June 8, 2008

HARRISONBURG— Today, in a commentary for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, criticizes the Bush administration decision to send 500,000 tons of food aid to North Korea as well as the visit to Pyongyang earlier this week of four American nongovernmental organizations to look at prospects for further assistance.

Dr. Pham writes that “there’s an eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, which no one seems to be acknowledging: the roots of the crisis are man-made” and attributable to the policies of North Korea’s late “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung and his son, the current “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il.

What’s more, the ongoing famine has more to do with access to food than simply the lack of it. Kim Jong-Il, like his father before him, treats his subjects according to their perceived loyalty and utility to the dynastic regime, distinguishing between an elite “core class” centered in Pyongyang, a suspect “wavering class” and a “hostile class” destined for lives of manual servitude in the rural hinterlands. Rations are distributed according to this caste system’s fifty-one subcategories: the occupants of the lowest “hostile” rung subsist on a few kilograms of grain, begrudgingly doled out on “important” dates like the birthdays and anniversaries of the Kims. Thus the likeliest beneficiaries of U.S. aid will be the very regime supporters most responsible for the country’s need for assistance in the first place.

Consequently, Dr. Pham argues:

In these circumstances, protestations from Foggy Bottom notwithstanding, there is no possibility of aid being neutral, much less apolitical. By propping up the pillars of the same government that caused the humanitarian crises in the first place, any aid becomes, however unintentionally, a political choice to reinforce, at least partially, the existing system of oppression. State Department spokesmen may proclaim that this time they have commitments on how the food will be distributed and what oversight will be permitted, but the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s] track record on diplomatic accords hardly inspires confidence.

Would some innocent North Korean civilians suffer if American aid was not forthcoming? Possibly. But it is also likely that most “innocent” civilians north of the thirty-eighth parallel are already largely without access to basic necessities. The real pinch from a continued moratorium on assistance would more directly impact the lifestyles of the military units and Communist party cadres through which the Kim family maintains its grasp on power.

As is well-known, the “Dear Leader” relies on both figurative and literal smoke and mirrors to augment his stature among those under his yoke. But even his most-loyal subjects probably wonder why someone born under a mystical double rainbow atop a sacred mountain—the author of six operas more beautiful than all others in the history of music and holder of the world record for a round of golf by twenty-five strokes (shot the very first time he visited a course)—can’t provide his people with at least a daily bowl of rice gruel. In the long run, the North Koreans will eventually discover that they are better off without their wunderkind. When that day comes, other countries may be called upon to help Pyongyang come in from the cold. For now, while overthrowing the Kim government is not an option, neither is propping up the nuclear-technology-proliferating regime. Rather it is in the interest of the United States, while containing the destabilizing effects of the regime, to otherwise allow Kim Jong-Il’s ability to buy the allegiance of North Korea’s “core class” to weaken further.

The full text of Dr. Pham’s commentary, “Let Them Eat Kim,” can be accessed by clicking here.