Evangelist Franklin Graham is echoing the earlier charge made by a former president that the U.S. government is withholding food aid to North Korea for political reasons.
Speaking recently with Greta Van Susteren, host of the Fox News Channel’s On The Record, Graham highlighted the catastrophic food shortage currently facing the isolated nation and the appropriate response needed from the United States.
“You have around 24 million people. About six million are going to be affected with this food shortage,” the renowned preacher told Susteren. “If we don’t do something soon you will see hundreds of thousands that can possibly perish in this famine.”
Asked for 335,000 metric tons of food from the highly militarized country, the U.S. government called on NGOs – including Samaritan’s Purse, which Graham heads – to make an assessment of the actual need.
What his organization found when they entered North Korea in February, after gaining access to orphanages, homes, and schools in 17 counties, was that food shortages were indeed chronic throughout the country because of a harsh winter, heavy rain and poor vegetable crop.
If current conditions continued, parts of North Korea would completely run out of food as early as mid-June.
World Food Program also came to the same conclusion when asked to do the same.
“There is a real need for food in North Korea. They need it by June. We were working on this in February. Here we are now in May. No decision has been made,” Graham shared.
“It would be tragic if the United States government withholds food and uses food as a weapon ... There’s a lot of politics involved, and there’s other countries that get involved.”
For instance, many lawmakers from South Korea were urging President Barack Obama not to authorize aid, fearful that their rival neighbor would hoard the food shipments in preparation for next year’s centennial anniversary of the regime’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, according to AFP.
Several critics were also wary of lifting economic sanctions because of possible food redistributions to the military, neglecting those actually in need.
But ex-president Jimmy Carter disagreed, telling journalists, “When there are sanctions against an entire people, the people suffer the most and the leaders suffer the least,” as reported by AFP.
He accused the U.S. and South Korea of violating human rights by withholding food aid, after his three-day visit in April with former statesmen to North Korea, where he assessed the continuing food shortage along with other issues, including denuclearization.
Refuting the former president’s claims, however, the U.S. State Department responded, “As you know well, the North Koreans were the ones who abruptly suspended the aid program in 2009, ordering our humanitarian personnel to leave the country and leave behind 20,000 metric tons of U.S. food,” Jacob Sullivan, the State Department’s director of policy planning, told reporters, according to CNN.
“Everyone should remember who is responsible for the plight of the North Korean people, and that is the North Korean government itself.”
Nonetheless, Graham believed that regardless of where the North Koreans stood politically with the U.S, there were still “real issues that [needed] to be dealt with.
“I don’t want to get into the politics of it because as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I believe the Bible teaches we are to do good to all men.”
“Food should not be withheld to try to push them to whatever table we want them to come to,” he added. “There’s a regime coming and we all know that. This is a great opportunity for the United States to step up, provide this food assistance and encourage the new regime that is coming.”
“Let’s talk, let’s be friends. It has been almost 60 years since the end of the Korean War. We still have two armies facing each other, and nobody is talking. We need to find a way to get this thing pushed forward.”
But in Carter’s trip report published on The Carter Center, he observed that the single-party state held very negative prospects for any resumption of bilateral communications with their neighbor, and continued to place all blame on the antagonistic attitude of President Lee Myung-back, the South Korean president.
South Korea cut off almost all ties with North Korea after the sinking of their warship late last year, killing 46 sailors, and refuses to aid the North until an adequate apology for last year’s event is received.
The State Department, meanwhile, held North Korea responsible in regards to future aid prospects, affirming that if the North took meaningful steps to improve inter-Korean relations, favorable talks with the U.S. would become more likely.
Given their first chance at reconciliation, South Korean President Lee declared on Monday that he is prepared to invite Kim Jong-il to an international nuclear security summit in Seoul next year if Pyongyang promises to give up its nuclear weapons.
But according to The Associated Press, North Korea wants to return to the negotiating table without any preconditions, and little is known whether or not they will accept the offer, which Lee describes as “a very good opportunity.”
Regardless of all the politics involved, Graham hopes that the attention will be focused on the people – the millions who are starving to death.
“The people, the people that have no choice. They don’t have anything. They are just trying to live their life. Back in the 90s we saw over a million die in North Korea due to famine. This is as critical today as it was in the 90s.”
“The average person ... needs about 1,700 calories a day to maintain body weight. Their rations right now are less than 700 calories per person. What [that] means is you are going to have starvation, malnutrition, [and] there will be death.”
Robert King, the U.S. special envoy on human rights, emphasized that the United States would base its decision on North Korea’s needs, not on politics, AFP documented.
“The need is great,” Graham affirmed. “Children ... have been stunted because of the lack of food. People are supplementing by foraging for grass ... [boiling] it and [trying] to make a stew. They put tree bark and boil that in the water – anything for any kind of nourishment.”
AFP reported that relief groups were looking to provide 160,000 to 175,000 tons of food to North Korea, which Ken Issacs, vice president for programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, doubts would arrive in time to meet the coming shortfall.
In addition to food aid, The Korea Times recently announced that Kim Jong-il is also calling for more production of fertilizer, in an effort to help alleviate the chronic food shortages.
“The most important task ... is to focus efforts on keeping the production of fertilizers going at a high rate and send greater quantity of fertilizers to the socialist cooperative fields,” Kim revealed, according to the North Korean Central News Agency.
Whatever is to be done, Susteren expressed in the interview with Graham that “time is running out.”