A chance to help North Korea feed itself

February 18, 1997|By Tony P. Hall

AMERICA HAS a proud tradition of refusing to use food as a weapon against hungry people, no matter how abhorrent their leaders may be. That humanitarian tradition is the moral underpinning for our claim to global leadership, and it is under strain on the Korean peninsula.

For half a century, we have steadily committed U.S. soldiers to securing peace in Korea, at a current annual cost to U.S. taxpayers of $10 billion. Today, the fate of the 37,000 Americans now serving is being forgotten, lost in the Korean intrigues that sidetrack our diplomats. Instead of acting in our own nation's interests, the U.S. is forgoing an unusual opportunity to defang North Korea. Instead we keep deferring to South Korea, subsidizing the endless tit-for-tat between North and South.

History will not judge us by whether we get these old enemies to peace talks. What matters is the outcome of a disaster now taking shape: The North Korean people are slowly starving to death.

North Korea says it has only half the food it needs, and its claim is backed up by outside observers. The State Department puts the number of North Koreans ''at risk'' between 8 and 9 million. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that North Koreans' daily food ration is just one-sixth that of refugees in Africa.

Deaths generally become widespread in a famine's second year. There are classic precursors, desperate measures that North Koreans have been taking for nearly a year. I saw evidence of the experts' assessment that as much as 90 percent of the country's livestock has been traded or slaughtered. During 20-plus hours I spent on the roads of the country's breadbasket region last summer, I saw few animals, and cornstalks had been stripped bare two months before the green corn would have ripened.

There are more ominous ''coping mechanisms'' evident, too. North Korea recently signed a $75 million deal agreeing to be Taiwan's nuclear waste dump.

So far, the most desperate of measures has not been taken, perhaps because would-be refugees have nowhere to run. With China vigilant about sending escapees back and minefields blocking all routes south, North Koreans are likely to die in place. The elders, who remember life before communism, will be the first. Then the children.

New evidence about China's famine in 1959-62, which killed 30 million and resulted in cannibalism and other unspeakable horrors, suggests that North Korea also may be able to hide the extent of suffering in the many regions unseen by outsiders. Aid workers worry about conditions in the mountains that cover 80 percent of the country, regions where few outsiders have been allowed to go.

Criticism of the creaky communist system of agriculture is valid. Still, the country is susceptible to flooding by even normal rainfall, leaving huge swaths of once-productive farmland buried under debris.

The relevant question for Americans is whether we can seize this opportunity to help North Korea feed itself.

'Let 'em starve'?

One such effort, endorsed by experienced organizations and backed by the solid advice of agronomists, is a $7-million seed package that would yield $70 million worth of food by May. That contribution would feed 12 times more people than the food aid the U.S. is now considering, and it would leverage the North Koreans' proud philosophy of self-reliance. Time is running out for that proposal because the seeds would have to be planted by early March. Instead, the U.S. plans a study.

Without question, North Korea should be at peace with South Korea. American diplomats should continue trying to persuade these old enemies to officially end the war 44 years after the shooting stopped. American soldiers should continue patrolling the world's most tense border.

But neither America's interests nor our integrity are served by a ''let 'em starve'' mentality. The $6 million proposed contribution the U.S. is floating behind the scenes is no small sum, but it would ease the suffering of just 12 out of every 1,000 North Koreans. It equals just one penny of ''carrot'' for every $17 of ''stick'' now spent on protecting South Korea and Japan.

The U.S. has a rightful claim to global leadership, and other nations hesitate until we act. We should reclaim our leadership position by immediately sending a significant amount of food aid. A token gesture, or more fiddling by foreign policy Neros, will condemn millions of North Koreans to death. And it will make 37,000 American soldiers no safer and bring them no closer to coming home.

Rep. Tony P. Hall, D-Ohio, is founder of the private, nonprofit Congressional Hunger Center.

Pub Date: 2/18/97

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