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Should We Give Aid to North Korea?

Devastating floods, caused by more than a week of downpours, recently have killed about 300 North Koreans, displaced more than 300,000 of them, and ruined at least 11 percent of their cropland. The waters have also damaged 540 bridges and 800 buildings. The U.N. said 58,000 homes have been destroyed. The capital of Pyongyang is covered by waist-deep water. South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said that “the flood damage in the North is heartbreaking.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has appealed to the international community for assistance. South Korea immediately responded by pledging $7.5 million in emergency assistance. The United States will also help, providing $100,000 to two non-governmental organizations that will supply blankets, water containers, and shelter materials.

Humanitarian assistance is always in season. In fact, the United States has been one of the largest food donors to North Korea in recent years. Yet aid is fungible. Whether we provide in cash or kind, each dollar we give means that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il can spend one fewer dollar on his suffering populace, and one more building weapons of mass destruction. We have, in a real sense, funded the devices that threaten us. Moreover, North Korea’s regime has diverted assistance from the United Nations World Food Program, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, to feed the military and favored officials instead of the country’s most needy citizens. If it were not for aid provided by Bill Clinton and South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung, Kim Jong Il’s destitute regime would have collapsed long ago.

Substantial aid, however, can also undermine a government by dividing the ruling cadre and winning the loyalty of common folk—if the assistance is monitored rigorously by inspectors. For instance, many ordinary North Koreans have gotten their first glimpses of the outside by talking to foreign aid inspectors, and thereby have realized that all Pyongyang told them about other nations is wrong. Moreover, government minders, accompanying foreign inspectors, have traveled around their country for the first time and learned about the failures of their own government. When he has felt threatened by it, Kim Jong Il has turned down international aid, most notably in 2004, when he told the U.N to stop assistance.

By all means, then, let’s help the North Koreans devastated by this week’s rains, but only if we can use aid to subvert their despicable leaders.