Kim Jong-un: Starving for Power

August 25, 2014

The world is gradually coming to the conclusion that chronic malnutrition in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is Pyongyang’s problem.

After providing the DPRK with more than 12.5 million metric tons of food worth up to $4 billion over the past two decades, the international community has developed an acute case of donor fatigue.  Because of funding shortfalls, the World Food Program is threatening to scale back a two-year $200 million plan to feed 2.4 million North Koreans.

In a different time and context, there would be a larger humanitarian outcry, even from the United States.

Historically, the United States has been one of the largest providers of humanitarian assistance to North Korea.  But that was mostly before the North went ahead with a series of three nuclear tests (in 2006, 2009 and most recently in February 2013).  The timeframe of a fourth nuclear test is unknown, but some suspect it could happen in the near future.

Before he was elected president in 2008, Barack Obama said he would be willing to meet with the leader of North Korea or any other rogue state without precondition.  Not only has he not met with members of the Kim family dynasty, under his tenure the United States has provided only 21,000 metric tons of food aid worth a paltry $5.6 million.  And even that stopped in 2009.  In contrast, as an April 2014 Congressional Research Report carefully documents, during the previous 15 years the United States gave North Korea more than 2.25 million metric tons valued at $700 million.

This American cut-off is not due to any cold-heartedness on President Obama’s part.  Indeed, after the installation of Kim Jong-un in December 2011, there appeared to be an opportunity and need to probe North Korea from all directions.  The sudden death of Kim Jong-il created only the second transition in North Korean history, and there seemed to be a genuine possibility that the new young leader might be willing to move away from a posture of hostility in general and a policy of proliferating nuclear weapons program in particular.

Less than three months into the third-generation Kim regime, the Obama administration announced a “Leap Day” deal with the young leader: the DPRK would observe a nuclear and missile moratorium, and the United States would provide 240,000 metric tons of food.  The deal quickly fell apart after Kim Jong-un announced his intention to launch a long-range rocket.  A first three-stage rocket test failed in April; but a second long-range Unha-3 rocket was successfully launched in December 2012.  More recent missile and rocket activity suggests North Korea is inching closer to assembling an intercontinental ballistic missile.  Ever since early 2012, when Pyongyang’s about-face embarrassed the United States government, the White House has balked at allowing anything beyond equally modest medical assistance.  Congress facilitates a humanitarian aid posture fundamentally different than that which existed during most of the George W. Bush administration by requiring a presidential waiver to allow food aid to North Korea.

In light of North Korea’s emphatic policy of pursuing nuclear weapons (Kim Jong-un used his most recent New Year’s address to threaten the United States and South Korea with “deadly nuclear catastrophe”), it’s not just the United States that is suffering from donor fatigue.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s policy of “Trustpolitik” attempts to balance deterrence and security with engagement and dialogue.  Even so, President Park has cut the amount of bilateral humanitarian assistance from $7.3 million last year to under $3 million this year.  Seoul is open to improving inter-Korean relations, but it isn’t eager to see its ploughshares turned into North Korean swords.

China, long the lifeline for North Korea, has also increasingly shown signs of donor patron fatigue.  Most recently, China has apparently cut in half the amount of grain it ships to North Korea.  At the same time, for the seventh consecutive month China appears to have shipped no crude oil to energy-poor North Korea.

As another indicator of the growing fissure in Beijing-Pyongyang ties, North Korea reportedly has reinforced its border with China with scores of tanks and armored vehicles.  Although not likely to frighten China, the maneuver does appear to punctuate a deteriorating relationship that some believe could eventually result in a fundamental realignment of Chinese policy.

But despite the fallout in relations—and the vastly improved relationship between China and South Korea—Chinese President Xi Jinping is not yet ready to make denuclearization a higher priority than stability.  In fact, some analysts think that China has curtailed grain and oil shipments knowing that other countries, perhaps Russia and Iran, would make up the difference.  The question of a shift in Beijing’s Korea policy will remain open, however.  Some senior South Korean officials believe that China may be willing to come on board with South Korean and U.S. policy—especially in the aftermath of a future provocation, such as a fourth nuclear test or the deployment of a nuclear ICBM.

Here is the sad fact: the Kim regime is capable of feeding its own people.  However, the regime chooses not to do so by squandering a steep percentage of its resources on nuclear weapons and missiles.

Indeed, according to a landmark United Nations report issued earlier this year, North Korea’s “crimes against humanity” include starving its own people.  Specifically, the report found crimes arising “from decisions and policies violating the right to food, which were applied for the purposes of sustaining the present political system, in full awareness that such decisions would exacerbate starvation and related deaths of much of the population.”

The North Korean economy is small but large enough to provide food for the population.  According to the Bank of Korea, the North Korean gross domestic income is about $32.5 billion. North Korea’s economy grew by 1.1 percent in 2013 – the third consecutive year of growth.

North Korea spends more on nuclear and missile programs every year than would be required to feed its people rather well.  After the successful long-range rocket launch in December 2012, the South Korean government estimated that the DPRK had spent about $1.3 billion on its missile programs in 2012 alone.

It is hard to know how much more the country has spent on its nuclear program.  But last year, South Korean intelligence officials estimated that North Korea has invested about $3.2 billion on nuclear weapons programs, “enough to feed its starving people for three years.”  It has spent up to $700 million on nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and Pyongsan; it has spent perhaps another $400 million on uranium enrichment facilities.  It cost an estimated $220 million to design and test a nuclear weapon.  An additional $50 million has been spent on nuclear test facilities in Punggye-ri.  And it cost up to $200 million to conduct nuclear fusion experiments that Pyongyang claimed were successful in May 2010.

Indeed, North Korea brings in sufficient revenue from illicit trafficking in goods, including missiles and arms, to feed its people many times over.  But instead, this money feeds what one defector calls only the “Royal Court Economy” of North Korea.

To top it all off, the recently completed luxury ski resort in North Korea cost an estimated $300 million, more than 50 percent higher than the entire World Food Program’s two-year budget.

No matter who is responsible for it, the thought of starving children in North Korea is deeply disturbing.  Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un cynically allows the international community to subsidize his most vulnerable subjects so he can focus on nuclear weapons and luxury.  As donors drop off, however, the pressure on North Korea’s growing nuclear program and deteriorating human rights record is increasingly likely to call into question the regime’s very legitimacy.


Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.  He is also a regular contributor to DongA Ilbo.

Image: Flickr, petersnoopy

CCBot/2.0 (