Yet for an international community that would like to help the North Korean people while isolating and restraining their government, the existence of moral
hazard is where the dilemmas begin -- and not where they end.
"Elementary school children in Chongjin who have absolutely no control over their government shouldn't be penalized because they have such an odious
regime," says Noland. "But people who take that position have to be intellectually honest. Implicitly you are going to be supporting the North Korean
military machine to a certain extent."
More importantly, simply freezing assistance to North Korea also elides the possibility of smarter, more targeted humanitarian aid. Adrian Hong says the
most effective assistance comes from NGOs that "tailor aid to things that aren't dual use" -- wet noodles, for instance, have to be consumed quickly before
spoiling. The money to be made appropriating or re-directing aid for pregnant women or infants is similarly limited. Noland says that rice is "most likely
to be diverted to elite or military consumption" compared to other nutritious grains, like barley or millet -- "poor people's food" according to North
Korean dietary tradition (One NGO that Hong says is particularly adept at operating in North Korea is Global Resource Services, which Jeff Baron profiled for The Atlantic last
Economic and humanitarian contact doesn't have to play into the narrow interests of the 3,000-4,000 elites who run North Korea, and benefit from its
part-monarchic, part-Stalinist system of government. The question is whether it is possible to minimize the consequences of engagement while creating the
kind of inroads into the North Korean economy, and into North Korean society, that hasten the system's ultimate decline.
There is abundant reason to be skeptical that Richardson, Namkung and Schmidt's trip will accomplish this.
* * *
Richardson is traveling to North Korea with Tony Namkung, a Korean-American academic and one of the earliest and most influential American proponents of
engagement with Pyongyang. Namkung has built a career out of being less skeptical of North Korea than prevailing elite opinion, and his participation reflects some of the more troubling aspects of the trip. Even if Namkung honestly believes that warm relations with Pyongyang can lessen the dual crisis of North Korean bellicosity and internal oppression, his dealings with Pyongyang suggests an usual level of faith in the Kim regime. It is a trust that Richardson seems to share, by virtue of his long relationship with Namkung. And if Schmidt didn't share it, it's doubtful he would be in North Korea right now.
As president of the Asia Society in the early 1990s, Namkung cultivated several high-level contacts inside the North Korean
government after the breakup of the Soviet bloc, and
served as a back-channel
between Pyongyang and the State Department (and the CIA) during U.S.-North Korean negotiations in 1993. As detailed in Brown University Professor Leon
Sigal's Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy With North Korea, Namkung's informal diplomacy had more than a passing impact on the 1993 U.S.-North Korean
in support of "peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula." Shortly after, he became a trusted adviser to Richardson, and later served as the State Economic Development Department's chief Asia consultant
when Richardson was governor of New Mexico. As a result, Richardson made more visits to North Korea than any governor of any southwestern American state.