Long ago, US foreign aid programs honored the principle that humanitarian aid should be treated separately from economic and military assistance to governments. Public Law 480 (popularized as “Food for Peace”), which began under President Eisenhower in the 1960s and expanded under President Kennedy, was mainly intended (in Kennedy’s words) to “narrow the gap between abundance here at home and near starvation abroad.” It was a simple and ethical goal, though it applied only to “friendly” countries and therefore had the secondary aim, as Kennedy admitted, to be a barrier against communism.
The original humane goal has now vanished, and the secondary political aim has taken its place. The Trump administration is explicitly using humanitarian aid as another weapon to sanction adversaries. North Korea is the prime example. After decades providing humanitarian aid by private citizens and NGOs, Americans will no longer be able to send or deliver it: the decision includes denial of permission to travel to North Korea to deliver aid. Programs that made perceptible contributions to economic development and health care in North Korea, and built trust, will now be grounded.
The American Friends Service Committee, Nautilus Institute, Mercy Corps, Northwest Medical Teams, and other well-established NGOs are among the affected organizations.
All this in the name of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” to force North Korea to take tangible steps toward verifiable denuclearization. The administration justifies the ban as necessary to protect Americans from being taken prisoner and eliminate a source of hard currency for the North Korean regime. But those are excuses; humanitarian aid is a carrot now turned into a stick because Trump’s summit meeting with Kim Jong-un has failed to bring denuclearization any closer to realization and has no interest in an incentives-based engagement strategy.
Keith Luse, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea, a group that supports engagement, points out in a message to members (which includes me) that “a line has been crossed.”
American citizens and NGOs have provided humanitarian assistance to that country for decades. Whether motivated by a faith-based perspective—or out of a compassionate nature—all have been committed to saving the lives of the neediest of North Korea’s citizens, including children, the elderly and pregnant mothers. Thousands of North Koreans neglected by their own government,