Since the impromptu meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un late last month, there have been signs the United States may be prepared to make major concessions—including, so the rumors go, easing economic sanctions—in exchange for a North Korean freeze on some weapons development.
Clearly, Pyongyang would welcome any moves to ease economic sanctions, since news reports suggest that North Korea may once again be facing serious food shortages, and calls from the United Nations for the world to provide humanitarian assistance have grown. For U.S. policymakers, though, sending aid is far from an open-and-shut case. Historically, the United States and other democratic countries have provided help intended for the North Korean people. But such assistance has not always gone to those who needed it most, and Pyongyang strongly resists any kind of international monitoring to try to make sure it does.
Even so, the United States should open its pocketbook. U.S. aid will certainly not fundamentally alter the regime’s posture on security issues, nor will it resolve North Korea’s long-term problems without fundamental reforms to its system of government. But at its core, providing food and medical assistance is an issue of morality and humanity.
In May, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report stating that some 10.9 million people in the country—approximately 43 percent of the population—suffer from food insecurity, and nearly as many lack access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. Ten million North Koreans lack access to safe drinking water, and the U.N. estimates that 16 percent do not have access to basic sanitation. Meanwhile, UNICEF notes that while there has been some improvement in recent years, one in five North Korean children suffers from stunted growth.
Natural disasters have aggravated these conditions, but the sad truth is that much of this human misery is manmade. North Korea is a land rich in resources and human capital. Government policies and political ideologies, not droughts or floods, are responsible for the suffering. The simplest proof of this is to contrast North and South Korea. The democratic, free-market South is the 11th most prosperous economy in the world. Recent data on per capita gross domestic product is estimated at $1,700 in the North, versus $37,600 in the South. Both sides of the border have similar geographies and climates.
President Trump has dramatically reduced tensions, but to induce Pyongyang to denuclearize, he’s going to have to offer more. Providing humanitarian assistance shouldn’t be thought of as a lever to bring about political change in North Korea. While North Korea’s government may have a callous attitude toward its people, Americans believe that every life has value. Right now, lives are at stake. We can help to save them, and we should.