Friday, September 9, 2005

Washington's North Korean human rights envoy hints at using food aid as a weapon

Jay Lefkowitz, who was appointed by the Bush Administration to serve as the U.S. envoy on human rights for North Korea, has suggested that U.S. food aid might be linked to liberating political prisoners.

At his first press conference since his appointment, Lefkowitz said all aspects of U.S. links with North Korea had to be assessed to push Pyongyang to grant human rights to its citizens:
We are looking at a very tough set of issues. We must be willing to look at all aspects of our relations with North Korea and our allies' relationship with North Korea.
The reference to "allies" would be Tokyo and Seoul, and perhaps Beijing. Pyongyang's continued existence is closely tied to Beijing's sponsorship, while Seoul and even Tokyo have sought more ways to engage North Korea economically.

The United States, along with South Korea and Japan, is a key food donor to North Korea despite the nuclear standoff. However, the question of linking food and other humanitarian aid to human rights was not directly offered by Lefkowitz, but was something he refused to rule out when asked by reporters.

I think consistent with what the president's overall approach is on human rights, and bringing North Korea directly into the community of nations, we have to take a look at all different areas of our relationship.
Lefkowitz said he wanted to "directly engage" with North Korean officials on human rights even though the Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations. "I think if North Korea wants legitimacy ... making progress on human rights is abolutely necessary," he said.

He also said that he wanted to work with the United Nations to ensure that China "lives up to its international obligations" in terms of protecting the rights of North Korean refugees who fled across the border into China. As who knows me is aware, this is a tack I firmly agree with.

The North Korean regime is known for having used food as a means of control, so employing such a tactic against them would at the very least be just deserts. But my primary concern is the timing of such a proposal when we are trying to get the six-way talks to work. Human rights is a sensitive issue for Pyongyang (and its sponsore Beijing), and North Korea had earlier expressed anger at Lefkowitz's appointment, citing it as a reason to delay the six-way talks.

Human rights in North Korea is a very important issue, and I'm glad to see that President Bush has really set his mind on doing something about it, but like the Japanese kidnapee issue which also needs resolution, now may not be the best time to start a second diplomatic front against Pyongyang just as they are starting to come around on nuke talks. Not if we are serious about succeeding at bringing North Korea into the community of nations.


  1. Sometime last year I actually had a chance to interview the head of the World Food Program for a Korean documentary. I was chosen because I was the only one who could speak English. ;)

    Anyway, I want to add something he mentioned (but I knew anyway)... the Japanese also give a lot of food aid, too. So I think it's missing the point a bit to just beat up on Beijing and Seoul, or to lump Seoul with Beijing on this matter. Tokyo also give A LOT of food aid to North Korea, and I'm not so sure they would stop just because Washington asks them to.

    I'm not even sure Lefkowitz is even considering cutting food aid. Let's not forget: he didn't come out and say this directly, but he said something along these lines that didn't rule out, when asked by a reporter. In other words, this might not be on the table at all.

    If Koizumi comes out strong in Sunday's election, he might feel less burdened by a public that feels sympathy for North Korean civilians while hating the North Korean government, and he might join Bush's hardline on food aid (if Bush really does have a hard line on food aid, which I'm not so sure of).

    Anyway, it's all a lot more complicated than Seoul/Beijing on one side and Washington/Tokyo on the other. If Washington really does use food as a weapon (and I make this clear again: that's not a given at all), they might find themselves alone, with Tokyo joining... I mean staying in Seoul's corner.

  2. bubba wrote:
    Your last line about bringing NK into the community of nations (I guess by not pushing the human rights issue before we do that) and your headline about using food as a weapon through this all out of whack for me.
    The headline itself ("New US human rights envoy suggests food aid weapon against North Korea") was not mine. It was from one of the several articles I read on the subject and the one I actually linked directly. In fact, I don't think Lefkowitze would characterize it that way, and as I tried to make clear in the post, it was not his direct statement that led to this article, but his response to a question.

    But "U.S. to use food aid to influence North Korea" doesn't sound sexy enough, I guess.

    When I read the headline, the first think I thought was, "I wonder if you'd consider Doctor's Without Borders and the other not so pro-Bush or pro-US humanitrian orgs who pulled up stakes were practicing war on the North."
    No, I don't think so. But, to play devil's advocate here, I don't know how much they are using their food aid to influence North Korean regime change.

    I question whether "using food aid as a weapon" is an appropriate headline to begin with to describe Bush policy, so I probably wouldn't use it to describe NGO policies.

    The bulk of the post recovered me from that first impression given by the strong headline.
    Well, like I said, it was the AFP headline, not mine.

    I could see some sense and logical, non-US politics or pseudo-politics related emotion filtering in too much, in your talk about the importance of the human rights issue and the refugees in China but also about this might not be a good thing to push right at the 6 Party Talks. That didn't work well for me, because it sounded too much like you expect a real deal is supposed to come out of those talks, but the post still held together well, to me, despite the headline....
    I think a workable deal that will eliminate or at least dramatically slow their progress is possible. And at the very least it will provide a justification for dealing with North Korea more harshly if the deal is broken. A deal is important because it's really all we can reasonably do at this point.

    until that last part about bringing NK into the community of nations also causing a need to pour cold water on the human rights issue....
    Not pour cold water on it. Put it on the back burner. Until the deal is reached. And by back burner I mean don't bring up other demands with North Korea during the talks that are not related to the talks. There is nothing stopping the U.S. (and South Korea and Japan) from quietly getting Beijing to change its policies on the North Korean refugees.

    The Bush Administration is partly responsible for this situation. By publicly focusing on regime change in the beginning it has made Pyongyang very nervous about any action of Washington's. Now that the Bush Administration has shifted its focus to regime transformation and human rights, Pyongyang still is suspicious that human rights is actually a tool to overthrow them.

    If Washington wants a workable deal and human rights changes, it will be more effective to deal with them in series rather than at the same time. A North Korea that thinks it's under relentless attack will crawl back into its hole.

  3. Bubba, the "world community" comment is almost verbatim what Lefkowitz said in the press conference, something he says is Bush's "overall approach": "I think consistent with what the president's overall approach is on human rights, and bringing North Korea directly into the community of nations, we have to take a look at all different areas of our relationship."

    As for a workable deal, I think that Bush41, Clinton, and Bush43 have shown with Libya that a turnaround with a despotic, closed, and hostile nation is possible.


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