In recent years, when international attention has turned to North Korea, it has focused on the country’s nuclear program. The dramatic negotiations between its leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump have obscured other issues of equally profound importance. One such concern — the inability to feed its population — has resurfaced in the wake of the failed Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim. The country — again — faces a huge food deficit that threatens mass starvation, forcing the rest of the world to grapple with an old dilemma: How can it respond to a looming catastrophe that is created by economic mismanagement and misplaced priorities when relief threatens to undermine efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program. Or to put it more bluntly, what is the proper response when a regime weaponizes mass starvation of its own population?
North Korea has warned that its food production has been drastically reduced this year, blaming extreme weather and natural disasters. The United Nations has confirmed that North Korean agriculture suffered a miserable year, with the food harvest dropping 9 percent. Maize yields were down nearly a third in the most important food-producing provinces.
As a result, the country will face a “significant food gap,” reports Margareta Wahlstrom, president of the Swedish Red Cross. According to one estimate, North Korea will only have enough food to feed only 75 percent of the population at the most basic level. U.N. officials reckon that 3.8 million North Koreans will need humanitarian assistance to survive. Experts are comparing the 2018 harvest with that of the famine years of the 1990s, and warn that the country could face a second “Arduous March,” the chilling euphemism for the period in which millions died from hunger.
Bad luck and atrocious weather are partially responsible for this crisis, but economic mismanagement by Pyongyang has exacerbated the grim conditions. Blame not only the inefficiencies of the centrally planned economy, but the North Korean government’s priorities — its commitment to the development of a nuclear arsenal, in particular — which have done great harm to the agricultural sector as well. Critical resources have been diverted from food production, and international sanctions that have been levied against the country have hit agriculture too. Modern farming relies on oil — as fuel for tractors, processing and storage facilities, along with transportation, as well as for pesticides — and U.N. sanctions have deprived that sector of one of its most critical resources.
The Pyongyang government is well aware of this, but the extraordinary harm being done actually serves its purposes. Sanctions divert responsibility from the regime’s decisions and instead focus blame on parties that are trying to enforce international law. It is a cynical and punishing policy, but one that North Korea has used before.
During the 1990s, North Korea would not let international groups monitor food deliveries — to prevent diversion of aid to the military — which significantly cut international assistance. Pyongyang then blamed the outside world for not doing enough to help the citizens it was starving.
Some interpret the impending crisis as a sign that the policy of “maximum pressure” is working, noting that Kim’s insistence in Hanoi on the lifting of sanctions is a sign of its success. They argue that Kim needs to deliver on promises of a better life to stay in power and the sanctions prevent that. The claim that a hungry populace will pressure the regime to moderate its policies is a naive reading of domestic politics. While there is likely to be large-scale hunger and malnutrition, and mass famine is a very real possibility, that is unlikely to impact the government. Revolutions do not originate among the masses. Instead, the poorest will suffer, while the middle and upper classes in North Korea will live with minimal disruption to their lives. Those who complain among those privileged groups will likely be purged: Kim has shown no aversion to such acts before.
The rest of the world is again facing the moral dilemma with which it grappled in the 1990s, this time with a geopolitical wrinkle. Japan, like other governments, will have to decide whether to help minimize the suffering of North Korean civilians and innocents or continue the punishing sanctions.
If such hardships actually have little effect on Pyongyang’s decision-making, then the decision should be easy — especially when there is the very real possibility that China will provide assistance to avert a crisis on its border. Japan, like other governments, must follow its moral compass — even when the North Korean regime does not.