North Korea’s Great Successor is accepting homage for his accession to rule one of the world’s most brutal regimes, and the Obama Administration is evidently in line, hoping to capitalize on Kim Jong Un’s need for food aid and desire to demonstrate his control over his long-suffering country. The North Korean press, which is the same as saying the North Korean government, announced today that the U.S. had offered food aid in return for North Korea suspending its continuing nuclear enrichment. The Obama Administration ought to put a higher price on helping Kim Jong Un assert control over his country.
Economic determinists have long anticipated the collapse of the North Korean government. Too poor to sustain itself, with no actual means of revenue beyond occasional nuclear and missile sales that slip through international non-proliferation efforts. But the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea continues, in defiance of Herb Stein’s rule that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t. It endures partly because the recently deceased Dear Leader had cannily mastered the art of precipitating a crisis and then getting us to pay him to relax the tension. Early signs are that his heir is a chip off the old bloc in that regard.
North Korea has revealed that in mid-December, the U.S. offered food aid that had been agreed in the Bush Administration but subsequently suspended when we suspected we were actually feeding the North Korean military. The Bush Administration tried to substitute nutritional supplements for children instead of the remaining 330,000 tons of grain promised, and negotiations broke down. The Obama Administration is understandably concerned to restart negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programs, but there just aren’t many keys to turn in the lock. If we provide aid, it is funneled to the military, and that military keeps a hereditary despotism in power. Kim Jong Un’s first declaration upon acceeding to his father’s chair was to reaffirm the primacy of the military -- “songun” the policy is termed. Literally his first act was to declare that the military would have first call on any food available.
History affords us few direct comparisons, but the Koreas offer one of the closest. In 1945 they were a single country; in the last 67 years they have diverged remarkably. According to the Economist, the average height of North Koreans is now three inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts. In another shocking illustration of extended malnutrition, North Koreans have brown hair rather than black that is their ethnic norm. Gross domestic product allows us to quantify the cost of repression: per capita GDP in North Korea is $1,300; in South Korea it is $30,000. In the face of so brutal a regime, we ought to take a harder line and only provide aid that keeps the government in power if it gives up its nuclear weapons.