[Viewpoint] Food aid: A basic human right

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[Viewpoint] Food aid: A basic human right

“To give, or not to give, that is the question.”

After a five-day visit to North Korea, Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, returned to Washington last weekend. A seven-member food assessment team remained in the North to carry out a survey. The outcome will soon be in a report sent to the White House through U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Will President Barack Obama face a Hamlet’s dilemma over the report? Probably not.

Obama has already made his decision, sources said. Under the principle of separating political issues from humanitarian issues, Obama has reportedly decided to give North Korea food aid. Sending the assessment team, led by King, to Pyongyang was merely a step to calm the conservatives in the United States and South Korean governments, observers said.

Taking into account the limited manpower and short investigation period, the U.S. team’s report will unlikely overturn the assessment report by the World Food Program, released two months ago. Based on its one-month survey of the communist nation, the United Nations relief agency concluded that about 6 million people, particularly women and children, are threatened severely by food shortages. The World Food Program launched an emergency appeal for the North at the end of last month. To provide aid to 3.5 million people, the agency has set up a goal of raising $225 million to buy 350,000 tons of food.

The Obama administration is contemplating the duration and amount of aid that should be given and through what means. Sources said the likeliest possibility would be sending monthly aid packages of 330,000 tons of food, the portion yet to be sent out of the 500,000 tons promised by the Bush administration in 2008. Washington would attach strict conditions to constantly check on the transparency of distribution through regular monitoring, and assistance would be immediately terminated if a problem arises. Instead of giving rice, Washington is reportedly preparing wheat flour, barley and maize - grains that are hard to use for other purposes such as military foodstuffs.

Despite the WFP’s appeal, the international community’s reaction has been cold. Nine countries and international organizations such as the UN donated about $30 million, but that is far below the goal. Among the nine countries, Russia pledged $5 million, Brazil $4.95 million, Switzerland $3.97 million and Canada $2.5 million. The situation, however, could be drastically different if the United States takes action. Members of the European Union and other countries will likely join. The EU food assessment team will be sent to the North next week.

Critics of the aid program condemn the immorality of the Kim Jong-il regime, which spends much money to build nuclear weapons and missiles and buy luxury products for the leadership while its citizens starve. They said the North has more than enough money to resolve its food crisis if it chooses to spend some of its annual investments of up to $500 million that is allotted for its weapons of mass destruction programs. They said it would take up to $300 million to end the food shortage.

Others say the assistance program is meaningless, saying that the food wouldn’t be given to the needy but to the regime instead. Some also say that North Korea has been exaggerating its food crisis. Others argue that no assistance should be given unless the North shows efforts to change, because the regime’s contradictory attitudes are the fundamental reason behind the structural and perennial food shortage.

Furthermore, South Korea has experienced the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling. It is emotionally unacceptable for South Korea to give food to the North. According to a Ministry of Unification survey, 70 percent of South Koreans said no food aid should be given unless the North apologizes for its armed provocations.

While there are 99 reasons not to give food aid to the North, there is only one reason to do so. It is the humanitarian reason.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights uphold the right to food as a paramount human right. It is important to note that the United States dispatched the North Korea human rights special envoy as the head of the food assessment team.

The right to food is a human right. Opposing food aid, while talking about human rights abuses in the North, is a contradiction. Arguing for giving food aid to the North, while ignoring human rights abuses in the North, is also wrong. There should be no question about saving starving people. The time has come when “give or not to give” is no longer the question.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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