusually cold weather and lack of agricultural inputs. Also, supplies of critical medicines have been depleted, and the disruption caused by the botched currency swap late last year has made it difficult for ordinary North Koreans to obtain food, medicine, and other essential items on the open market.

In addition to meeting urgent needs, South Korean humanitarian aid, even on a modest scale, sends a signal to the lower level officials and administrators with whom the NGOs work and to the aid recipients themselves that South Koreans distinguish between fellow Koreans in need and the policies of their government. The current crisis will be resolved one way or another, and once again, the two sides will have to begin rebuilding a minimum level of trust on which to base a resumption of dialogue and cooperation. The goodwill that is signaled by continuation of aid from South Koreans to the North will help maintain a basis for that difficult process.

In the case of past crises, as the most serious phase gradually receded, the humanitarian channel served as a means of quasi-official contact that helped to restore government-level dialogue. Before official contact was restored, and with the knowledge of both governments and the NGOs, policy analysts from South Korean think tanks joined some of the South Korean NGO monitoring visits into the North in order to provide the opportunity for informed side conversations.

Today’s crisis appears to be more serious than any since the so-called first nuclear crisis of 1994. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, with the North’s nuclear tests, failed talks, and changes in governments. But even in those dark days, the first diplomatic openings came through humanitarian aid provided by NGOs. It is more important than ever to keep this option open, not only for the sake of the ordinary people in the North who are not responsible for the crisis, but also to maintain a fragile but important bridge toward the restoration of dialogue that must happen if a more dangerous situation is to be averted.

Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea. He can be reached at ereed@asiafound.org.

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