Doing a big favor for Kim Jong Un
How Eric Schmidt and Bill Richardson are playing into the dictator's hands.


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a New Year address in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency on January 1, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • A humanitarian mission to a country hardly sounds controversial. Except when that country is North Korea.

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  • Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt have joined the long list of Americans used by the Kim family for political advantages.

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  • North Korea’s 24 million people are suffering desperately, and have been for many decades.

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  • The basic principle of keeping war- & disaster-relief projects nonpolitical is precisely what North Korea has abused.

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  • The most humanitarian approach is to work to undercut the Kim dictatorship, not render assistance that perpetuates it.

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A “humanitarian” mission to a country whose people are perennially close to starvation hardly sounds controversial. Except when the country is North Korea, the world’s only hereditary Communist tyranny.

Regrettably, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt — who arrived in North Korea Monday for “a private humanitarian visit”— have joined the long list of Americans and others used by the Kim family dictatorship for political advantage.

President Obama’s State Department has been critical. “We don’t think the timing of the visit is helpful and they are well aware of our views,” said a spokeswoman last week.

State’s concerns rest on the timing of the trip; it comes close on the heels of a North Korean rocket launch, in violation of United Nations sanctions resolutions, that placed a payload into orbit. After several earlier failures, this successful shot represents a noteworthy step toward a ballistic-missile capability that could send Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons anywhere on earth.

Of course, the visit is also politically inconvenient, for it highlights the Obama administration’s utter failure to gain new, tighter UN Security Council sanctions in response to the North’s brazen violation of existing Council prohibitions.

But the problem is much deeper than timing. North Korea’s 24 million people are suffering desperately, and have been for many decades. According to a UN report last year, nearly a third of its children under 5 show signs of stunted development due to food scarcity.

How to address this suffering carries enormous political consequences. No one knows that better than Pyongyang’s leaders, who have consistently used the compassion and assistance of outsiders to bolster their own totalitarian hold on power.

Humanitarians must be enormously concerned about this nefarious strategy, lest their emotions and assistance unwittingly strengthen the dictators’ grip.

Since Herbert Hoover launched America's first international humanitarian effort behind German lines in Belgium during World War I, it has been a fundamental precept that humanitarian assistance actually go to the needy.

Hoover insisted that the food he and his volunteers distributed reach only suffering civilians, not German soldiers. He understood that siphoning off vital supplies to military purposes subverted the objectives underlying the aid and could actually prolong the underlying crisis.

This basic principle of keeping war- and disaster-relief projects nonpolitical is precisely what North Korea has repeatedly abused.

Pyongyang has done this so successfully for decades that the United States, Japan and South Korea have repeatedly had to suspend food aid, which was actually going to North Korea’s military rather than its malnourished citizens. Especially when Pyongyang controls the distribution of whatever assistance finally trickles down to the civilians, even these recipients believe it is coming from their repressive government, to which they are sadly and ironically grateful.

China, it is important to note, supplies substantial amounts of basic human needs to North Korea. This is partially out of humanitarian concerns, but primarily to prop up the North’s always shaky regime and even more importantly to prevent massive flows of Korean refugees into northern China. Beijing already faces a large and growing problem of North Koreans escaping through China to Southeast Asia, hoping to receive asylum or passage to South Korea — and it clearly wants to forestall the millions who might flee famine or total regime collapse by crossing the Yalu River.

North Korea has repeatedly welcomed prominent Americans to help elevate its stature. It is seeking direct negotiations with Washington, for in the distorted vision of the nation’s leadership, this might lead to full diplomatic recognition and “equal” status in the world community.

We see the pattern repeat from President Carter’s unwise efforts to negotiate over the North’s nuclear weapons programs in the 1990s, to President Clinton’s 2009 visit to extricate two reporters who had foolishly crossed into North Korea, to the laughable New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2008 visit to serenade North Korea’s dictatorial elite: Pyongyang uses gullible Americans for its own purposes.

While it may sound counter-intuitive, the most humanitarian approach is not to render assistance that perpetuates the Kim dictatorship, but to work to undercut and end it. We should, for example, encourage refugee flows into South Korea, negotiate with China for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula and otherwise struggle to liberate the prison camp of a country that sits north of the 38th parallel.

That would be a truly worthy mission for Richardson and Schmidt.

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