An expert's point of view on a current event.

Get Ready to Starve

The West was just gearing up to send food to a hungry North Korea. Then came the death of Kim Jong Il.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

It is extremely hard to know what North Koreans are really feeling as they mourn the death of Kim Jong Il today. What’s clear, though, is that there is plenty to be anxious about. It’s not just that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea faces a prolonged period of uncertainty as the Dear Leader’s putative political heir, the 27-year-old Kim Jong Un, settles into his new job. There’s also the not inconsequential matter of getting enough to eat as North Korea’s infamously hard and barren winter approaches.

North Koreans have been starving for years, needless to say. Stories about widespread malnutrition in the country have been making the rounds at least since the early 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 deprived Pyongyang of a host of vital industrial subsidies, and the resulting collapse of the North Korean economy was compounded by a series of floods and other natural disasters later in the decade. No one knows precisely how many North Koreans died; most of the estimates range between half a million and two. As journalist Blaine Harden notes in his forthcoming book Escape From Camp 14, one million dead in North Korea (pop. 24 million) would translate into roughly 12 million victims in a country the size of the United States.

The survivors, meanwhile, have to contend with the cumulative effects of years of starvation and malnutrition. Studies show that North Korean defectors are routinely several inches shorter and considerably lighter than their counterparts in the South. But even in flush times, the nagging problem of hunger has continued to plague North Korea even as the famines have forced the government to tolerate a variety of bottom-up coping mechanisms developed by ordinary people to shield themselves from starvation. The most prominent: private markets and grassroots trade (much of it illegal) with China. Increased aid from South Korea, the result of a rapprochement between Pyongyang and left-of-center governments in Seoul, also brought a measure of relief for a few years in the first half of the last decade. None of this, of course, really addressed the core problem of the Kim regime’s chronic mismanagement of the economy and the environment. But the band-aid was better than nothing.

Now even that small room for maneuver appears to have vanished. A few years ago, worried about a potential loss of political control, Kim Jong Il’s minions began cracking down on markets and illicit cross-border trade. Meanwhile, North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 dealt a blow to those in Seoul and elsewhere who had argued that generous provision of assistance would change the North for the better. Riding the resulting wave of skepticism was the conservative politician Lee Myung-bak, inaugurated as South Korea’s president in 2008. Lee announced that he wanted to see the North offer more concessions in return for Southern aid — a stance that contributed mightily to a cooling of inter-Korean relations.

Another North Korean nuclear test in 2009 didn’t help much. And then, in the spring of 2010, a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, sunk, killing 46 sailors after an enormous explosion that Seoul and various international observers blamed on a North Korean torpedo. A few months later, as if to avoid any ambiguity in the matter, the North Koreans fired off barrages of artillery shells at a South Korean island. The Lee administration put relations with Pyongyang in the deep freeze and aid from the South, already down to a trickle, dried up.

This summer, floods hit again, washing away cropland and plunging the North into a new state of emergency. A procession of humanitarian aid officials visited North Korea and issued dire predictions about another food crisis in the offing. Statement after statement called upon the governments in Seoul and Washington to donate money for aid.

But nothing happened. At the end of September, a consortium of five U.S. humanitarian aid organizations issued a statement warning of a "potentially catastrophic food crisis" emerging in the North: "We fear that millions of North Koreans are caught in a political crossfire."

The text was notably silent on the precise nature of the politics involved, but most Korea-watchers understood what was meant: The stalemate in North Korea’s relations with the West — and particularly the breakdown of talks over the North’s nuclear program — was blocking the delivery of desperately needed aid. To be sure, officials Seoul and Washington have continued to profess belief in the hallowed principle that humanitarian concerns should be separated from political ones. But things are never that simple when it comes to North Korea — especially given the urgency of international efforts to block its nuclear weapons program. North Korea itself, indeed, has all too often demonstrated that it is perfectly happy to make aid shipments the object of eminently political bargaining.

The logjam finally appeared to shift this past weekend, when reports began to emerge that the North Koreans had declared their willingness to enter into talks about limiting their uranium-enrichment program — a major bone of contention in the complicated efforts to restart the long-dormant Six Party Talks aimed at curtailing the North’s nukes. In return, Seoul and Washington made it known that they would re-open the aid spigot — at least enough to relieve some of the most urgent needs.

For a brief moment it looked as though a spirit of common humanity might prevail. In fact, as we now know, Kim Jong Il, the man at the top of North Korea’s political pyramid, was expiring from a heart attack just around the time that Western officials were bruiting about the prospect of a deal. (Though the news of his death was released on Monday morning on the peninsual, the North Korean news agency claims that he actually died two days earlier, on Dec. 17.) Officials at U.S. aid organizations say that they didn’t even have time to confer with their counterparts in the U.S. government about whether the purported delivery of food assistance was actually going ahead.

For the time being, it has all been put on hold. The Americans, the South Koreans, and the other parties involved will be inclined to wait for a few weeks until they can learn more about the new regime in Pyongyang. And as for the new Kim on the throne, there is no telling how long he will need in order to feel secure enough to chart his own foreign policy. Kim Jong Un is strikingly young and inexperienced compared with his father, who despite almost a decade of preparation still needed several years to consolidate his hold on power. One thing is for sure: dramatic policy initiatives are unlikely to make the running. And concessions on the nuclear program are about as dramatic as it gets. If Seoul and Washington are only prepared to deliver food in return for a pledge on nukes, hungry Northerners could find themselves in for a wait.

The losers, indeed, are the ordinary North Koreans, who once again face the prospect of a winter with less than enough food to go around. Jim White, who is vice president of Mercy Corps, one of the five humanitarian organizations in the consortium that traditionally provides U.S. food assistance to North Korea, puts it this way: "We believe that there is still a great need for food assistance — regardless of political transitions and regardless of nuclear issues." One can only hope that the greater need will prevail. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Twitter: @ccaryl

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