By Robert R. King
We are at the peak of the annual hurricane season, and this year looks to be another painful reminder of Mother Nature’s power. The Southeast United States has just seen one of the largest and most destructive hurricanes in recent memory. In the Pacific hurricane Lane dropped record-breaking amounts rain on Hawaii, and typhoon Mangkhut, ravaged the Philippines and then moved on to inflict destruction in Hong Kong and southern China with 170 mile per hour winds and record rainfall.
Northeast Asia has also suffered under this year’s severe storms. In late August two major typhoons—Soulik and Cimarron—affected significant areas in Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. All three countries felt the effects, but in North Korea, the impact was far greater. In some areas in just a few hours rainfall reached nearly 25 inches.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reported in early September that severe flooding in North Korea killed 76 people and that at least 75 people, including many children, were missing. Thousands were left homeless by the destructive floods, which destroyed some 800 homes, schools, medical clinics and other buildings. Areas most affected were North and South Hwanghae provinces, which are nationally important agricultural areas of southwest North Korea. The flooding came four weeks after reports that these same two provinces were suffering severe drought as a late summer heatwave resulted in rice, corn (maize) and other crops withering.
The twin scourge of drought followed by severe flooding is unfortunately a common pattern in the DPRK. The North Korean famine of the mid- to late-1990s—known as the “Arduous March”—was in part caused by a similar drought followed by severe flooding, though these natural causes were amplified by economic mismanagement and the cessation of significant Soviet economic aid with the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1991. Estimates of the most likely number of excess deaths from the famine of the mid-1990s vary from 240,000 to 3.5 million people in a country with a population at the time of 22 million. The most careful estimate of the loss of life during that time concluded that the death toll was “as many as one million North Koreans.”
There is little question about the need for assistance to help North Korea cope with the damage of the floods, particularly since the areas most affected provide an important portion of the staple crops that feed the population of the North. At the same time, the autocratic regime in Pyongyang is a major source of the problem in the North. National resources are spent on nuclear, missile, and military programs as well as luxuries for the elite. This means resources are not available for infrastructure to protect areas which annually see flooding or drought, and resources are not available for disaster relief at times like these.
Those who suffer most from these natural disasters, however, are not those who make the country’s economic and military decisions. The citizens of the DPRK have no real say in the selection of their leaders, and they have little or no voice in the policy choices. The fault is not with those who suffer, but with those who make flawed decisions, but still continue to rule.
At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that North Korea is a poor country. Its neighbors are wealthy. South Korea and Japan have among the highest per capita incomes in the world. While China has a modest per-capita income, it is the second largest economy in the world. North Korea’s inefficient and poorly organized economy functions at very low level. In terms of per capita income, North Korea ranks just below Haiti and Togo and just above Sierra Leone and Eritrea.
North Korea has not endured another round of flooding with potentially serious consequences for the country. For the United States, the question is whether we should provide humanitarian assistance. Beginning with the famine of the mid-1990s and somewhat sporadically since then, the United States has provided significant food and other humanitarian and economic assistance to deal with the serious needs in North Korea. During that time, direct U.S. government aid totaled some $1.3 billion. The U.S. was one of the major international donors to North Korea between the late 1990s until 2008, though we have provided very little government assistance since then.
At present, U.S. government assistance for North Korea is unlikely, even with difficult humanitarian conditions. While there is lip service to the principle of providing humanitarian aid based solely on need and availability of total resources, political considerations do get in the way of our principles. The relationship between North Korea and the United States—despite the soaring rhetoric and colorful photo ops of the recent Singapore Summit and the possibility of a repeat event—there is little support in Congress for providing aid to North Korea.
At the same time, however, it does not make sense for the United States to discourage or hamper the provision of humanitarian assistance to North Korea to cope with such natural disasters as the recent flooding in North and South Hwanghae provinces or for dealing with other such humanitarian needs. Washington should not oppose humanitarian assistance from South Korea, from the United Nations or other international organizations, or from American and other non-government organizations.
Two conditions, however, should be met if aid is provided to North Korea. First, help should be based on a careful and accurate assessment of need, and aid should be tailored to meet those identified needs. Second, aid should be monitored to be certain that assistance reaches those for whom it is intended. These are conditions that any provision of humanitarian assistance should meet anywhere in the world. These are not conditions that apply only in the case of North Korea.
Even though the United States government is unlikely to provide humanitarian aid to the North, the U.S. should support such help for the North in the United Nations. Furthermore, the U.S. should not prevent or discourage such aid. The draconian requirements for American citizens traveling to North Korea even for humanitarian, educational, and such purposes are being enforced in such a way that it very difficult and expensive for American humanitarian workers to travel to North Korea to assess need and monitor the use of help they provide. We have made clear to Kim Jong-un our concern regarding the detention of American citizens, and it is probably still a good idea to discourage sight-seeing and running in the Pyongyang Marathon. But it is not useful to hamper and discourage humanitarian help.
This is also true of the sanctions on items sent into North Korea. UN sanctions on the DPRK provide an exception for humanitarian assistance, but we need to be certain that we are not choking off the flow of needed assistance. The United States needs to use its influence in the United Nations and in other international situations to encourage legitimate humanitarian assistance for North Korea.
If we are interested in the goodwill of North Koreans, it is important to allow American non-government organizations to provide assistance to the North. An important part of that is allowing easier travel permission for Americans with these aid groups to travel there in order to assess and monitor the need and use of this help. It is also important for North Koreans outside of Pyongyang to know that generous Americans care if they have enough to eat, if they have access to medical attention, and if they have temporary shelter from the next rain storm.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.