The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion North Koreans are starving. Shouldn’t we do something?

A North Korean farmer walks through a village damaged by summer floods and typhoons in South Hwanghae province in September 2011. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

The U.N. World Food Program just visited North Korea and found desolation. More than 10 million people, or roughly 40 percent of the country, suffer from “severe food insecurity,” meaning they don’t have enough food to eat until the next harvest. Official rations are at 300 grams of food daily, and many people subsist on a diet of rice and cabbage. The U.N. diplomatically blamed weather conditions. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman more accurately criticized Pyongyang for exploiting and neglecting its own people “in order to advance its unlawful nuclear and weapons program,” and added that North Korea could feed its people if it chose.

As if to underscore the State Department’s point, on Friday night Pyongyang conducted its first known missile test since November 2017. Pyongyang spends obscenely on its military while its people starve. The State Department correctly blames North Korea’s government for the suffering of its citizens. And so where does that leave the American government and the American people?

Morally responsible.

Pyongyang’s crimes against its own people do not absolve those who can help North Koreans but don’t. A March U.N. mission found the situation “particularly worrisome for young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women.” No one whom you should listen to believes North Korean children should starve because of their race or nationality.

The United States government should resume food aid to North Korea. Luckily for thousands of malnourished infants – see, in your mind, those shriveled babies too hungry to cry – there is some strategic rationale for the Trump administration to do so. Trump wants North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to feel empowered and secure enough to relinquish his nuclear weapons. Facing a desperate and hungry population is less likely to embolden Kim to take such a radical step. And if it felt politically inexpedient to spend tens of millions of dollars on food for North Koreans, merely allowing American and international aid organizations more access would also help greatly. (Want to give money yourself? Donate to the Christian charity World Vision or to UNICEF, which have received sanctions wavers.)

Yes, Pyongyang could be deceiving the United Nations about the extent of starvation. The world body does itself and the North Korean government no favors by furthering Pyongyang’s culture of deceit and blaming the starvation on the weather. And Pyongyang will certainly take a cut – perhaps a large one – out of any shipment of food aid. But as anyone who has visited Pyongyang can tell you, many of the country’s model citizens and party members living in the capital look like they would benefit from more to eat. The situation is almost certainly graver everywhere else.

Perhaps the Trump administration quietly believes, or hopes, that privation will spark a revolution. It didn’t during North Korea’s famine in the mid-1990s, when millions of people starved to death. It’s possible. But who knows? As alumni of the Arab Spring, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even Trump’s 2016 victory can attest, revolutions are notoriously difficult to predict. Maybe a second famine would topple the Kim regime. But let’s not abet the deaths of thousands of children for that political science experiment.

In November 2017, after North Korea’s previous missile test, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said:“You don’t starve your own people in order to fund nuclear weapons.” That’s right -- you shouldn’t. But Pyongyang does. The government has vowed to withstand international pressure, even if its people subside on “water and air only.” The North Korean government brutalizes its people.

Why, with our apathy, do we do the same?