Shadow Government

Perhaps it is time to judge Obama's response to Libya

Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today's press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.

I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:

  • Perhaps the Gaddafi regime is blocking the evacuation of U.S. citizens so as to intimidate the White House into making only muted statements -- and this intimidation is working (note to President Obama, this is closer to what real hostage-taking feels like).
  • Or perhaps the administration is paralyzed with indecision because of debates between internal factions, some wanting a stronger Bush-like response and others wanting to stick with the Obama 2009 approach that guided the weak response to the Iranian post-election protests in June 2009.

Either explanation is plausible or perhaps both are in play. If the first explanation is the correct one, I think the White House's stance is understandable but exceedingly risky. Making concessions to virtual hostage-takers only makes sense as a temporary tactic in a larger strategy that quickly turns to a more forceful intervention. (By the way, if the hostage scenario is correct, the issue of U.N. authorization before military force is moot. It still may not make sense to escalate immediately to military action, but President Obama would have a substantially freer hand in terms of what options would be legitimate). If the second explanation is correct, this is an important test of the president's mettle. He needs to decide the matter and establish a clear policy ... and soon.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Food shortfalls continue misery for North Koreans

There are reports coming out of North Korea again that they are suffering from a severe shortfall in food supplies. North Korean emissaries have gone on a multi-national tour asking foreign governments to resume food assistance programs to feed their malnourished population.

This is not a new scenario for North Korea. The regime has continually struggled to feed its people since the famine of the mid 1990s when over one million lost their lives.

What is more shocking is the effect the many years of living on less than 1,700 calories a day have had on the general population. I saw this first hand in a Pyongyang park in 2008 where some elderly people were quietly harvesting grass so they could supplement a meal. Those in the NGO community with access to remote areas of the country have confirmed many in North Korea suffer from malnutrition and infection. In many cases, people outside of the capital are on the brink of starvation.

Today, a North Korean child can expect to be up to 7 inches shorter than his/her South Korean counterpart and 20 pounds lighter by adulthood. 

A recent Washington Post article stated that the North Korean request has "put the United States and other Western countries in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to ignore the pleas of a starving country or pump food into a corrupt distribution system that often gives food to those who need it least."

Not if the policy makers in Washington use the agreement reached in 2008, which remedied past problems of the regime diverting humanitarian food shipments to the military or for black market revenues.

I was the lead U.S. negotiator with the North Korean government over the terms for resuming food aid. The North Koreans agreed to improve access at all stages of the food distribution apparatus, allow random assessments, and, for the first time, permit U.S. and U.N. World Food Program workers fluent in Korean to work in-country to oversee the distribution process, assess needs in different locations, and review distribution lists.

In addition the North Korean's agreed to let U.S. NGOs such as Mercy Corps and Samaritan's Purse be responsible for some of the food distribution in partnership with The World Food Program.

Yes, the regime will do all it can to frustrate the process. Yes, they will see if they can divert to the military. But we have tools at our disposal to thwart these efforts and maximize the likelihood that the food reaches those who need and deserve it.

The Obama administration should dust off the agreement reached by the Bush administration in 2008 between the United States and North Korea. In it, we agreed to provide up to 500,000 metric tons of food under a significantly improved framework that would ensure food reached the North Korean people. 

This well-negotiated document should also be used as a template for other Western nations with its benchmarks for what it would take to resume a food assistance program. The U.S. should also make it clear to The World Food Program that if it is to be responsible for distributing a portion of the aid given by us and other willing nations, it must adhere to the agreement negotiated in 2008 to ensure little can be diverted to the elite or the military. In tandem, the Obama administration should urge China and South Korea not to provide unmonitored food commodities.

With hostile regimes falling around the world, now is the time for the United States and others to be proactive in assisting the millions who suffer under Kim Jong Il. Doing so will show good will and also prepare for the day when the people of North Korea demand democratic change instead of grazing to find something to fill their stomachs.

IAN TIMBERLAKE/AFP/Getty Images