As North Korea Plans Missile Launch, Obama Administration Withdraws Food Aid for Starving People

With its announcement on March 16 that it plans to launch a satellite using ballistic missile technology,
North Korea is once again on the minds of the U.S. Department of Defense and has also come to the forefront of Japanese and South Korean military planning. But the U.S. response to the failed “Leap Day” agreement is probably the least sensible of all.

The February agreement established a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests by North Korea, along with provisions for the U.S. to send tons (about 334,000 of them) of food aid to the malnourished country.

Unfortunately, the hope that this agreement created was false. According to the U.S, the technology involved in North Korea's latest planned launch (scheduled for sometime between April 12 and 16) is banned by United Nations sanctions. While the North Koreans claim the launch is for a weather satellite, most other nations believe it to be a thinly veiled test run for a long-distance missile. Satellite imagery published by GlobalSecurity.org last week shows indications that the North Koreans were preparing a rocket launch site.

Japan’s response to this development included an order by Defense Minister Noaki Tanaka to intercept and shoot down the rocket if it crosses into Japanese airspace. The Japanese military plans to send destroyers outfitted with Aegis missile defense systems into the Pacific Ocean and East China Sea. As a second line of defense, it also plans to deploy land-based mobile Patriot missile launchers to Okinawa islands.

South Korean authorities have made a similar warning from Seoul that it may shoot down any parts of the missile passing over its territory.

So what is the United States’ plan in this situation? Obama warned the North Koreans last week during his visit to Seoul that the days of “rewards for provocations” are over. The reward he’s taking away? The food aid we had agreed to send to help nourish the starving North Korean population.

At first glance, it might seem to make sense for the U.S. hat to back out of its side of the bargain because North Korea has broken its commitment. However, where does this leave the more than 6 million North Korean citizens in urgent need of food aid? Or the one in three children under the age of five that are severely malnourished?

Several aid groups have urged Obama and his administration not to do away with the food aid. Whether the nuclear deal works or not, there are still millions of starving individuals in a country dependent on foreign aid to feed its citizens since a famine in the 1990s. Jim White, vice president of operations for an aid group called Mercy Corps, has pointed out that “millions of hungry children and mothers in North Korea are caught in the crosshairs.”

So instead of punishing the North Korean military for its violation of an international agreement, the U.S. is essentially punishing the innocent victims of their regime and sentencing them to lasting starvation. This strategy seems very misguided. The North Korean military has been less than compassionate to its starving citizens in recent years, with critics accusing them of diverting aid to feed its large army rather than those who need it most.

Based on this questionable past, what makes the American authorities think that keeping food from the starving is going to have an effect on the military actions of North Korean officials? Instead of taking away the nutritional aid that is so urgently needed by millions of innocents, the U.S. should find a different way to punish North Korea for its actions, more like the military tactics being pursued by Japan and South Korea.