COMMENTARY: Starvation in North Korea: the battle and the opportunity

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Robert A. Seiple is President of World Vision U.S., a Christian humanitarian organization working in 103 countries, including North Korea).

UNDATED _"The battle is on. Never have I been faced with so great an opportunity." These were the opening lines of a letter Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision, sent to his wife from Korea in 1950 as war erupted. Pierce recognized the extraordinary opportunity for ministry he had in this faraway Asian country.

Today, nearly half a century later, Christians face another battle in Korea _ a battle to save the lives of millions.

The people of North Korea are starving to death _ literally. Some are eating gruel made from the bark of pine trees because there are no other sources of protein in some areas. There are many communities with few, if any, dogs, cats, or other pets because they've been eaten. There are no funerals because they government has banned them as too depressing.

Humanitarian aid groups are committed to helping save the lives of North Koreans, despite the Communist regime that has led the nation for nearly five decades.

And we believe the United States is failing to exercise its role as a world leader in responding to the famine in North Korea.

Beyond the hype of press releases and network TV soundbites, the $10 million donation announced by the State Department recently is but a fraction of what is needed to feed the people of North Korea.

It is deeply regrettable that political considerations provide excuses to delay food aid to starving people. Countless children _ as well as the sick and the elderly _ are being forgotten by those opposed to responding to urgent food needs in North Korea.

Aid opponents argue the world can force the North Korean government _ the government against which 33,651 Americans lost their lives in the Korean War _ into submission by starving its people.

Their argument is indefensible _ politically, ethically and spiritually. All famines are complicated by politics. However, the motives of a country's leaders should not divert us from Jesus' teaching to help those in need.

During the 1980s, when Ethiopia was facing massive starvation, President Ronald Reagan instituted a policy: ``A hungry child knows no politics.'' His policy provided that famine relief given by the U.S. government should not be precluded because we find a particular government offensive. President Reagan's policy was followed in Ethiopia as well as Sudan, Iraq, Angola and elsewhere. Not only were millions of lives saved, but _ at least in the cases of Ethiopia and Angola _ the stage was set for peace and better relations with the United States.

It is unfortunate the ``hungry child'' doctrine has been abandoned in the case of North Korea, where floods combined with systemic collapse in the agricultural sector have created desperate food shortages.

While claiming to have responded to humanitarian appeals, the Clinton administration's contribution has been the equivalent of handing a cracker to a starving man. Its commitment of some 30,000 metric tons represents a little more than 1 percent of the food North Korea actually needs. In other cases, the United States has generally given one-third of the total food needed to stop famine.

People find ways of surviving the first year of famine; it is in the second year that they die. First the very young children, followed by pregnant women and nursing mothers, and finally, the sick and the elderly. They die first because physically, they are the most vulnerable. Politically, they are also the most powerless.

Jesus has a heart for the sick, the oppressed and the downtrodden _ no matter their politics, no matter where they live, no matter who they are. In fact, he gives preference to"the least of these."When we give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, we are ministering to Jesus.

World Vision has committed more than $3 million in privately raised cash and gifts-in-kind to the relief effort in North Korea since the door for such aid opened in 1995.

This brings us full circle. World Vision was founded in Korea 47 years ago by Bob Pierce. I'm willing to bet the North Koreans we want to save are the children and grandchildren of the people our founder ministered to.