While U.S. media and policymakers are focused on the chaotic situation in Libya, the civil war in Syria, and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, another rogue state—North Korea—has been relegated to the back burner of public attention. But not for long, because the U.N.‘s annual crop assessment for North Korea will shortly be published. These annual assessments have been published since the Great North Korean Famine of the mid-1990s killed as many as 2.5 million people, and they are supposed to warn the international humanitarian system of an impending famine. This assessment will show that drought early this summer seriously damaged the crop so that the harvest will drive the country, always on the edge of starvation, ever deeper into nutritional disaster.
While famines anywhere have terrible humanitarian consequences, in North Korea’s case in particular, they have political consequences because they have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. While the North Korean government has been building its nuclear arsenal and the maintaining the third largest land army in Asia, its people have been sliding into deepening poverty and acute malnutrition, stunting generations of children. One study shows that the average North Korean solider is 10 inches shorter than those in the South Korean military—a sign of chronic acute malnutrition affecting an entire generation of young North Koreans.
The one attempted military coup in North Korea’s 60-year history took place during the 1990s famine in the region with the highest death rates. The death rates were so high in the epicenter of the famine that a truck would search street by street each morning collecting hundreds of dead bodies to bury them in mass graves. It was likely that the severity of the famine drove the military to mutiny. According to scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, North Korea sends 40 percent of its young men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the military. This means that a sizeable portion of the country’s families have sons under arms, families which suffered terribly in the famine. Over the long term this is a recipe for political uprising and revolution. In a country with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, political uprisings can be dangerous to the world order, particularly if the regime loses control of the weapons as it collapses.
North Korea kept control of the country in the last famine because its propaganda machine convinced the isolated and easily manipulated population that the Chinese and South Koreans were facing mass starvation more severe than what they were suffering. Since then, Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea, South Korean radio broadcasts run by North Korean defectors into the North, Chinese merchants doing business in North Korea, and most powerfully South Korean soap opera DVDs sold across the North have exposed the public to the truth and convinced them that their government has been lying to them. They are hungry, while the Chinese and Southern Koreans prosper. This prolonged deprivation and the collapse of the propaganda machine have driven a tenfold increase over the past decade in the number of North Koreans escaping the country. Melanie Kirkpatrick in her powerful new book— Escape from North Korea: the Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad —traces the journey of these refugees and defectors on the underground railroad from North Korea through China to freedom; it was modeled after the underground railroad that moved escaped slaves in the South to the North in the decades before the American Civil War. We also have extensive internal evidence of a breakdown of the North Korean regimes control over the population.
For 40 years the regime successfully used the food system—under which each non-farm family would get a twice monthly ration of food through the public distribution system—but it collapsed during the last famine. Repeated attempts by Pyongyang to resuscitate it have failed. Instead most people are now getting their food through the farmers’ markets which have grown more powerful and more extensive as the sclerotic old order has slowly died. A de facto market economy has been spreading in North Korea despite official opposition to it, with a growing middle class of merchants and middle men who run the markets and the transport system which supplies them. The cradle to grave system promised by the old order in exchange for the population’s servile loyalty and its relinquishing of any individual freedom is no longer a viable economic system. The new economic order taking its place will ensure the people are no longer dependent on the state for their survival which will make them less servile and more prone to dissent. We saw remarkable evidence of this dissent in January 2010 when popular opposition to a currency manipulation scheme announced by Pyongyang led to public demonstrations, the burning of a police station, and a graffiti campaign by the public attacking the policies which the regime was forced to rescind. This may be the first time in North Korean history Pyongyang responded to public opposition to any of its policies.
In the midst of these changes the North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, leaving his 28-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, in charge of a government run by an aging party apparatus and military command structure. When Kim Jung Il told the Chinese leadership of his plan to appoint his son as his successor, the shocked Chinese told him in no uncertain terms that he should not put the country in his son’s hands. The Chinese leadership reportedly regards the young man as reckless, irresponsible, and unfit to run the country. Bowing to Chinese pressure Kim Jong Il appointed the boy’s uncle, Jang Song-taek, as Regent. To ensure the party cadres and military are loyal to the new leader, Taek has been forcing officials and generals into retirement to purge the system of the old order and ensure the loyalty of the new one. The purge, however, has created a class of officials angry at the new leadership for their loss of power and its perquisites. When Mao and Stalin purged officials they executed or exiled them to the prison camps for a slow death. These officials are simply being retired.
This could not come at a more inopportune time, because Jang Song-taek appears to be forcing economic and agricultural reforms, which were announced over the past two months, on a resist bureaucracy. But Pyongyang is now reconsidering them, as the leadership fears the food crisis could destabilize the already stressed system so much that the reforms could cause the teetering system to collapse.
In the past when a food crisis in North Korea was imminent, the Chinese would step in to rescue their starving client state. But the Chinese are facing their own internal power struggle over succession, and a slowing economy with rising unemployment in their large cities which they fear could bring rising instability to China. They may resist sending a million tons of food to North Korea to end the crisis. Informal trade between North Korea and China has dramatically increased over the past two years, but the revenues from the trade do not appear to be under central control and thus cannot easily be directed towards rescuing the country from a food crisis.
Before, when the North Korean regime has been under internal stress, it has diverted the population’s attention from its suffering by creating a military crisis with its external enemies: the South Koreans, the United States, and Japan. For 40 years the United States has restrained South Korea from using its substantial military power to respond to these attacks. But the South Korean population and political elite now believe that this restraint has encouraged North Korean aggression. If in the middle of North Korea’s current crisis it follows its old practice and attempts such an attack, South Korea will respond aggressively with unpredictable results. The deceptive quiet of the Korean peninsula may be shortly be interrupted by a new crisis. And it is unlikely a diplomatically and militarily weak America retreating from world leadership is in any position to do much about it.