The question of how Western nations and South Korea change their present policies toward North Korea has become urgent in light of the severe food shortages: North Korean authorities are said to be estimating that food stocks will be depleted by mid-June.
Apparently many rural North Koreans are having to forage for wild grass and herbs; state media reported recently an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease across the country, leading to the deaths of thousands of livestock.
Further, a recent joint-report by U.S. aid groups points out that heavy rainfall and flooding last summer reduced vegetable crops by more than 50% in some areas, and that an unusually cold winter has frozen up to 50% of the wheat and barley that were to be harvested this spring.
The North Korean regime has also recently revealed a new, high-tech uranium enrichment facility. According to an American scientist invited to see it, the facility is a large step forward from the regime's aging plutonium technology, and clearly illustrates that North Korea has no interest at all in fulfilling its nuclear-disarmament responsibilities. When asked about the failure to mention this facility in their declaration of nuclear programs, North Korean officials absurdly claimed that it had been built from scratch after the collapse of negotiations over the country's nuclear arsenal in 2008 – a lie that fits into the pattern of North Korea's repeated lies in the past to the U.S., Russia, Japan, China and Japan over its nuclear program.
It is therefore not surprising that DPRK officials have now asked the U.S. to resume food aid as the UN plans on sending some 300,000 tons of humanitarian assistance to the Stalinist dictatorship. For the past few years, South Korea has been the primary source of external food aid, normally providing direct food supplies and fertilizers.
Anecdotal evidence also points to a problem of increasing food shortages in North Korea. Several former DPRK soldiers who defected to the south highlighted the growing rates of malnutrition among the country's armed forces. As Paek Hwa-Seong, a defector, put it, "I weighed 42 kilograms when I entered the military, but my weight was reduced to 31 kilograms in two years. My hair almost fell out after turning yellow, and I was bony." Similarly, Park-Myeong-Ho, a former captain, noted that starving soldiers frequently resort to stealing food from civilians, and that this practice has supposedly created a proverb in North Korea: The best place to live is where no military unit is stationed. Choi Hee-Kyung, a female defector who worked as an instructor in the North Korean air-force, affirmed that women in the armed forces often go for months without menstruation as a result of malnutrition.
The present dwindling of supplies, however, cannot be blamed solely on climate. One should take into account the regime's collectivist economic policies --- the key factor in the famine of the 1990s that killed over 10% of the population, and the more recent currency redenomination in 2009 that crushed any real attempts to start building a private sector on the local level. This, of course, was not some short-sighted policy undertaken with good intentions, but was rather a calculated measure aimed at eliminating an expanding class of entrepreneurs viewed as a long-term threat to the regime's grip on the country. Also to be factored in are the North Korean government's "Sŏn'gun'-- or 'Military First"-- policy that places state spending on the armed forces above everything else, and the country's nuclear program.
What can one do about North Korea? Given the dire food shortages now affecting the population, it would be tempting to heed the plea of the U.S. aid groups that authored the joint report mentioned above to restart food aid to North Korea. Although U.S. officials are considering such calls, this suggestion ignores the likelihood that the regime, with its policy of "Military First" will seek to divert humanitarian assistance mainly towards feeding its armed forces who are now bearing the burden of starvation like most of the populace -- thereby ensuring their loyalty to Kim Jong-Il. Though the government will undoubtedly use some aid to distribute more rations to civilians, it can easily use state propaganda to reinforce the lie that other countries are paying tribute to Kim Jong-Il because of his own supposed greatness and the threat of the nation's nuclear arsenal. This is precisely what happened during the famine of the 1990s-- causing Médecins Sans Frontières to withdraw their aid in 1998 when the regime's misuse of aid became apparent.
For similar reasons, the Center for International Policy's (CIP) calls for increased "engagement" with North Korea make no sense. Such engagement was attempted during the "Sunshine Policy" era of South Korea, and led to nothing apart from broken promises on the part of the DPRK. On the other hand, a military attack on the regime would also be folly. Besides a nuclear arsenal, North Korea has substantial anti-aircraft defenses and an army that can be backed by millions of reservist soldiers to defend against an outside attack, which would likely only unite the population behind the government.
Instead -- and this is said with a degree of hesitation -- might it be better if the U.S. government canceled any plans to send aid to North Korea, and tried to convince South Korea, as well, to suspend aid?
An induced famine, in the absence of aid, could spark an uprising, as we have been seeing in the Middle East. Without substantial food supplies, the armed forces could well ally with the population and turn against Kim Jong-Il.
As Park-Myeong-Ho says, "Some claim there is no possibility of revolt in North Korea, but I think, once ignited, the fire of democratization can turn around the current situation in a short period because of the collective nature of the North Korean society'."
Yes, there is the huge humanitarian problem of loss of life through famine, and violent conflict in the short-term, but the potential long-term benefits (even in terms of the loss of human life) of a collapse of the North Korean government and reunification of the Korean peninsula would surely be in everyone's greater interest.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.