Category Archive: Peony Author Press

Kelly Yang

Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang said that, “We don’t want Hong Kong to be just another Chinese city”. I could not agree more. We’ve all worked too hard and been through too much for Hong Kong to be just another Tianjin or Shanghai. And it’s in China’s interests, too, that Hong Kong doesn’t become just another Chinese city, and instead keeps its rights, practices and traditions – including the right to free speech.

That right is a fundamental part of Hong Kong, one that I, like many Hongkongers, hold dear. I support every person who wants to express his or her opinion; dialogue, discussion and debate are the cornerstones of a healthy society. This is what I teach my students, from five years old to 18, every day. But when freedom of speech morphs into the freedom to interrupt and disrupt, it gets tricky.

Last week, just before all the Occupy Central protests, I visited my dentist at his new office. For four years, he had worked for a bigger dental practice, saving up for this moment, when he was finally ready to break out on his own. It’s a risky move. In a town full of medical groups and fancy offices, his looked tiny in comparison. But he didn’t let that deter him. I watched as he hopped around his new office, getting this cleaning tool and that sink ready. He was dizzy with excitement.

Then, Occupy Central happened. When it did, I immediately called him. I was supposed to go and see him on Monday. He told me not to bother. Because of Occupy Central, he can’t open his office. Nobody will come in anyway now, he said. His office is smack in the middle of Central. When I asked him if he thought everything was going to be OK, he said with a loud sigh: “Who knows?”

My dentist was not talking about Hong Kong democracy. He was talking about his life.

In Hong Kong, having to close up a shop is no joke. With sky-high rents, closing, even for a few days, could destroy a small business. When I hung up the phone, I sat there stunned. That’s when it dawned on me that, in this fight for democracy, we may also be crushing a lot of dreams – not through tear gas and pepper spray, but through something that’s also dangerous: disruption.

These dreams are not the dreams of Beijing or Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. They are the dreams of innocent, hard-working people like my dentist – the kind of conscientious, good people who make up Hong Kong. These people did nothing wrong. By making it impossible to go to their store, by making it hard for people to go to work or children to go to school, we’re hurting all the people who live in Hong Kong. It may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, and I’m confident that, when Occupy Central is over, many people will be able to quickly rebuild. But some won’t.

This is not to say that I think the protesters should give up; that they shouldn’t fight for what they believe in. They absolutely should. But I believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. And it’s far, far mightier than disruption.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.

Michael Forsythe, the new york times

HONG KONG — As dusk settled over Hong Kong, Regina Ip glanced out of the window of her office in the Legislative Council building. Eight floors below, students chanted slogans as they prepared to escalate the boycott that within 48 hours would turn into the most momentous demonstrations on Chinese soil since the Tiananmen protests in Beijing a quarter-century ago.

“We have an identity crisis,” Ms. Ip said in an interview last week. “These young people, they are congregating outside. There’s a lot of problems with them — their sense of identity. How come they cannot identify themselves with China?”

Kelly Yang, New York Times



Although Chinese state news media have cited concerns recently that the United States is indoctrinating Chinese students by including its founding documents upholding freedom and human rights in the SAT, teachers and parents don’t seem to be too alarmed.

As American universities become a popular choice among affluent Chinese who want their children to receive top-quality higher education, hundreds of thousands of Chinese students are taking the SAT college admission test every year. Last year, nearly 200,000 Chinese students went to universities in the United States, the state news agency Xinhua reported.

The growing number of young Chinese who are eager to attend American universities has spawned a large number of companies vowing to help students ace the test, forming a lucrative industry for SAT test preparation across the country.

An English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, The South China Morning Post, published a column last month by Kelly Yang, a local SAT tutor, who asserted that the SAT redesign scheduled for 2016 would be “the first time America is able to systematically shape the views, beliefs and ideologies of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students.”

