“If the US imperialists threaten our sovereignty and survival, our troops will fire our nuclear-armed rockets at the White House and the Pentagon—the sources of all evil.”
Ironically, and sadly, the war-invoking threat came on the 27 July 2014, the anniversary of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. In a speech broadcast statewide, the threat to unleash nuclear strikes on the US came from Hwang Pyong-So, vice marshal of the North Korean army.
Weapons experts who label these threats nothing more than hot air say North Korea are far from mastering the miniaturization techniques necessary for mounting a nuclear device on a a full intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), able to reach the US.
But international concerns have heightened with each of North Korea’s three nuclear tests: in 2006, 2009, and 2013. And likely more to come; International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detected operational activity at North Korea’s main nuclear facility in Yongbyon. The site was previously shut down in 2007 after an aid-for-disarmament agreement, but renovations have since begun. Using satellite imagery, the IAEA detected steam discharges and the outflow of cooling water—signs consistent with the reactor’s operation.
In early September this year, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles that flew 130 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan. South Korean military has reported more than 110 short range missiles fired since January. The frequency of testing and refinement toward ICBM’s is certainly alarming; and completely defiant of UN resolutions.
US President Obama labelled the test a “highly provocative act,” and that, “The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community. The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies,”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the test was a “grave threat” that could not be tolerated. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon adding that it was a “clear and grave violation” of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
As North Korea aggressively strengthens it’s nuclear program, the nation’s food situation continues to weaken. Chronic malnutrition and stunting is widespread among children; over two-thirds of the entire population are reliant on food aid, which has dwindled to 410 grams of food per day. The average american eats about 2,000 grams.
In July 2013, the World Food Program began a $200 million two-year plan to feed the millions of malnourished in North Korea. Meanwhile, the dictatorship poured billions of dollars into missile tests, nuclear weapons, and developing ballistic carriers to potentially attack the very nations feeding its people.
It gives completely new meaning to the phrase, “biting the hand that feeds you.” Forget merely biting, how about sending a weapon of mass destruction at the hand that feeds you.
Indeed the international community sees the Catch-22 of the situation. As foreign aid came, the North Korean government began cutting commercial grain imports to free up resources for military nuclear advancements.
In response, aid from the US, South Korea, and Japan has dried up. Washington agreed to send 240,000 tons of direct food aid in February last year, but stopped when North Korea launched a missile two months later. As a result, five of the seven WFP factories supplying high-nutrient biscuits were closed in March, with over 500,000 schoolchildren left in need.
The situation exacerbated; with the ‘dependancy’ upon foreign aid and millions starving, beyond military investments, the North Korean leadership is also spending millions on themes parks and sports facilities including a new ski resort.
Strong words have come from Washington D.C. lawyer Joshua Stanton, “Hunger in North Korea is not a function of the state’s resources, but of the state’s policies. Instead of criticizing those policies and pressuring Pyongyang to change them, the WFP has, despite the best of intentions, become Pyongyang’s tacit enabler.”
North Korean exiles are also critical and calling for international aid to cease. Jang Jin-sung, one of Kim Jong-il’s favourite state poets until he defected in 2004 explains, “We say this not out of spite with regard to a nation whose leadership invests in luxuries, nuclear tests and missile launches while the welfare of its subjects remains low among its priorities. We say this for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons, because the assumptions that lie behind funding food aid have hindered economic reform in our homeland, not helped it.”
Those calling for continued assistance pose the rhetorical question: Should starving people be penalized for the policies of their government? With an increasing percentage of stunting among children (one out of four under the age of five), high maternal mortality rates, and tuberculosis, aid advocates are calling for the UN and WFP to look beyond traditional donors.
The conundrum is complex for both sides. Those supporting a strategy of starving-out the country and force them into political change must keep in mind the type of leadership they are dealing with. The highly public execution of Kim Jong-Un’s uncle merely a drop on a hot stove of regular executions. Along with the estimated and growing 200,000 prisoners enduring daily atrocities, the plight of its people obviously not a high priority. As such, it is questionable whether forcing North Korea into economic reform will draw their focus away from nuclear developments.
A historic look at food as a political weapon and embargo-like strategies indeed highlights the power therein. But the uniqueness of this current situation makes for no easy answers. Reports of the WFP having aid diverted by the government to military families and those crucial to the regime, rather than those in need, does serve a clear message to foreign policy leaders that a reform in aid is necessary.
There’s no doubt food is providing an unprecedented window into the world’s most isolated and oppressive nation. And with that window is the potential to bring about change. How this window is dealt with will have major implications. One thing is clear, there can be no leverage without resources; there can be no table discussion if no food is presented.
Unless a surge of aid is received in the next couple of months, the Regional Director Kenro Oshidari, said the WFP could be forced to shut down in January 2015. The coming months will be more than telling. On what the future will look like, North Korea defector Mina Yoon says, “The future really depends on the efforts of international community.”