[Viewpoint] Rice aid should go to the hungry

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[Viewpoint] Rice aid should go to the hungry

At the luncheon hosted by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during the June 2000 inter-Korean summit, Lim Dong-won, then-head of the National Intelligence Service, sat at the head table. In his memoir, “Peacemaker,” Lim wrote about the occasion.

“When a fish dish was served, Kim said the name of the fish was somieo. He explained to us that the head of the fish is the most delicious part, and we should start eating the lips first,” Lim wrote. “A minute later, he noticed that only I and he were served with the fish heads. He, then, was considerate enough to hand over his plate to Kim Bo-hyun, a senior intelligence official from our delegation.”

At the table, steamed shark’s fin was also served inside a halved coconut, Lim recalled. Shark’s fin is a dish that is commonly available in most Chinese restaurants, and the somieo fish dish was probably a delicacy chosen for distinguished guests. Come to think of it, the menu of the event is nothing too special for a V.I.P. luncheon in most countries.

But the story is necessarily different being set in North Korea. The country has been suffering from severe famine and many have died of hunger. There, eating is a matter of survival.

If those in power and the people eat similar dishes, it is a democratic society. When the menus differ widely, the society is a dictatorship and anticivilization.

North Korea is a classic example of a dictatorship where the food is different for the ruling class, the middle class and ordinary citizens.

According to North Korean defectors, the country’s ration system is discriminatory. Workers’ Party executives, soldiers, workers in arms factories and residents of downtown Pyongyang receive rations comprised of 70 percent rice and 30 percent other grains. In contrast, residents outside Pyongyang only receive about 10 percent of rice in their rations. Since the 1990s, that 10 percent has not been guaranteed, they said.

The defectors said ordinary citizens receive rice on special days, such as the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, but most of the rice was produced years ago.

Ordinary North Koreans, according to defectors, normally eat corn and potatoes. They ground maize to boil as if it was a rice substitute, or cook it to make porridge, cakes and noodles.

According to Kim Sung-min, head of Free North Korea Radio, only the ruling class receives rice when South Korea and the international community send rice aid. When maize and wheat were sent, the rice-eating class did not welcome it, he said, and the aid was sent to ordinary citizens. Maize and wheat aid would feed starving North Koreans, defectors said, while rice aid would only fill the bellies of the ruling class.

Kim Tae-san graduated from the University of National Economy in Pyongyang and worked as a public servant at the planning department of the Light Industry Ministry to plan supplies, production and distribution of livelihood goods before he defected to the South. At a recent seminar hosted by the National Development Institute, Kim made an argument.

“If the Kim Jong-il regime falls, North Korea will be able to open up the country and reform itself, just like China. The two Koreas, then, will be able to cooperate to rebuild the North,” he said.

“But if you give rice now, you are only promoting the brinkmanship of the Kim regime. North Koreans won’t be able to eat the rice. The rice should be given after the Kim regime falls and when the North is in real hardship. Ships carrying 10,000 tons of rice should dock at North Korean ports and urge the North Koreans to pick up the rice.

“The North will receive the aid, because it will be scared of the people. Then, the North won’t have to rely on China’s assistance.”

Sending rice aid to the North is an agonizing issue, tied to the survival of human beings and their society. Helping those in hardship - helping those sharing the same blood, in particular - is a natural human instinct.

The rice aid can also be a catalyst for change if the aid is linked to dialogue and a transformation of the North Korean regime’s thinking. And yet, defectors’ testimonies and the North’s past behavior have raised skepticism.

That is why we have to be more cautious about rice diplomacy now. How about giving maize and wheat to feed North Koreans, as the defectors have argued?

If the South still sends rice, no matter how much, special precautions must be made to ensure that the rice is actually distributed to the starving public, not diverted to the military and munitions factories.

Until now, the South has provided enormous amounts of rice and money, but the North paid us back with nuclear tests and missile development, as well as a submarine attack that sank our warship Cheonan and killed 46 sailors. That vicious pattern must never be repeated.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jin
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