The Beijing Youth Daily reported recently that some Chinese were worried that the minds of the country’s young would be “forcibly infiltrated with American values.” The report, which was distributed by Xinhua, was paired with a cartoon of Uncle Sam holding a hamburger and a movie reel on one side while, with another hand, thrusting forward a piece of paper that says, “SAT ideology and politics.”

The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, in March announced a broad SAT overhaul that will be implemented in 2016 in response to criticisms in the United States. Among the changes is a new evidence-based reading and writing section, which will contain a passage from one of America’s founding documents — including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers — or from a text inspired by the documents, like the Gettysburg Address.

Despite the state media criticism of the overhaul, some teachers and parents say they believe that studying the American documents can better prepare Chinese students for life abroad.

“This has already been a highly diversified society,” said Ju Jinrong, an SAT tutor at New Oriental, a large, private education company in China. “Young people get exposed to such Western values all the time through the Internet and Hollywood movies. It’s not that they can only come to know the values through SAT,” she said.

Ms. Ju says she doubts that the United States is intentionally exporting its ideologies through the test, which is the same for Americans and students from other countries.

“The majority taking the SAT are still American students. If America wants to export its ideology, why don’t they redesign TOEFL?” she asked, referring to the Test of English as a Foreign Language, which all students from non-English-speaking countries must take to apply to universities in the United States.

Mr. Yu, who gave only his surname, is the father of a Beijing student who is to take the SAT next year. He said he would not be concerned even if his son were to take the test in 2016 and believes it is good for his son to understand different political systems.

“Even if he doesn’t learn such Western ideologies in the test, he will be exposed to them throughout the four years in college anyway,” he said. “I don’t think learning Western ideologies will completely change his mind. People of his generation are able to think independently and see merits in every system.”

Li Zhou, who is in charge of the elite Beijing No.4 High School’s special program for students seeking to apply to American universities, believes that studying such historical documents before students leave for the United States will serve them well.

“Only through studying extensively can we develop critical thinking,” he said.

“Asking students to read those documents and learn world history is in no way brainwashing. Nothing to fear,” Mr. Li said. “Only Chinese think education means brainwashing.”

He said the redesign was a “positive change” because it “forces” Chinese students to understand American society beforehand.

Dong Yuxiu, an SAT tutor at FocusEdu, which specializes in SAT test preparation, agrees.

“Understanding how American history and politics has developed will definitely help students better adjust to the new environment and integrate into American society,” she said.

Ms. Dong said she believes the redesign will not put Chinese students at a severe disadvantage so long as they have overcome the language barrier. She said SAT preparation companies could also easily cope with the change by providing students with more reading material about American history and politics.

“I think as long as a student has strong English, plus a little bit of common sense, she should be able to cope,” she said, adding that her company will start to tweak its curriculum in 2015 for the new test.

A 16-year-old student at a prestigious Beijing high school agreed. She will take the test in 2016 and says she is not troubled by the redesign. She asked not to be named.

“Of course it will be harder for us Chinese students because we never studied the documents before, but we can from now on read more about American history and politics to get fully prepared,” she said.

Asked whether she realized she would be studying ideologies drastically different from the ones she has been instilled with, she said: “There is no way to skirt the political stuff. It will be part of our life sooner or later.”


The Further I walk the Closer I get to me by Hong Mei and Tom Carter, Outlook

A brush with Bollwood stars, encounters with Maoists besides exposure to election campaigning enlivens the narrative of a rare backpack Chinese woman’s transformative journey to the nooks and corners of India.

Hong Mei, 34, who travelled India for several months in 2009 along with her American husband, Tom Carter, released her travelogue book in Chinese titled The Further I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me, stated to be the first such account by a contemporary Chinese about India.

In many ways it is a transformative journey about India’s rich and diverse culture, she told PTI

During the visit, she participated in festivals and events like Kumbh Mela, Pushkar Camel Fair, Holi besides the General Elections campaigning in 2009.

Pushed by Tom, who had done a pictorial book along with her on all the 33 provinces of China highlighting its diversity, Hong had relatively comfortable travel in India as he was mostly mistaken as someone from India’s North-East provinces or from Japan.

