With second North Korea summit, let’s not overlook the case for kindness

With second North Korea summit, let’s not overlook the case for kindness
© Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

While increased attention to denuclearizing North Korea rightly must be pursued, and applauded, as we approach a second meeting between President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE and Chairman Kim Jong Un, withholding or withdrawing much-needed humanitarian assistance cannot become a pawn in political negotiations. As a humanitarian who has personally witnessed the plight of the North Korean people, I see lives being put on the line.

Between 2003 and 2014, I had the unusual opportunity to travel to the isolated Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) several times a year to work on humanitarian programs in health, agriculture and emergency disaster response, including a USAID-funded emergency food program. During my visits to North Korea, from fields to farms to government bureaucracies, I was there to make sure essential emergency aid such as lifesaving food and supplies got to where it was supposed to go.

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This is a people who have suffered greatly and yet persevere. When you drive down the wide, mostly empty paved roads of Pyongyang, the priority placed on agricultural production is immediately evident, as communities try to recuperate what’s been lost.

Here, the aftermath of the “forgotten war”— the 1950-1953 Korean War that barely fills a footnote in American textbooks — still looms. Historians estimate between 3 million and 4 million people were killed. Although South Korea since has become an economic powerhouse, the North has lived under the shadow of well-documented, systematic human rights abuses.

In the 1990s, again some 3 million North Koreans died — this time from famine. Today, 41 percent of the population — 10.5 million people — are undernourished, according to the United Nations, and 18 million need various kinds of humanitarian aid. UNICEF estimates that drinking water in over one-third of households is contaminated, and 20 percent of children suffer from malnutrition that causes complicated, long-term physical and cognitive disabilities.

Last June’s historic agreement between Trump and Kim gave me a glimmer of hope. Here was a once-in-a-70-year opportunity to diffuse this longstanding conflict; optimism was on the rise in many circles. Yet, since June, the U.S. government’s international sanctions to thwart nuclear and ballistic missile development also have impacted vital shipments of humanitarian equipment to the DPRK. As a result, transfers of medical instruments, agricultural tools and solar panels that generate energy for things such as clean drinking water have been delayed or stopped.

In a promising recent development, the State Department indicated it once again will allow Americans to travel to North Korea to conduct humanitarian work, but many more hurdles remain. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are leaving because of the nearly impossible task of effectively delivering humanitarian aid. Humanitarian funding for the DPRK is at a 10-year low; aid has dropped nearly sevenfold, from $117.8 million to $17.1 million. Last year, only 31 percent of the needed budget was met, forcing even the United Nations to stop some of its work.

My organization, Food for the Hungry, is one of the few U.S.-based NGOs still trying to make headway. In the past, we have supported our Korean affiliate office, through which we’ve been able to send shipments of pediatric anti-parasite medicine to treat approximately 2.5 million children. But so much more humanitarian assistance is needed.

Historians and diplomats can provide in extraordinary detail what brought the United States into long-term conflict with North Korea. They can provide examples of why trusting the Kim regime is foolhardy. But none of that permits me to forget what I saw during my time on the peninsula. The North Korean people are innovative, work extraordinarily hard and, like us, care about their neighbors and friends. Thousands of people labor on cooperative farms in the countryside, clearing, prepping and harvesting crops, trying to feed a hungry nation. I recall the times a person’s eyes would meet mine and reflect distrust, but how a friendly smile could melt the tense moment. I’ve seen the seeds of humanitarian efforts blossom into peaceful relationships.

As we approach the Hanoi summit, our country can fight for those in the most impoverished contexts across North Korea while remaining firmly committed to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and building lasting peace. In the midst of political negotiations, we must separate critical humanitarian needs in the DPRK from the goal of denuclearization. The North Korean people are not the enemy, and our country must be careful not to withhold kindness and exacerbate their struggle.

Matthew Ellingson is director of relief and humanitarian affairs at Food for the Hungry. He is an active member of the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) and worked extensively in North Korea between 2003-2014 with various humanitarian programs, including a multiagency USAID emergency food program. Follow him on Twitter @matt_ellingson.