US Uses Food as a Political Weapon: From North Korea to Gaza

In 1919 a war-fatigued Germany faced starvation. In desperation, recently appointed Chancellor Friedrich Erbert turned to the United States for aid. US President Wilson presided over a harsh agreement with his former European foe; food shipments would be arranged, provided the growing German workers movement would be curtailed and relations with Soviet Russia severed. Food had become a weapon of politics.

At the same time in Russia – whose population had recently displeased the west by overthrowing its pro-war government – was facing a famine of its own.

Sensing an opportunity, Britain’s Ministry of Intelligence set to work attempting to disrupt grain supplies in hopes that a starving population would turn against the new administration. In both cases the message was clear: the necessities of life were to be withheld or even taken from a population if they failed to follow the desired political line.

In our own time such methods remain in use. In an opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Christopher Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, strongly advocates for a policy of withholding food aid from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), claiming that Seoul faces a choice of “whether or not to use starvation as a weapon to bring down the regime to the north.”

Such words are reminiscent of an alarmingly similar case not so long ago, when then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that the death of Iraqi children due to UN sanctions was “worth it.” Albright’s worthy goal – a pacified and pro-western Iraq – led to the resignation of the then UN Assistant Secretary-General, Denis Halliday.

Halliday later said in an interview with John Pilger that the sanctions satisfed “the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.”

Hill envisages a less dramatic impact, however, by citing a favorable “short-term cost in human lives” over what he believes to be a worse scenario, that being the continued division of the Korean peninsula

Hill’s argument appears to follow the logic that if Kim Jong-il loses power the Korean Peninsula will unite, naturally along lines desired by Seoul and Washington. The reasons as to why this must happen is that Pyongyang has frequently engaged in episodes of “perfidy” over its nuclear program, enraging the US and embarrassing its main ally, China, in the process.

The prospect of a nuclear strike, as occasionally threatened by an increasingly aggressive Pyongyang over the course of the sporadic Six Party talks, is used as a threatening “what if?” throughout Hill’s article.

Given the history of the United States and atomic weapons – the US being the largest possessor of WMDs in the world – few could take a moral objection to WMDs as being sincere on the part of the US establishment. Hill has done us a favor, however, in showing us that starvation – or the threat of it – is a political tool that remains in use.

Aside from possible implementation in North Korea, Gaza stands as the most noteworthy ongoing example of where deprivation is being used to punish a population and destabilize a government. After outraging the democratic west in 2006 by voting for the wrong party, (Hamas), Gazans were rewarded a year later for this exercise in universal suffrage by a further tightening of Israel’s economic stranglehold.

According to the World Food Program Israeli hostility to the Gazan ballot box ensures a ban on exports as well as an extensive list of items that are prohibited from entering the besieged community. In 2009 the WFP estimated that over sixty percent of the population were having regular difficulty gaining access to food.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as of 2009 the blockage had shut down over ninety percent of Gaza’s industry, causing unemployment to soar. This revelation came after a survey conducted a year earlier showed that over seventy percent of the population already lived in poverty, with the average family of seven to nine members eking out an existence on less than $250 USD per month.

This embargo comes with the blessing of the White House, which deems the elected Gazan government a “terrorist” organization and quietly acquiesced to the 2008 Israeli invasion. It was during this action that the Israeli Defense Force appeared to view their enemy’s irrigation and farming methods as a military threat, with the Red Cross claiming the IDF burnt “thousands of citrus, olive and palm groves” as well as destroying “irrigation systems, wells and greenhouses.”

The ensuing abundance of innocent deaths no doubt fell comfortably within the category of “collateral damage.”

Collective punishment of a population is outlawed under article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Gazans are, however, quite clearly being punished for having the temerity to elect an organization Israel does not approve of. Washington’s continued political support for Israeli military ventures goes hand in hand with political support for enforced starvation.

A Struggling Nation

North Korea, like Iraq from 1990-2003 and Gaza now, suffers from a variety of economic sanctions. These are in place for four reasons, namely that the country is a “threat to US national security”, has a “communist” government, supports “international terrorism” and is also allegedly developing WMDs.

According to a paper on the subject by the Congressional Research Service, drafted in 2006, this permits the US to “limit foreign aid” and oppose “support from international finance institutions”.

The report maintains that while few nations have “normalized” relations with the DPRK, only the USA has maintained “fairly comprehensive economic sanctions” against the country since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

While much of the material available on these sanctions tends to dwell on the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, the above comment is insightful in that it highlights a persistent policy that has been in place decades before nuclear weapons became a possibility for the small Asian nation.

From 1965 onwards, so-called Export Administration Regulations were refined to categorize nations into specific groups. The DPRK fell into Group Z, the “most restricted lot.”

Such legislation was expanded upon when suspicions of DPRK nuclear capability rose to prominence in 2002. At the behest of the White House, many nations, such as long-standing trading partners as Japan, South Korea, and China, cooled political and economic support, albeit it sporadically.

Such moves to “isolate and contain the country”, according to the Congressional report, could be “enormous” in regards to the human cost in lives, as the nation has “come to rely on South Korea and China for food and energy, and in times of crisis has relied on all the six-party talk participants — including the United States — for substantial food aid and fuel oil shipments.”

Hill is aware of the effect such isolation is having, but he omits this from his article, seemingly hinting at the notion that the poverty of the DPRK is entirely down to the callousness of its government.

According to him “non-governmental groups and other humanitarian workers” now note that “many North Korean children are showing signs of mental impairment” due to lack of nutrition. The cause of such a plight is not mentioned.

These “humanitarian workers” however, are quick to agree with him. Marcus Prior is a Regional Public Affairs Officer for the World Food Program. He claims that “one third of all children are chronically malnourished” along with “one in four of their mothers.”

According to the WFP, current commercial imports of foodstuffs “do not fill the entire uncovered food deficit” which has to be covered in aid shipments – aid which some appear to argue should be curtailed or cut off altogether.

Government organized rationing schemes only meet the needs of just under 70 percent of the population, with the WFP claiming the situation so fragile that “a small shock in the future could trigger a severe crisis which would be difficult to contain.”

This “small shock” could easily be the implementation of a policy of withdrawing aid. This would certainly be a humanitarian disaster on a heartbreaking scale. The people of the DPRK have paid the price of such shocks since the end of the Korean War, and will hardly warm up to the notion of reunification along democratic lines by enduring more. Unlike former US policy makers, they no doubt don’t think a “short term cost in lives” – as in their lives – is viable for so-called regime change.

Human rights cannot be enforced, let alone enshrined, if you think discarding them is sometimes “worth it.” Access to food has long been held up as one of these rights, yet whether we are dealing with the fight against Bolshevism in 1919, the sanctions on Iraq and Gaza, or the case for starving North Korea into submission, the price has always been death on a vast scale. It’s about time this was fully understood.

Dan Read is a freelance writer in Britain.