Hailing from a small village in China’s Jiangsu Province, strangely India was her first trip abroad.

In her nearly one year travel made in the gaps of few as she was granted only three months visas, she and Tom covered most of part of India except the North East where Chinese have no access as most of it bordered along China.

Travelling with a budget of about USD 20 a day, the two, however, had a good exposure to Indian way of life in the North, South and Western regions.

Perhaps the height of their Indian exposure was when touts approached them to act as extras in Shahid Kapoor’s Bollywood movie Dil Bole Hadippa in which Tom was chosen as 10th batsman in the cricket match scene.

Hong and Tom also had an opportunity to appear in a commercial advertisement with Aamir Khan.

While in Mumbai, Hong had a insightful exposure to 2009 elections as the candidates canvassed in a festive spirit.

For someone hailing from country with a One-Party-rule (Communist Party), it was a spectacle of political harmony.

Both had an enduring experience feeling the heat travelling in areas where Maoists are active in Orissa.

Significantly Hongs accounts of elections as well as her Maoist encounters were edited out of book as authorities in China were cagey about such narratives influencing the Chinese.

The two had close calls travelling to India’s border areas with Pakistan in the Kutch region of Gujarat as well as the Wagah border point on the Indian side of Punjab.

Her best moments in India were taking part in the cultural festivals like Holi and the worst part was she missed her regular intake of food due to excess exposure to vegetarian food in India while Tom fell sick grappling with poor immune system.

Hong said her ground breaking backpacking journey to India illustrates a growing trend among new Chinese middle classes to quit their jobs to hit the roads abroad.

Last year nearly 100 million Chinese travelled out of China spending billions of dollars.

India where over lakh travelled last year is trying hard to woo more Chinese to visit with a liberalised visa regime.

Indian travels in a way impacted her as she says the religious fervour in India had left a mark of influence as she turned spiritual.

She is also thinks that despite trying conditions, Indians appeared happier compared to their Chinese counterparts despite their material success.

Kim Lee, The New York Times

BEIJING — With fresh bruises on my face and body, I sat in a smoke-filled, fluorescent-lit Beijing police station with my crying two-year-old in my arms. I was incredulous at the reaction from the duty officers.

“If a man jumps on a woman’s back and beats her head into the ground 10 times, that’s not a crime? If someone did this to me on the street outside, you wouldn’t file a report? There is no law against that behavior in China?”

The police officer stammered and said, “Well, of course that is a crime.”

So I continued, “But because the man was my husband, it’s O.K.? Being married makes it legal to beat a woman?”

A female officer said to me, “You and your husband are both good people, just calm down a little, go home, everything will be fine.” Barely able to see clearly, I pointed to my swelling forehead and said, “Does this look fine to you?”

I was trying to file a report against my husband for assaulting me, but as far as the police were concerned, no crime had occurred. After an afternoon of pressing the police to acknowledge the crime and failing, I went home and posted a picture on Weibo, a microblogging platform, showing only my injured forehead, hoping that some friends among my 23 followers would respond to a cry for help.


CreditDaniel Stolle

My photograph unleashed a torrent of pent-up frustration, agony and support from abused women across China. Within hours of my post, it was forwarded and commented on by more than 20,000 people. I was inspired by the reaction, and the next day went again to a police station and insisted on making an official report. The saga took more than a week and eventually the police officially acknowledged my husband’s abuse.

My now ex-husband is a prominent Chinese businessman, famous for a chain of English-language schools that we built together. I’m an American who has adopted China as my home. Our story was played out in the media, leading to widespread attention on us, and more importantly, on the cause of domestic abuse. In the two and a half years since the attack, I have partnered with the United Nations and a Beijing domestic violence organization to foster awareness of the problem and help victims.

The All-China Women’s Federation reports that nearly 25 percent of married women in China have experienced domestic violence. But the abuse is far more prevalent than those numbers show: A large percentage of attacks go unreported. When women find the courage to go to the police, they most often meet the kind of resistance I did. Meanwhile, the legal system favors men — even abusive men — leaving desperate women few options.

