My recent absence, during which I spent two weeks in England in the kind of glorious weather that casts doubt on everything my overseas friends thought they once knew of that subject, gave me a chance to take a trip to Westminster and meet Lord David Alton, a man who describes himself as a "fairly obscure, independent cross-bench peer" but who can also be described as the chairman of the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.
During the interview, I spoke in depth with Lord Alton on the subject of food aid, something he supports and I am somewhat skeptical of for a number of reasons.
The majority of that section of the interview didn't make the cut, so in the spirit of openness and because there is much of interest in what he had to say, here is the transcript of that section of the interview;
DP: Let’s turn to the topic of food aid. As you know, the South Korean and American governments have their doubts…
Lord Alton: I can only rely on three things; one is the evidence of Peter Hughes, our ambassador in Pyongyang, who is on the public record as saying that he has seen increased evidence of malnutrition in the country; there is the evidence of my own eyes for that matter as well; but most important of all is the evidence produced by the United Nations through the World Food Programme, which has given the figures on how much food the North will be short by.
Now I know that in South Korea there is a fear that the food will go into the hands of the wrong people, the million men under arms; but they are human beings too, and I have never believed that trying to starve armies or peoples into submission is a very wise approach. If you corner people and try to starve them they are likely to respond in ways which you wouldn’t desire, so starving people into submission doesn’t seem like a very sensible way to proceed. We have had monitors in North Korea in the past, and the monitors who have been there like Professor Hazel Smith, who has given evidence before my own committee, have said that the overwhelming majority of the food that has gone there in the past has reached the civilian population.
But it is true that some will go to the military, I think that is just almost inevitable. And who are these million men? They are conscripts, they aren’t trained militias raised on rib-eye steaks and the rest, and you can see that these are people who have not had much nourishment themselves or a stable diet.
So I think we have to take the WFP at their word. Now it may well be South Korea’s fear that this is just an attempt to store up food for distribution next year’s 2012 celebrations; I can’t say there is no possibility of that happening, but it is also clear that there is a desperate need for food over the next two months, although I do think it is reasonable for the international community to insist on proper monitoring.
DP: But as it stands the North Koreans are calling for rice, rather than any other products, which is a very odd demand if you are making a legitimate call for food.
Lord Alton: Yes, well we heard requests for a variety of foods, but anyway, the sincerity of their demands needs to be tested. However, I think a blanket ban on food exports into North Korea would be wrong. Food should never be used as a weapon of war, and if there is a need over the next two months for food to sustain the population, then let’s make available that food. Maybe you are right, maybe it should not just be food that can be stored for the future, and let’s insist on there being proper monitors; they are both reasonable requests. But that isn’t after all the position that is being taken right now by the United States and South Korea; their position is that no food is being made available.
DP: From the South Korean perspective, the worry is that if you send food aid and in some small way it does go to feed soldiers and then those soldiers are used to kill South Koreans in one way or another; that is going to be politically untenable.
Lord Alton: I think all of these are scenarios that are perfectly reasonable for people to raise, and I am not here to defend North Korea, but I do want to find a way forward, and I think to spend all our lives denying people food and worrying about nuclear tests when we know there have already been tests and there has already been a famine which cost two million lives is a bit like counting the deckchairs on the Titanic; it would be better to try and make sure that the vessel is watertight, and the only way to do that is to find a long-term solution, so I want to see an increase in diplomatic efforts to solve the longer term problem.
It may be that in the meantime we have to do some things which are mildly unpalatable. But if they get so desperate that we see food protests in some towns then some people in the military may well see it that some provocative acts to concentrate the minds of the populace might be a good idea, and is that in anybody’s best interests either?
DP: No, but in the northern provinces the price of rice is actually falling, and that is causing some understandable confusion.
Lord Alton: That’s true, and I can understand the confusion, and if North Korea wants to pursue the argument of receiving outside support then it would be helpful to let the WFP and other assessors come in and visit those provinces and to see for themselves. At the moment we just seem to have a stand-off, with neither side moving and with South Korea and the United States not really wanting anyone to move. The people caught in the crossfire will be weak people; children, old people, people whose health is already impaired. So the sincerity of this call should be tested; for example, why not ask China if they would mount an investigative mission to corroborate things one way or the other?