Balancing Diplomacy and Humanity

Written by

Mel Thompson
Mel Thompson

Usually I have a very clear idea of how U.S. Foreign Policy should respond to a humanitarian crisis. Where I am torn is in the case of North Korea. Personally I value the lives of the North Korean people no less than I do the lives of others. In fact their lives of repression and poverty are horrifying to me as a human being and as an American.

The question is whether or not the U.S. should tie food and energy aid to North Korea as a diplomatic tool?  No and Yes, but with conditions. No as a unilateral policy for the simple reason that as a sole donor the U.S. cannot have the same impact as multiple donors would have in this regard.

In other words, no as to the U.S. as a unilateral actor, but yes as one of several multi-state donors. Every donor nation becomes exasperated with North Korea’s breaching agreements in exchange for aid. Yet another door opens with “better” terms than the previous donor offered and through this door walks the North Korean government as if they have always kept their word.

The U.S. as a single donor inevitably cuts off aid after each breach. Yet this does little to change North Korea’s policies, particularly those that pertain to food monitoring. The monitoring of food aid is a demand by the U.S. and some other donor nations to assure that the aid goes to those in need and is not taken by the government and resold. Monitoring requirements along with continued U.S. efforts to reign in the North Korean nuclear program by implicitly and explicitly tying it to food aid, has resulted in North Korea going to Beijing and Seoul who traditionally have few if any monitoring requirements for aid.

Once these relationships fail (as they always do) the North Koreans are back at the U.S. door seeking food aid knowing that they can make the same promises about monitoring and nuclear weapons, receive food aid, renege on these promises and go to another donor.

So what is the answer? The four largest donor states are the United States, China, South Korea and Japan. If there were a public effort between these nations to close the revolving door of donors by tying all aid to monitoring (to assure the proper distribution) and a date certain that the nuclear program will not only end, but will be dismantled and verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, then you may see some real movement on the nuclear issue.

The key is closing off other avenues when others are blocked. If doors remain open then North Korea will continue to walk through them again and again. If the United States on its own unilaterally cuts off aid it will not work, would be against our humanitarian principles as a nation and possibly increase the influence of China and Russia.

I firmly believe that if North Korea is faced with a united front on food and energy aid from the four largest donor nations then they on their own will make the decision to focus their efforts from nuclear weapons to poverty reduction. We do not want to be on the outside looking in nor do we want to continue to be played like fools. The answer is a multilateral approach with strong incentives for compliance. This is how we preserve our options and our status as a country that is willing to be a humanitarian leader.

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