I’ve received countless messages from Chinese women describing a culture that denies there is a problem. One woman wrote to me in frustration: “I accompanied my injured mother to the police station, but the officers here didn’t even know the term ‘domestic violence.’ They only say that this kind of “private matter” or “family problem” is common and there isn’t anything they can do.”

When abused women are ignored by the police, the last legal option is divorce in civil court. But divorce still carries a heavy stigma for Chinese women, and this is another strong deterrent for women to take action against abusive husbands. Those who pursue divorce have an uphill battle: Among all divorces filed on the grounds of domestic violence, about 3 percent are awarded on this basis alone. If the court fails to recognize the husband’s violence but still grants the divorce, the result can be financially devastating for the woman. Even more horrifying, divorce puts the woman at risk of losing custody of her children, as the parent with the higher income is seen as the better caretaker.

Those who have never lived through domestic violence often wonder about the victim, “Why didn’t she just leave?” The answers to this question are varied and complex, but for women in China there is a very practical answer to consider: There is no place to go. Support services are few and far between even in the largest cities, and there are no functioning shelters to speak of.

Faced with the prospect of a lengthy divorce that could end up costing a woman her home and her child, is it any wonder that prisons are full of women who attacked their husbands with axes and fruit knives rather than rely on the law to protect themselves? Surveys of some women’s prisons have shown that more than 60 percent of inmates were sentenced for injuring or killing their husbands in retaliation for domestic violence. Many women convicted of killing their husbands serve life sentences, while most men who beat their wives to death serve only several years in prison.

In 2009, a 26-year-old Beijing woman, Dong Shanshan, reported her abusive partner to local police eight times, only to repeatedly have her bruises and complaints dismissed as “family problems.” She was later beaten to death by him. He received a sentence of six and a half years, for the crime of “maltreatment.”

China needs better domestic violence laws. Only a smattering of local courts are able to issue protection orders against abusive husbands. A national anti-domestic violence law has been drafted and is under consideration by the government. The legislative process is too opaque to know where things stand. Its opponents say that “family matters cannot be legislated,” yet last year the national government passed a highly publicized law requiring grown children to visit their elderly parents.

It is heartening that some localities are pushing ahead with anti-domestic violence laws in the absence of a national law, but it is not enough. Only a national law can drastically raise awareness that domestic violence is in fact a crime. It would give women something to reference when turned away by the police or even to warn abusive husbands with.

In the aftermath of the publicity around my case, I was often asked by incredulous Chinese media why I, as an American, put up with my husband’s violence. I don’t think nationality makes a difference when it comes to the shame and fear women feel about speaking up. No woman is eager to say her family isn’t happy. No woman is proud of the fact that the man she loves beats her. I’m sure my nationality contributed to the amount of attention that my case received, but certainly no more than the fact that my Chinese ex-husband is a celebrity.

Domestic violence isn’t a country-specific problem or a cultural phenomenon. It’s a crime. Stopping it doesn’t start with laws — though in some countries, like in China, new laws are necessary. It starts with voices willing to rise above geographic, political and linguistic barriers to shout out that domestic violence will not be tolerated, excused or ignored.

Kim Lee is a childhood educator and an advocate for the rights of victims of domestic abuse.

Dear Leader by Jang Jin Sung and Shirley Lee, The Guardian

A boy eats enriched food supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a hospital in south Pyongan province in 2004.
A boy eats enriched food supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) at a hospital in south Pyongan province in 2004. Photograph: Gerald Bourke/AP

Marcus Noland: an ethical conundrum

For nearly three decades a chronic food emergency has gripped North Korea. In the 1990s a famine killed up to five per cent of the pre-crisis population.

Humanitarian activities by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and private relief groups constitute the longest ongoing engagement between the hermit state and the international community. But the North Korean regime’s actions create an ethical conundrum which may be reaching its breaking point.

