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Looking for a Victim in the North Korean Famine


By Noah I. Dauber

Victim politics is always a confusing game. It is hard to separate out our feelings: Are we to be sympathetic to the disadvantaged? Angry that they are using their plight in what amounts to a power play? Disgusted at politics as usual? The famine in North Korea raises all these issues and more. Thanks to the strict controls the North Korean government has placed on the press, we do not even know how bad the famine really is.

What we do know, according to the report in The New York Times on Monday, is that a recent "informal survey" conducted by ethnic Koreans living in China suggests that 15 percent of the populace is being killed by the famine. We also know that most of the Koreans contacted about the survey refused to participate, fearing government disapproval. The causes of the famine are well known: flooding in 1995 and 1996, a drought this summer and the collapse of the Soviet regime.

It is difficult to puzzle out just why the government is keeping this thing under such tight wraps if the world is willing and able to help. Why doesn't the government just play the victim plain and simple and cash in on world good will? Indeed, one relief official noted that "it would be much easier to mobilize resources if they would give us more access."

More publicity would mean more reliable aid. The lack of hard data makes it difficult to deliver the quantity of food needed. Moreover, transportation in North Korea is slow, making accurate reports of local conditions especially important to relief planners.

The New York Times article plays up the secrecy of the government, stressing the isolation of the communist nation in the global scene.

In a strange but effective summary of North Korea's loneliness, the article concludes: "Its closest friends now are Cuba and Vietnam, neither of which is able to give much assistance." We are to understand that North Korea cannot afford to keep its problems so quiet if it wants to survive.

This is a reporter's take on the problem: the more publicity the better. However, Carter Eckert, professor of Korean History and the director of the Korea Institute, has a different take. The North is not being all that quiet, he stresses.

We know that there is a famine and that it is pretty bad. However, citing the South Korean objections to the North's strict handling of the media, Carter adds that reporters "see only what the North Korean officials want them to see."

While there is no way of truly knowing the extent of the famine, Carter believes there is substance to the South's charge that the North is exaggerating the impact of the famine.

In fact, Carter, in contrast to The Times, reads this story not as a conflict between nations, but as an effort by a ruling elite to stay in power in the face of a crumbling economy and infrastructure. He even suggests that the elite in power would let their people die rather than step down. In sum, Carter believes that the North is opening up just enough to get help with the famine but not enough to destabilize the current regime.

Carter's allegations sting. Victims are supposed to act a certain way. They are supposed to be open and welcoming, eternally grateful of our aid. The story should run something like this: the powerful nations band together to save the suffering nation. They give freely, since the victim poses no threat to their well being or their collective ego. In fact, the victim nation offers the powerful nations a chance to act nobly, to assume the mantle of leadership they pay lip service to. But North Korea is not playing along.

There is a parallel that we are meant to keep in the back of our minds whenever we think about the North Korean famine: the African famine of the 1980s. The press mentions it here and there, tucked in the middle of articles.

This was the crisis of "We are the World" fame, a strange mix of starving children and weepy rock stars. "We are the World" is what we expect of a famine. We know how to deal with it, how to be sad, how to give our nickels and dimes.

The North Korean situation is neither easy to understand nor to empathize with. Who is playing whom? This story may be about the United States' wanting to act out its destiny, to play the hero.

On the other hand, it may be about a privileged elite at the heart of the North Korean government--insulated from the famine--working to stay in the power. Is this story really about communism, about a government in denial that its dream is collapsing, or is it about naked power?

Noah I. Dauber's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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