[Viewpoint] The irony of aid to the North

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[Viewpoint] The irony of aid to the North

I have visited North Korea from time to time, and have befriended some of the locals. Among them is “K,” an open-minded person who knows South Korea well.

He appears to hold a somewhat senior position. He is not young, and he has authority enough to give a scolding to other North Koreans working on South Korea affairs.

Now that we have become friends, K has started to open up. Sometimes, he starts a conversation first about a sensitive inter-Korean issue. It is hard to tell whether it is his personal opinion or that of the North Korean government, but it’s always interesting to listen to a North Korean official’s opinion.

We met again last autumn. We drank newly produced Taedonggang beer with dried pollack. As we drank, some foreigners entered the bar, sat at a table behind us and started chatting loudly.

Then, K talked to me, frowning. “Do you know who I think are the most pathetic people?” K asked in a lowered voice. “I think these people are pathetic. They came here as relief workers but they are not acting seriously. It’s not even their own money. They came here with other people’s money, but they act as if it’s their own. They are working as relief workers to benefit themselves. They are not here to support North Korea.”

I could sense a ruined self-pride from his remarks.

North Korea used to promote itself as a heaven on earth, but its survival is dependent upon outside food aid, and K appears to be embarrassed about the situation.

The criticism, however, had some point. We probably want the aid groups supporting North Korea to disappear, because it will mean that the North will be able to survive alone without assistance. And yet, that’s the day relief groups pray will not come.

Recently I recalled my conversation with K because the National Assembly in South Korea is actively engaged in discussions on how to assist North Korea.

One plan would provide assistance through international organizations while another would establish a special law to provide rice directly to the North.

Borrowing K’s expression, I think both plans are pathetic.

The first plan of providing aid indirectly through international organizations is perhaps slightly better. Because the two Koreas’ relations are frozen now, international relief agencies can be used to provide assistance.

And yet, it is actually more consistent to not give aid at all, because the reason that bars the South from giving direct assistance to the North is the freeze in relations. If there is reason enough to provide aid indirectly, there should be reason for the South to do so directly. There is no justification for the South to not engage in direct assistance projects while it is providing aid indirectly.

Furthermore, it is always better to provide aid directly. That will allow frozen ties to thaw. For this, the North will eventually be grateful.

As we have seen during past administrations, government-level aid provision is linked with the improvement of inter-Korean relations, such as holding reunions of separated families.

When giving assistance through international organizations, other costs are incurred. In 2007, the South Korean government spent about 1.1 percent of the total aid package in incidental expenses when it sent assistance directly to the North. In contrast, about 23.4 percent of aid package costs is spent for incidental expenses when indirect aid is provided through the World Food Program. That means only about three-fourths of the aid actually gets to the North.

North Korea’s grain production has increased steadily in the 2000s, except for 2007, but international relief agencies have warned about massive famine in the North every year. They are, of course, concerned about the worst, but it is also possible that they are interested in something other than purely supporting the North.

The plan to establish a special law to provide rice to the North is based on the idea that South Korea’s bumper crop of rice may cause prices to plummet.

Lawmakers proposed that the surplus rice should be routinely provided to the North to control rice demand and supply in the South, while using the grain as a tool to create an environment for peaceful unification.

They, therefore, want to create a law in which the government will be required to purchase rice from farmers every year until 2020 and provide it to the North.

Yet the price of rice is an economic issue, while aid provision is a unification issue. The two are completely separate matters.

Providing surplus rice to the North is a stop-gap measure. The problems associated with excessive rice should be solved structurally by lowering production or increasing consumption. After the annual provision of rice to the North is put into law, what will South Korea possibly do when the harvest is bad and the country faces a rice shortage?

In fact, the more serious problem is the idea itself that South Korea will provide rice because there is just too much of it.

If aid provision is necessary, we should save up what we eat and even purchase more from overseas to give aid to the North. The idea of giving what’s left over is not a welcoming idea.

Just like what K had said, the aid provision is nothing more than a sugarcoated justification, and the action actually is self-serving. Whatever its intention, the law may even create an environment that goes against peaceful unification.

I wonder what K will tell me next time when we meet.

His typical cynicism will probably kick in. “If possible, give everything that is overproduced in the South. It won’t be any trouble since you don’t need it anyway, right?” he may say.


*The writer is a North Korea studies professor at Ehwa Womans University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Jo Dong-ho
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