[Outlook]Food without strings‘The grey-haired professor/opened the roll book/ on the podium every day/ With his dry lips/ He called the students’ names/ Whenever there were no answers/ He felt as if a hole had been bored in his chest/ and said anxiously/ one needs to learn even when one is starving/ But the professor/ didn’t show up today/ On top of his desk/ that students used to look at/ with respect for his personality/ and intellect/ lies only the portrait of the late professor.”
Jeong Jin-seong, a North Korean defector and poet, recited this poem, “The Roll Book,” at a press conference with North Korean defectors on June 16. The event was hosted by Good Friends, an organization advocating human rights in North Korea led by Venerable Beopryun. The press conference was aimed at pushing the administration to provide 200,000 tons of emergency food aid to North Korea.
While South Korea is in an uproar trying to decide whether it should import U.S. beef, many North Koreans are starving for want of a bowl of corn soup.
North Korea was believed to have enough food once, so what happened? One reason is the floods that swept North and South Hwanghae and Pyeongan provinces, the rice bowl of North Korea.
Outside the country, international food prices have doubled or even tripled, China began controlling food exports early this year in preparation for the Olympic Games and possible sudden surges in international food prices, and international society has discontinued providing food aid.
According to Good Friends, two to three people die from hunger in one ri or dong, a small village or district unit, every day in North and South Hwanghae. The number of villages where people die from hunger at that rate has increased to 4,500 across the country.
Critics may wonder whether the information that Good Friends provides is trustworthy. It is often said that the organization’s information is even better than the administration’s when it comes to the general North Korean public, such as data on markets, health and medical issues, schools, farming and transportation in farming villages.
The government is better at gathering information on politics, the military and strategies. It seems to have less interest and ability in terms of information regarding ordinary North Koreans.
But the fact is, whether one person dies in a village, or two or three, is not important. Even if we cut those statistics in half and then in half again, hundreds of people die from hunger across North Korea every single day.
The Join Together Society is another civic organization led by Ven. Beopryun that works to provide food to North Korea. The JTS urges the South Korean government to provide 600,000 tons of food to North Korea with no political strings attached. That amount is just one-third of the 600,000 tons that North Korea needs to last two months.
Considering the speed of the denuclearization process and the improvement of U.S.-North Korea and Japan-North Korea relations, if North Koreans can live on that emergency aid for two months, it will likely get further help from the international community after that. That will prevent a repeat of the horrific famine that happened in the 1990s.
The South Korean government says it will provide aid to North Korea only when it requests aid first. Such an attitude is too lax and inhumane, particularly when North Koreans can’t even get a bowl of corn porridge. Some talk about North Korea’s human rights violations, but the right to survive comes first.
The South Korean government’s North Korea policy is hazy and dim, as if it were immersed in a fog. Politicians who seem to be the Korean version of American neoconservatives pursue a policy that links aid to North Korea with dialogue between the South and the North, just as the George Bush administration did for six months until late 2006.
They are attempting to turn the spinning wheel of history backwards, making remarks aimed at annulling the June 15 joint declaration and the October 4 agreement, or other comments that offend or upset North Korea unnecessarily. In the meantime, they also worry that North Korea will improve its ties with the United States while leaving South Korea out of the loop.
The minimum amount of humanitarian food aid to feed starving fellow Koreans must be provided immediately, with no political conditions, before one more person succumbs to death. The United States plans to provide 500,000 tons of food to North Korea by June next year and some 60,000 tons of wheat and corn by July. The North Korean authorities persist in condemning South Korea. These kinds of actions don’t help solve starvation. However, we need to separate food aid from politics in order to prevent North Koreans from dying.
The Korean president and the unification minister are known to be devout Christians. They should read the Bible and make a decision about emergency food aid to North Korea. Romans 12:20 reads: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink.”
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo..
by Kim Young-hie