Lieberman/McCain/Webb/Kyl letter on aid

May 24, 2011 10:45 AM

On May 20, as Ambassador Robert King and USAID’s Jon Brause were leaving for Pyongyang, Senators Lieberman, McCain, Webb, and Kyl sent a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting that the Obama Administration “rigorously evaluate” North Korea’s request for humanitarian assistance. They further requested that the Administration “closely coordinate” any response with South Korea and Japan, which are thought to be more skeptical about, if not hostile toward, the resumption of large-scale aid. In short, they want to put the kibosh on this initiative.

The letter makes a number of defensible points that we have made in previous posts.  The WFP’s need analysis is speculative in nature since it is based on an expected shortfall of the spring harvest, not a documented fall in the far more important fall harvest. Pyongyang’s imports of grain on commercial terms have declined, but despite rising world prices this shortfall could be made up by redirecting expenditure from other priorities including the military.  I am less convinced by their assertion that the regime is stockpiling aid for Kim Il-sung centennial parties next year—I think that it is more likely that any stockpiling is in anticipation of future missile or nuclear tests or simply an exercise of bureaucratic clout by the military. But that is a quibble and one that would even alarm the Senators further.  

The real issue is what is the alternative to supplying food to a dubious regime when innocent people are in trouble? And while the Senators’ letter comes out against abetting bad behavior, it offers no answer to this ethical dilemma.



How does this clash with Senator Kerry's endorsement of "carefully monitored food aid?" To me, this just seems like an effort only to placate the skeptics - there is still plenty of room in here for an aid package to be long as it is "rigorously evaluated"


I agree with AD that using the "greater monitoring" card is a more feasible approach in light of the ethical dilemma we face in North Korea. In fact, I think there is an opportunity for the US to use this card not only to placate domestic skepticism, but also to persuade South Korea out of the current impasse since the May 24 measures of 2010. For South Korea, differentiating humanitarian aid to the needy North Korean people from other concerns emanating from the KJI regime seems to be an even more daunting task when there seems to be a polarization of political and public opinions on North Korea. Nevertheless, a strictly monitored food assistance may be seen as an acceptable middle ground approach for President Lee Myung Bak and the ruling GNP, who find themselves in an increasingly unfavorable position before the coming elections of 2012. In that sense, negotiating for further monitoring measures would a critical process to achieve the important goal of feeding those who suffer from acute hunger. I wonder, however, whether the new Rajin-Sunbong port development program may have already created some cash flows into North Korea from China. If so, it may be used to purchase food supplies and provide less window of opportunity for monitored food assistance.

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