A Hungry Child Knows No Politics

A Hungry Child Knows No Politics'
By Lionel A. Rosenblatt and Shep Lowman


We have followed the growing debate on United States policy towards the worsening famine in North Korea with profound embarrassment. There has been an almost obscene emphasis in that debate on political factors, almost to the exclusion of recognition that millions are at risk and, if no action is taken, hundreds of thousands are certain to perish.

While there has been some debate as to the extent of the famine, increasingly most observers accept that the minimum need is over one million tons of grain. The international response has been 200,000 tons. With that size shortfall for a population of 23 million serious loss of life must be expected. Further, time is short and delivery times for food aid long. Quick action is critical to avoid widespread famine.

Yet, most of the debate and discussion on this issue revolve around the abhorrent nature of the North Korean regime and whether the threatened famine can force them to meet certain political requirements. This is so despite widespread understanding that the North Korean government and military are quite likely to sacrifice their own people rather than compromise their position.

The failure of the United States to respond to such a threatened humanitarian disaster reverses longstanding American policy. Twenty years ago, the writers were deeply involved in the American response to the Cambodian famine, Shep Lowman as chair of the interagency group managing the operational response to that disaster in Washington and Lionel Rosenblatt as coordinator of the field effort in Bangkok.

In December 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia, broke the power of the Khmer Rouge and established a puppet government in Phnom Penh. Shortly thereafter, almost a half million Cambodians spilled into eastern Thailand, fleeing the starvation that stalked their land. Emergency response was two-fold. Feeding stations were set up on the Thai/Cambodian border and tens of thousands of farmers came to pickup assistance.

However, it was clear that, if famine was to be avoided, large scale assistance would also have to be brought in through the old port of Sihanoukville. This assistance consisted of three parts: 1) emergency food, 2) assistance to reestablish minimum food production levels, including seed, technical advice and some other agricultural inputs and 3) assistance to make the port facilities capable of receiving and moving the required assistance.

This assistance was provided despite the knowledge that it was inevitable that some would end up helping both the Vietnamese army and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, holed up in their redoubt in the Cardamon mountains. This was done because, failure to do so would have doomed so many innocent Cambodians to famine. Throughout the program, there were debates about how much aid was too much? What constituted minimum emergency assistance? When was the program verging on development assistance? But, there were no serious policy disagreements about the need to respond sufficiently to avoid widespread famine.

We propose a similar urgent response to the oncoming famine in North Korea, led by the United States. The border feeding element of the Cambodian program would be difficult or impossible to replicate on the border between North and South

Korea due to military considerations, including heavy mining, but might be possible across the Chinese border into some of the Northern provinces where the food shortfalls are believed to be greatest. The United States should explore this possibility with the Chinese government urgently.

Large amounts of food aid will also have to be brought into the interior of North Korea and time is critically short. The most readily available food stocks in the region are three million tons of grain stored in Japan of which 300,000 tons is near its expiration date. The Japanese are reluctant to make this grain available on a bilateral basis for political reasons.

Let's make a deal! Japan ships this stored grain to North Korea as part of an international response. The international community replaces this grain on a ratio of one ton for every two or three tons shipped. Everybody wins. The Japanese get rid of unneeded food stocks, about to spoil, and the international donors leverage their food aid by 200 to 300 per cent. And, fewer Koreans starve.

Even politics cries out for the humane solution. A denial of food aid won't bring down the decaying North Korean regime. They will get their rations. The dead will be children under five years of age, nursing and pregnant mothers, the elderly and the disabled.

Ronald Reagan pledged food aid to a starving Communist ruled Ethiopia with the statement, "a hungry child knows no politics". That was a good guideline then, even during the cold war. It's a good guideline now, too. Let's not abandon it!

Lionel A. Rosenblatt is President of Refugees International. Shep Lowman is a member of RI's Emeritus Board

Refugees International -- 2639 Conn. Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20008 Phone: 202-828-0110 Fax: 202-828-0819 http://www.refintl.org/.refintl.org/>http://www.refintl.org