One of the least palatable aspects of the situation in North Korea is the humanitarian quandary created by Kim Jong Il’s ruthless game, in which he relies on the misery of his enslaved people for his own protection. North Korea depends for its very survival on foreign aid; the United States and China are the principal benefactors. It is only this largesse that makes it possible for Kim to maintain an enormous standing army, and to play with nuclear weapons; had the Chinese seriously pressured him, he would have had to stand down. They didn’t, though, partly because they are concerned that any further instability, such as might be caused by even deeper poverty and famine, would drive hordes of refugees across their border, but also, I think in large part, because they enjoy the discomfiture that the obstreperous Kim causes the Western bloc.
The US, too, has been reluctant to cut back on the millions of tons of food we send to North Korea, but for quite different reasons — we are well aware that to do so would sentence a great many people to starvation. Kim knows that this leaves us in a difficult position: by refusing to provide any more foreign aid, we could press China to do more about the rogue state that it helps to support, but only at the cost of our conscience. Lacking one of his own, I am sure he is laughing up his sleeve at ours.