The long-running food crisis is the outcome of decades of economic mismanagement and a political system that absolves its leadership of any real accountability.

The country is cold and mountainous, but government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency, instead of exporting industrial products, earning foreign exchange, and importing bulk grains, as its neighbours China, South Korea, and Japan do. The result has been environmental degradation and recurrent shortages.

The most recent Unicef survey suggests that 10% of the country’s two-year-olds are afflicted with severe stunting. Stunting of that degree at that age is irrecoverable and confers a lifetime of physical and mental challenges.

The country is cold and mountainous, but government has pursued an irrational policy of national self-sufficiency

When the country finally admitted in 1995 that it was facing famine, the international community responded with considerable generosity, at one point feeding roughly a third of the population. But the North Korean government has never accepted the international norms in the provision of aid, impeding normal assessment, monitoring, and evaluation functions of the relief organisations.

Critically, with assistance ramping up, the government cut commercial grain imports – in essence using humanitarian aid as a form of balance of payments support, freeing up resources to finance the importation of advanced military weaponry.

Even at the famine’s peak, the resources needed to close the gap were modest, in the order of $100-$200m, or about five to 20% of revenues from exported goods and services, or one to two per cent of contemporaneous national income.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does

Today, the gap could be closed for something in the order of $8-19m — less than 0.2% of national income or one per cent of the military budget.

Donor fatigue has set in. The WFP’s assistance requests are grossly undersubscribed and the organisation may be forced to shut down its remaining programme. And if it tries to soldier on with reduced resources, its ability to monitor its own activities will be badly affected, risking aid diversion and catastrophic scandal.

We evidently care more about hungry North Koreans than their government does. We should provide assistance. But we should be clear-eyed about the terms of that engagement and seek to provide aid in ways consistent with our values and our obligations under international law.

Marcus Noland is director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He blogs for North Korea: Witness to Transformation

North Korean children in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean children in Pyongyang. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

Jang Jin-sung: stop funding food aid

North Korean exiles will tell you that the international community must stop funding food aid. We say this not out of spite with regard to a nation whose leadership invests in luxuries, nuclear tests and missile launches while the welfare of its subjects remains low among its priorities. We say this for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons, because the assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it.

Today, the fatal threat for the regime lies not in the outside world, but within the country itself. More specifically, this is the jangmadang – an underground economy arisen from the ashes of economic collapse in the 1990s, and which consist of market activities taking place beyond the remit of the regime’s control mechanisms.

The assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it

The regime depends on its subjects putting loyalty and obedience to the Kim dynasty above all other values. But the jangmadang has awoken among ordinary people values that are detrimental to this: the worth of individual work, of independent choices, of outside information.

This fundamental transformation from below, the notion that lives may be lived outside the domain of loyalty to the system, is the greatest imminent threat to the regime’s power – which is held in place by inculcating the cult of the Kim dynasty, surveillance controls and the coercive mobilisation of its subjects in the name of the ruling Kim’s legitimacy.

The regime lost the ability to bind people’s economic loyalty to the system with the collapse of the Public Distribution System and its failure to subsequently implement currency reforms. It allocated rights and privileges for engaging in market activities to companies held under Korean Workers’ Party or military auspices to try to prevent the erosion of its economic monopolies and to concentrate economic power in the hands of its stakeholders.

But this did nothing to tackle the fundamental structural obstacles to reform: for current stakeholders to remain powerful, funds must continue to be redirected to spending on the maintenance of control mechanisms, the propaganda machine of the Kim dynasty cult, and military threat-making diversion projects.

Even at times when the regime is calling for food aid, it does not mean that the jangmadang will not have food on offer, whether stolen from state cooperatives or smuggled in from China. When up to three million North Koreans died of famine in the 1990s it was not just about there not being any food – it was about access. It was a tragedy suffered by those trapped in a totalitarian and dictatorial system with no jangmadang to turn to.

