Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Cultural Divide

The Humanitarian Challenge

The ongoing saga between the U.S. and North Korea wouldn’t make a very good case study in, “how to make friends and influence people.” There are significant differences between the two on just about every possible issue. Down to issues so simple as to be totally ignored in the U.S.—something like, “which side of the table should we sit on?”

There are clear differences over how a legitimate government should behave, the importance of markets vs the value of stability, the concept of individual liberties and their conflict with state autonomy and social order.

The one common point I’ve been able to identify, watching from afar, is the value both nations place on their pride and how they are perceived around the world. For the U.S. this has to do with prestige, and its ability to enforce/maintain non-proliferation treaties, and uphold the status quo. For North Korea it has to do with showing they are independent, they are free to do what they choose, even in the face of “imperialist devils” like the U.S. or its allies.

There have been glimmers of what the west might call hope over the past 18 months or so, with more information coming out of North Korea, with more foreign reporters being allowed in, and with North Korea signing deals with South Korean companies and Chinese cities that come surprisingly close to free-market agreements.

But today I read of the UN’s Food Program closing down most of their operations, with staff remaining solely for “technical support” functions. I think this has little to do with food, or the supposed “better than expected harvest” this year, and more to do with yet another significant, and difficult-to-bridge difference between North Korea and much of the West: how to handle information.

In a society like the United States where information has always been the building block of our society—from the free press, to public education, to transparent government—the idea of withholding information is usually met with skepticism, if not distrust (ie: Bush withholding Miers papers). But for North Korea, the idea of a free-flow of information is anathema. The mere idea that it’s people might have access to information that is not carefully sifted, constructed, and packaged to fit a particular political ideology and purpose would be to jeopardize Juche and the past 55 years of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).

Now enter international NGOs, western trained journalists, blogging tourists, and the internet.

The result, public assertions by the UN Food Program (UNFP) that paradise on the Korean Peninsula might not be as great as the KWP claims. Because of pesky rules about transparency and disclosure, it comes out the UNFP has distributed 4 million tons of food in the past decade. Enough to feed 1/4 of North Korea’s population during that time.

Here’s the rub: North Korea doesn’t have the supplies or infrastructure it needs to ensure that its people don’t die in famine if anything should go wrong. Anything like, say, drought, or flooding, or a too-cool/too-hot summer, or a pest infestation. All the things that farmers deal with. Except in the U.S. (or Japan, South Korea, or even China) they have access to things like fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides to help soften the blow from mother nature. Not so in North Korea. As many as 3 million people died of starvation in the 90s. That’s 1 in 7 North Koreans. Roughly equivalent to the U.S. losing everyone in Texas and New York. Not so good.

Here’s my challenge to all of you out there who want to be able to help the poor, starving, North Koreans, but don’t want to support an autocratic regime:
How can a Western-based or funded aid organization that has requirements about disclosure, book-keeping, and transparency, operate in a country where the existence of transparency results in the closure of business? Put another way: is it possible to affect change in North Korea without feeding North Koreans? Do you want to go down that road?

I’m not just posing this rhetorically either. I’m guessing there aren’t any people who read this who aren’t smart. I really would like to hear some ideas. I know I don’t have any.

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