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Have we forgotten about the North Korean people?

Submitted by on April 23 – 2013No Comment


North Koreans live in a fragile economy under institutionalized oppression. The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that an estimated six million North Koreans are living without adequate food allotments and as many as forty percent of all North Korean children are physically stunted from malnutrition. Though information must be digested with apprehension due to the lack of verifiable internal sources, the report is startling. In this regard, the four UN sanctions that significantly constrain financial assets from entering into the nation are likely harming the North Korean people more than tempering the regime’s aggression. As the secretive State escalates its hostility toward South Korea and the United States, the United Nations should more thoroughly examine and account for how current sanctions impact the North Korean population.

Under Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s command, North Korea has defied several UN sanctions, repeatedly annoying the UN Security Council. Eager to keep the world on the precipice of widespread instability, North Korea has advanced its nuclear proliferation programs, reneged on its 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, declared a “state of war” with South Korea, and threatened the United States with missile attacks.

North Korea’s pugnacious actions—and global security concerns—have cast doubt over the effectiveness of these sanctions. In the past, the United Nations reacted to North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations by imposing one sanction after another, each heavier-handed than the former. Nevertheless, on April 9, in perhaps another rhetorical warning, North Korea advised tourists and foreign businesses in South Korea to evacuate. “We do not wish harm on foreigners in South Korea should there be another war,” said the Korean Central News Agency.

Though the international community has maintained focus on North Korea’s militaristic aggression and foreign relations with American celebrities, we should all worry about how additional sanctions will affect the North Korean people. After all, the country has been in the depths of economic collapse and a persistent food crisis for more than two decades.

Between 2006 and 2013, North Korea conducted several nuclear tests, prompting the United Nations to sanction the country four times. Following a March 2013 North Korean underground nuclear test, the United States discontinued humanitarian assistance, as well. The justification given was based on suspicions that the resources were not reaching North Korean civilians.

Current Security Council sanctions on North Korea drastically limit the State’s financial resources. The sanctions ban member nations from entering into new agreements with North Korea for grants, financial assistance and concessional loans (excluding those for humanitarian and developmental purposes), and freeze financial transactions that might potentially aid in the development of the nation’s nuclear programs. Moreover, the mandates now cover bulk cash transfers and cash couriers.

However, the odds that these directives will deter North Korea from further provocations are slim. North Korea’s responses to recent sanctions demonstrate that the mandates only aggravate the already combative State. In fact, history has proven that the North Korean population is likely to bear the brunt of these sanctions, as was the case during North Korea’s Great Famine of the 1990s.

The Great Famine in North Korea was, in some ways, convenient for the ruling family. It provided an effortless avenue to request and receive international support, aid that the State systematically withheld from the North Korean population. Upon the public’s discovery of this misuse of aid, frustrated nations terminated further assistance and demanded North Korea to allow foreign agents to monitor the relief aid entering the country. Even during the peak of the famine in 1997, the international community remained unsure about the scale of the famine and was reluctant to proffer humanitarian relief. Although food assistance from several nations has since resumed, the skepticism persists.

To understand the implications of the UN sanctions and its impact on the North Korean population, it is important, first, to revisit the nation’s long enduring struggle with persistent food shortages. Throughout chronic national food crises and receipt of humanitarian support, North Korea continued misappropriating assets, and thereby depriving its people of vital resources. The notorious mid-90s famine is estimated to have claimed anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million lives between 1995 and 1998.

While severe food deficiencies began in the early 1990s, North Korea did not officially admit to the famine until 1994, at which point the population was critically famished and a devastating number of people had already starved to death. Juche thought, which is grounded on the principles of political sovereignty, economic independence, and military self-defense, was conceivably the principal impetus for North Korea’s prolonged request for necessary emergency aid, thus driving the country further into destitution.

The decomposition of the USSR in 1991 was disastrous for the North Korean economy. For decades, the Soviet Union was the primary source of food imports into North Korea and held together a vital alliance between the two nations and China. As a result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, North Korea lost 40 percent of its total imports.

While the alliance with China remains intact today, the two Northeast Asian socialist regimes hit a rough patch in the early 1990s.  In September of 1991, immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sino-South Korean relations began to normalize. Much to North Korea’s disdain, China increased trade agreements with South Korea and significantly decreased exports to North Korea by 1994. One study describes the 1990s Chinese trade reduction as the “single proximate trigger to the North Korean famine.” Although widespread food shortages began to culminate during this time, North Korea still did not request necessary emergency relief.

Furthermore, a series of catastrophic natural disasters between 1994 and 1997 nearly decimated North Korean agricultural production. Summer floods in 1994 accelerated the expanding famine and reoccurred in July and August of 1995 and 1996.  With the North Korean economy on the edge of collapse, a lethal drought that was immediately succeeded by a destructive typhoon ensued in the summer of 1997.

Through all of this, North Korea’s state-run food distribution system created near irreparable harm. When national food shortages rapidly expanded in the early 1990s, the Public Distribution System (PDS) was demonstrably failing to provide sufficient food to the population. Nonetheless, the North Korean government, guided by the principle of economic independence, continued apportioning food through the PDS while strictly prohibiting citizens from crossing national borders and engaging in private trade with foreign countries. The State’s control over food distribution and obstinate allegiance to Juche greatly amplified the famine’s deadly capabilities. Since border crossing and engaging in trade with foreigners were strictly outlawed, most North Koreans were fully dependent on the PDS.

Since the amount of food allocated to an individual was contingent on his political status within the State, the PDS consistently favored high-ranking party officials, military officers, and other government elites. According to Human Rights Watch, a defector revealed that she was completely denied food rations from 1996 until the time of her escape in 2005. Other North Korean migrants disclosed that when lower-class members did receive a ration, it would be “proportionally little compared to the elite and preferred classes.” During the Great Famine’s peak years, even non-elite members of the upper class were no longer apportioned food on a regular basis. It is widely believed that most of the food and aid inflows were transferred to the North Korean military.

The North Korean narrative illustrates that the regime places political and military gains over the livelihood of its people. In times of desperation, the government refused its citizens the right to survive, in spite of the State’s socialist responsibility to feed its citizens. The regime repeatedly allocates scarce resources to government elites and its militaristic goals, leaving millions with no other means of survival.

The regime’s past behavior shows that the successive international sanctions are unlikely to compel North Korea to cease its nuclear and missile programs. Moreover, North Korea’s commitment to the Juche principles is a compelling justification for the nation to continue militarization, despite international mandates. As they did less than two decades ago, when its financial assets are strained, the North Korean regime will divert whatever little resources it has to its political and military benefits.

–Jeannie Cho, Contributor

* The author’s Note for the Fordham International Law Journal examined China’s repatriation policy regarding North Korean migrants (forthcoming publication 2013), and she is editing a report for the Leitner Center on the same issue. She will be writing a series of Op-Eds on North Korea for The Record. This is her second column. Her first was a response to Robert’s Baer’s TIME article on North Korea. Read it here.

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