A North Korean court on November 10 sentenced two cadres to life imprisonment for “anti-socialist and non-socialist acts”—in this case, “violating the closed border.” The officials, trying to alleviate a severe food shortage in North Hamgyong province, were buying rice from China.
The convictions come as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea heads into another famine, perhaps even worse than the four-year “Arduous March” of the mid-1990s. Then, perhaps as many as 3.5 million people died, representing more than 10 percent of the population.
North Korea’s people have just been told to not expect relief until 2025. “Some of the residents are saying that the situation right now is so serious that they don’t know if they can even survive the coming winter,” said a “source,” a resident in the border town of Sinuiju, to Radio Free Asia Korean Service on October 21. “They say that telling us to endure hardship until 2025 is the same as telling us to starve to death.”
Many North Koreans have already starved to death. Moreover, some had to sell homes for food last winter and then died of exposure. This year, winter has come earlier than normal and has been colder than before.
There is never enough food in North Korea. The UN estimates that, even in pre-pandemic 2019, 43 percent of the North Korean population was “food insecure.”
Then COVID-19 hit the North hard. Supremo Kim Jong-un, in an attempt to stop coronavirus infections, closed down land borders in January of last year, enforcing his draconian decree with shoot-to-kill orders.
The lockdown severed crucial trade flows. Last year, according to Chinese statistics, two-way trade with China, which normally accounts for about 90 percent of the North’s international commerce, fell 80.7 percent. North Koreans, therefore, were cut off from shipments of food, fertilizer and other agricultural items.
The government’s responses to the pandemic, therefore, severely reduced agricultural production. When Pyongyang ordered World Food Program staff to leave in the summer of last year, the program estimated that 10.3 million North Koreans—more than 40 percent of the population—suffered from malnutrition. South Korea’s Korea Development Institute estimates the North’s harvest was 4.4 million tons last year, well short of the 5.7 million tons needed to feed the country.
In April, North Korean authorities told people to be prepared for a situation worse than the Arduous March. In June, Kim issued a special order, directing officials to feed people. In October, he said the people must conserve “every grain” of rice. Late that month, the Workers’ Party’s main newspaper told citizens to eat black swans. “Black swan meat,” wrote Rodong Sinmun, “is delicious and has medicinal value.”
Unfortunately, there are not enough black swans. “Even by North Korean standards, the economic situation is dire,” writes Harry Clynch, in a Spectator piece titled, “North Korea Is On the Verge of a Humanitarian Collapse.”
“I am very concerned that the suffering in North Korea could be worse than the Arduous March of the great famine,” David Maxwell, who served five tours of duty in Korea with the U.S. Army, told Newsweek.
Maxwell, now at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out that two “safety valves” saved the Kim regime at the end of the 1990s famine. First, there was the development of the informal—and illegal—markets throughout the country after the failure of the regime’s Public Distribution System. “These markets have provided the foundation of resilience for the population for more than two decades,” he says. Kim Jong-un, however, has used the pandemic as an excuse to close the informal markets and reassert greater control over the economy.
The second safety valve was Seoul’s Sunshine Policy, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for the purpose of transforming regime behavior. The effort totally failed to change North Korea, but that has not stopped South Korean President Moon Jae-in from trying to support the DPRK, as the Kim regime calls itself.
What is stopping Moon, however, are UN Security Council sanctions, which were imposed on the North for, among other things, ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
Predictably, many, including Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, are calling on the Security Council to ease sanctions on the North. Others are demanding the international community resume food aid.
Why not send in trucks with assistance? The essential problem is the diversion of food aid from intended recipients. “The Kim regime controls the distribution system and prioritizes a certain class of people—the elites who help run the system,” Tara O of the East Asia Research Center and the Hudson Institute tells Newsweek. “In the past, North Korea even exported food aid in the midst of famine, and it’s likely it used the foreign currency derived from the sales for other purposes, such as nuclear weapons development.”
As O, a former U.S. Air Force officer, says, “North Korea has faced chronic food shortages for decades, and it never addressed the root causes, which is its control system of central planning, skewed prioritization and isolation.” Food aid, she points out, “would be used to perpetuate the very system that brings about hunger.”
O is right. Donors unfortunately allow the regime to distribute their food, which leads to a multitude of ills, including the regime bragging that other nations are sending tribute to the Kim family. That’s why the regime continues to practice “mendicant diplomacy.”
Food donations to the DPRK are way down this year, but they are continuing, especially from China and South Korea. These donations, in a real sense, bolster the most brutal ruling group on earth. Aid is necessarily fungible. Every dollar of food assistance means Kim Jong-un can devote one fewer dollar to agriculture, and one more to concentration camps or plutonium production.
International assistance, unfortunately, condemns future generations of Koreans to live in wretched conditions.
“Hunger is a perpetual problem under this system,” O tells Newsweek. The cruel reality is that food aid to the Kim regime leads only to more hunger and starvation.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Losing South Korea. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.