Food aid to North Korea is expected to become the focal point of any thaw in Seoul-Pyongyang relations. After agreeing to hold reunions of families separated by the Korean War on Feb. 20-25, officials from the North and South also signaled future discussions about humanitarian aid.
In follow-up talks, the government said it intends to raise the subjects of South Korean prisoners of war and citizens abducted by North Korea, but food and fertilizer aid to the North are likely to be higher on the agenda.
President Park Geun-hye on Thursday said South Korea needs to "make efforts to expand mutual understanding" with North Korea by "getting closer to the living conditions of North Koreans suffering from hunger."
North Korea is also in a desperate situation, so it may know better than to act carelessly, even though it is already noisily threatening to scrap the family reunions if joint South Korea-U.S. military drills continue or if the South Korean press criticizes the regime's leader Kim Jong-un.
Official South Korean food aid to North Korea ground to a halt in 2008. The UN World Food Programme recently decided to shut down five nutritional biscuit factories it had been operating in the North because international donations had run dry. Even a humanitarian organization created by former Microsoft head Bill Gates has excluded North Korea from its list of aid recipients citing distrust.
The halt in aid came due to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs, and major provocations including the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
Providing food aid to a country that threatens the world with nuclear weapons poses a huge dilemma. But the reality is that our fellow Koreans are starving to death just across the border.
In a 2011 study, the average height of an 11-year-old South Korean boy was 144 cm and the weight 39 kg, while the average for his North Korean counterpart was 125 cm and 23 kg. An estimated 28 percent of North Korean children suffer from chronic malnutrition. If Seoul turns a blind eye to the tragedy, it could end up with a major social problem on its hands following reunification as North Koreans end up alienated and unable to integrate.
The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations provided tens of thousands of tons of food aid to North Korea each year but failed to make an impact in alleviating the dire food shortage there. They only made the regime feel entitled to such aid, but Pyongyang did not cease its provocations.
Sending food aid to the North again without any checks would essentially amount to feeding the elite and soldiers. What is needed is a methodical approach focusing on food aid for children, the elderly and women and gradually expanding the amount. The South should also look at goods like nutritional crackers rather than rice that cannot so easily be diverted to the military.
There is no point denying that whatever support Seoul provides will eventually end up helping the regime and military. But if that is what it takes to feed the truly hungry, that is a price worth paying to make them feel that South Korea cares. The gain would far outweigh the drawbacks.