In today’s North Korea there are two rival forces in battle: the forces of the regime and the forces of the market. The former’s interests are better served by the maintenance of existing party, military and surveillance mechanisms of control. The latter are equivalent to North Korea’s progressives, who believe in a future that is possible beyond the absolute, stifling and structurally inhumane confines of the regime.

An international community wishing to assist the North Korean people should recognise that funding food aid is a channel of limited efficiency. The majority of North Koreans depend not on the regime’s munificence but on market forces – they have already found this a more successful alternative, despite a disproportionate lack of international support or awareness.

Jang Jin-sung was one of Kim Jong-il’s favourite state poets until he defected in 2004. He founded the North Korea news website New Focus International

Kim Jong-un visits the October 8 factory
Kim Jong-un visits the October 8 factory. Photograph: KNS/AFP/Getty Images

Roberta Cohen: hungry people should not be penalised

Not surprisingly, the World Food Programme’s $200m plan for reaching malnourished women and children in North Korea through 2015 may be in danger of shutting down.

Donor fatigue and disillusionment have reached a tipping point, largely based on North Korea’s spending hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars on missile tests and launches, nuclear weapons and the development of intercontinental ballistic carriers.

Yet the donors – even those the inter-continental ballistic missiles are intended to target – are, like idiotas utiles, expected to pick up the tab for the food needs of the seven to eight million North Koreans (more than a third of the population) suffering from chronic malnutrition.

That the aid will reinforce the regime by enabling it to purchase military and luxury goods is hard to counter. Kim Jong-un’s lavish spending on ski resorts and water parks for Pyongyang’s elite has reportedly cost tens, even hundreds, of millions. To attract donors, North Korea will need to devote more of its own resources to agricultural reforms, incentives for food production, ending market restrictions, importing greater quantities of food and improving its deteriorating health structures.

Even so, some donors might not be eager to help a country that regularly hurls distasteful epithets and threatens its neighbours and beyond. In 2012, the United States cancelled a shipment of some 250,000 metric tons of food after Pyongyang reneged on an agreement by launching a long-range rocket.

The most critical question, however, is whether hungry people should be penalised for the policies of their government. The answer is no. The stunting of children (one out of four under the age of five), high maternal mortality rates and tuberculosis for lack of vitamins and iron should be de-linked from political issues.

But here the case of North Korea presents a dilemma: reaching the needy has often been thwarted by a lack of access and transparency. While donors, UN agencies and ngos have devised increasingly stringent monitoring conditions, including measuring children’s arms and providing corn soy blends so as not to be diverted to the military or elite, a widely disseminated United Nations report this year found that the government distributes food primarily to persons crucial to the regime, favours certain parts of the country, and avoids structural reforms of agriculture and health care out of fear of losing political control.

It therefore behooves the UN to press North Korea for strengthened monitoring and to link its aid to long term reforms designed to achieve sustainable results. And the UN must broaden its focus beyond traditional donors to China. As North Korea’s principal ally, recent estrangement notwithstanding, China should be urged to join in meeting shortfalls and in adopting international monitoring standards.

Roberta Cohen is non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

North Korean nurses give vitamin A supplements and deworming pills to children dressed in their best outfits at an elite nursery school in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korean nurses give vitamin A supplements and deworming pills to children at an elite nursery school in Pyongyang. Photograph: David Guttenfelder/AP

James Hoare: many countries get their priorities wrong

When I was working in North Korea in 2001-2002, the WFP programme was one of the largest in the world. At that time, in the wake of the 1994 famine, WFP received plentiful supplies both in the form of food – sacks of US-donated corn could be seen at the ports, for example – and funding.

It was never enough, however, and WFP always had to prioritise. Pregnant mothers, children and the old were the targets. There were other benefits as well. It gave many North Korean officials the valuable experience of working with an international organisation, useful exposure for those who had little experience of the outside world.

WFP has always had to fight off those who are opposed to giving any food to North Korea. Various reasons have been put forward for not supplying aid, including the charges that food was being diverted or that funds spent on the military should be spent on feeding the population. There be truth in such charges but the targeted groups still needed the assistance and WFP staff worked hard to make sure that they got it.

