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"If the aid money does dry up, mass starvation would be a risk again, but even the great famine of 1996-99, which killed as many as one million people, created no immediate domestic political challenge. Trained under the old system, deprived of opportunities to organize, and ignorant about the outside world, North Korea's starving farmers did not rebel. They just died."

--Foreign Affairs, spring 2008

Imagine clicking through the channels one weekend morning and coming across Michael Palin in North Korea. That happened to us earlier this month. Yes, it was that Michael Palin on the small screen, he of Monty Python fame. He of "The Lumberjack Song" and "The Spanish Inquisition" sketch. The King of the Swamp Castle, the ex-leper and Sir Galahad the Pure.

Somehow this former funnyman had taken on a wholly unfunny thing: a documentary of what it's like to be inside North Korea. Actually, it was a documentary of what it's like for a foreign filmmaker to be inside North Korea. For he was shadowed by two personable handlers all the way. And word from the papers--after Mr. Palin got back--says other, more serious, handlers stayed just off-camera, but never out of earshot.

How this British comedian was able to get a pass into that country is anybody's guess. Can you imagine showing A Fish Called Wanda to the PR people in Pyongyang, and getting them to sign off on this visit?

Doubtless Michael Palin's voiceovers were made back in England, in which he described the sinister and queer feelings he had in his hotel. And how the scenery went gray after his train passed over the Chinese border. He was made to re-shoot one scene because he had his hands in his pockets before the great statues of the two former Kim leaders. The sinister handlers assured him it was disrespectful.


North Korea is back in the news this month because--what else?--there's another famine on. These things happen with some regularity in North Korea, where the people are told they live in paradise. And who's to tell them otherwise? As Michael Palin found out, the place has no Internet service or cell phone connections.

Once again it's a particularly bad time in North Korea, where a good time could be described as getting a 10-ounce bowl of rice every day. This time it's the weather's fault, just as it was in Stalin's Russia all those years. The drought is bad this year, again. And the rulers in Pyongyang, one in particular, are demanding aid from the rest of the world. Their cousins in South Korea are planning to give it. (Have you ever noticed that famine, or at least desperate poverty, seem to follow wherever Communism takes root?)

Many in the West have been conflicted over the years about supplying North Korea with aid. Which is the greater sin? Propping up a corrupt regime that has no problem punishing the grandchildren of political opponents? Or letting those children starve in hope that their parents will someday overthrow the whole rotten regime? Neither option is attractive.

According to the paper this week, the United States officially holds the line that our allies should maintain economic pressure on the North. But the White House let it slip, perhaps purposefully, that it has no plans to intervene should the South Koreans move forward with the care package(s).

The choices aren't good. Or even easy to comprehend. It's tempting to turn to the sports section. But the danger grows with every lesson Lil' Kim's engineers learn with their recent tests of short-range missiles. Food may be fungible, too. For every won the Kim regime doesn't spend on rice, it can spend on rocket fuel.

So what to do?

Fact is, the world will have to deal with the Kim regime tomorrow, no matter what happens today. With Red China's help, it's set, marrow-deep. And you can bet Lil' Kim ain't going on a diet. Yes, we're paying the Danegeld. And we'll never be rid of the Dane. Everybody seems to understand.

But wishing for an uprising in Pyongyang will have to remain only wishes. Until that day, hallelujah by-and-by, the world should feed starving children. The Trump administration made the right call: Officially, sanctions. Unofficially . . . .

We have our souls to think about.

Editorial on 05/22/2019

Print Headline: The next famine


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