Commentary: We can't ignore North Korean suffering

If North Korea's unending economic failures did not exact so great a price in lives — more than 1 million deaths from starvation in the '90s, with a repeat of that calamity now impending — the country would be a tragicomic cartoon.

Add to that the ludicrous spectacle of dictatorial succession, with orchestrated wailing on the death of Kim Jong Il and the immediate transfer of power to his 20-some-year-old son, Kim Jong Un.

One is left with little cause, other than its nuclear ambitions, to take the regime seriously.

An official photograph released as part of the hoopla around young Mr. Kim’s elevation purported to show him during an inspection of one of the army’s elite tank units.

No tanks are in the picture. Instead, the dear leader is pictured with three uniformed officers, standing behind a table on which can be seen a great number of large vessels heaped with food.

The soldiers are slender, of rigid military bearing. Mr. Kim, slouching with his hands in his coat pockets, is paying no attention whatever to his escorts.

His concentration is exclusively on the victuals.

Round-jowled, plump as a shoat in a land shadowed by awful hunger, he shows evidence of never having missed a meal. And plainly he has no intention of missing this one.

An editorial in the party press urged him to exert “monolithic” leadership.

He’s not yet quite a monolith, but unless he learns to push back his plate it’s clear he’s on the way to becoming one.

But preposterous as the Pyongyang regime and its claims and fulminations may be, the threadbare country cannot be written off as irrelevant. For its failures have consequences — human consequences.

One-fourth to one-third of the 24 million North Koreans are said to be severely malnourished. Floods, scarce arable land, broken distribution systems and diversion of much of the slim harvest to the army and other political pets have meant agony for many of those shut out.

The neediest — pregnant women, the very young and the aged — are worst affected. There have been reports of starving children seen eating grass in their attempt to survive.

The U.S. has indicated willingness to provide 240,000 tons of food aid and vitamins — 20,000 tons a month for a year — and suspend sanctions if North Korea will agree to halt its program of uranium enrichment.

But finalizing of the agreement has been delayed by the death of the tyrant who ruled North Korea for most of two decades and by the mix of celebration and uncertainty that attended the installation of his chosen son.

Meantime, it’s feared, the dying may already have begun.

In this time of economic distress at home, the idea of a humanitarian handout to so antagonistic a mendicant country will not be universally popular.

But the obligation is clear.

Millions of people cannot be allowed to suffer and perish as punishment for a crisis not of their own making — the result of having been wickedly and incompetently ruled.