Circumstances have changed since those days. There is donor fatigue; food aid to North Korea has been going on a long time. Other countries have equal or greater needs. While North Korea no longer faces the dire conditions of the 1990s, the state’s priorities appear not to include feeding the most vulnerable. Spending on the military, including missiles and nuclear weapons takes precedence – as does improving life for the elite. Some see in the WFP a bureaucracy that does not want to change. So the voices are again raised about ending food aid.

But the vulnerable remain. We know from nutritional surveys that lack of good food in early years means that many will be permanently affected. We also know that many countries get their priorities wrong; children go hungry even in the richest nations. To penalise those who are already suffering and who can do nothing to influence the government would be unjust. The WFP should be helped to continue its North Korean programme.

Dr J E Hoare was Britain’s first diplomatic representative in North Korea from 2001-2002

North Korean workers pack vitamin-and mineral-enriched biscuits at a factory in Sinuiju city, North Korea.
North Korean workers pack vitamin-and mineral-enriched biscuits at a factory in Sinuiju city. Photograph: Gerald Bourke/AP

Steven Weber: time to change tack

The single most important decision any country makes is how to divide its resources between guns, butter and investment. To put this another way, societies choose between spending to defend what they have, increasing current consumption, and building for the future.

For decades now, the world has been subsidising North Korea’s choice to invest massively in defence at the expense of both investment and current consumption. Three regimes in Pyongyang have been given a partial free ride. What’s surprising is not that donors are fatigued; it’s that the fatigue has taken this long to set in.

A moral necessity for humanitarian relief is the obvious justification for food aid, but does it really make sense in this situation?

Subsidies can always be justified in some fashion. For decades after the second world war the US subsidised the defence expenditures of many of its European allies so that they could spend more on consumption and investment. It was controversial at times, and still is since it continues to this day. But the results spoke for themselves in the post-war European economic and social recovery.

But what good has come of subsidising North Korea’s food consumption? It’s hard to point to a single positive result. Pyongyang has done nothing but pocket the concessions and spend the greatest proportion of what resources it does have on military power to provoke its southern neighbour and the rest of the world. Including, of course, with a nuclear weapons programme that threatens to destabilise north-east Asia further, when it has a host of other problems to solve.

Humanitarian fatigue may not be humanity’s most admirable trait, but it’s a real one

A moral necessity for humanitarian relief is the obvious justification for food aid, but does it really make sense in this situation? North Koreans are starving regardless and will continue to do so, because the world simply is not at present going to provide enough food to meet the nutritional needs of the population.

Humanitarian fatigue may not be humanity’s most admirable trait, but it’s a real one and it’s not likely to be reversed unless the North Korean regime delivers something positive on security. And that’s less likely to happen if we keep the regime on slowly diminishing life support.

To gradually starve the country through donor fatigue is not an intentional strategy to bring about political change that could actually benefit the people of North Korea; it’s just a lazy default. There are better choices at both ends of the spectrum. One would be to cut off aid entirely and force Pyongyang’s hand. The other would be to massively increase food aid so that the population actually receives sufficient calories to thrive.

Both strategies have obvious risks. Cut off aid and North Korea could strike out as a last ditch effort to force our hand in return. But Pyongyang might also be forced to spend more resources growing and buying food. Double down on aid and North Korea might take advantage and happily divert yet more of its resources into the military. But it might also take the signal of peaceful intentions as an opportunity to go further in its ever-so-slight opening to the world. In each case, the job of foreign policy leaders in the rest of the world is to find ways — and there are ways — to tilt the table toward the more desirable outcome.

Some will object to the idea of using food as a weapon. But let’s be blunt: food is already a weapon. The North Koreans have been using it against us for decades, and we have responded with gradual fatigue that serves no long term goal. Better to turn the tables and take the initiative to bring about change, and give the human beings that have had the unfortunate luck to be born under Pyongyang’s rule a chance at a better future.