[Outlook]Teaching the North to fish

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[Outlook]Teaching the North to fish

These days many people in different sectors of society are calling out for us to help the North Koreans, as many of them are starving.

In early September, the World Food Programme started delivering a massive amount of emergency food aid to North Korea, and asked our government for assistance of up to $60 million. Senior members of the Grand National Party are also urging the government to participate in the North Korean aid efforts that international society is currently involved in.

As the government has delayed assistance to North Korea, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea called for the minister in charge of the matter to separate humanitarian aid from political issues, pushing for the South Korean government to move ahead with shipments of food aid to the North.

Lately, religious leaders also appealed for assistance to be given. One association of religious figures that works for reconciliation and peace on the peninsula includes leaders from the Buddhist, Christian, Catholic and Won Buddhist communities, such as Venerable Beopryun and Pastor Kim Myung-hyuk. The group collected signatures from more than a million people in a campaign to get food aid and development assistance to the North, and handed them in to the National Assembly and the Ministry of Unification.

This was the first collective move by religious figures since the mid-1990s, when members of six different religions led a campaign to provide aid to North Korean citizens suffering from hunger, and thus this recent move is expected to send ripples through society.

The religious leaders’ appeal draws more attention because they are asking the government to give more than the usual food aid. They suggested that apart from 200,000 tons of food, we should also devote 1 percent of our national budget every year to creating a fund aimed at developing North Korea’s economy. It remains to be seen what will come of discussions on the topic, but the suggestion itself is still meaningful because it urges fundamental changes to our North Korea aid policy.

As seen in the explosion in Ryongchon in 2004, a one-off shipment of humanitarian aid can’t resolve our impoverished neighbor’s problems. Any expert on the North would agree that the country suffers from a shortage of food every year, not because of natural disasters but because of problems in its economic structure, and that things can’t be fundamentally improved without outside help.

As a result, North Korea experts in South Korea and other countries have constantly maintained that emergency aid should be transformed into development assistance. Even the North Korean authorities are well aware that this is a necessity. In the summer of 2004, they went against the consolidated appeals process of the United Nations and asked the WFP and international nongovernmental organizations to change all humanitarian aid programs to development assistance.

In the past, the biggest problem with providing aid to North Korea was that it always gave rise to criticism that we were just shoveling aid northward. In the course of providing aid, controversies over transparency and efficiency were always questioned. When the North Korean nuclear issue emerged again in 2002, South Koreans were sharply divided over whether or not to continue giving help to North Korea.

Unlike emergency aid, development assistance is pursued under a mid- to long-term plan, and more information is made available about the process through which the help is provided. Thus, the accusation that we are simply shoveling aid can be averted. A good example is domestic nongovernmental organizations’ programs that provide help with health care, medical and agricultural programs. These projects have never been criticized for mindlessly pumping aid into the North.

In early 2002, the JoongAng Ilbo suggested that we spend 1 percent of the state budget to provide help to the North. That idea was along the same lines as the recent proposal by religious leaders.

This year’s state budget is around 175 trillion won ($138 billion). Therefore, 1 percent of the budget is 1.75 trillion won. If that amount of money is allowed to accumulate over 10 years, the total fund will amount to 17.5 trillion won.

If half of that is used to assist development in North Korea in order to find a more permanent solution to the chronic lack of food there, North Korean residents will probably no longer suffer from starvation in 10 years.

It is also quite difficult for the South Korean government to accept every request for emergency aid when they are made once a year. Now is the time to stop giving North Korea fish, and to instead teach the country how to catch fish.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Choi Dae-suk
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