Feeding N. Korea’s nukes, starving the masses and mesmerizing the foreign press

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

The fields of North Hwanghae Province in southwestern North Korea looked lush and green when I was there in July.

One of the North Korean minders helpfully explained why the farmers there had it pretty good. They divided their crops between the state and themselves. The more they grew, the more they got to eat. Oh, and you couldn’t miss tall stalks of corn growing around the houses, right up to the walls and windows. Those were “private plots” — evidence that North Korea wasn’t so rigidly communist after all.

A farmer in famine-plagued South Hwanghae province.  /Damir Sagoli/Reuters
A farmer in famine-plagued South Hwanghae province. /Damir Sagoli/Reuters

Of course, nobody in his or her right mind would go away thinking North Korea was doing all that well. We’ve heard enough horror stories to be aware of the skills of minders and tour guides in misleading visitors. Still, a glance from the tour bus did seem persuasive. Some people believed North Korea might really be doing OK. A guy from the International Crisis Group who was on the trip gave a briefing at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club in which he intimated as much.

OK, you could say we were shown the bread basket of North Korea, and of course it looked good; North Korea, after all, is not a desert. They’ve got to grow rice somewhere — maybe not nearly enough to feed everybody, but anyway…. Skeptical though I try to be when presented with pretty visions of North Korea, I must say I was totally surprised when I read the other day that North Hwanghae and neighboring South Hwanghae Province were suffering from famine.

Who would believe we were in the midst of scenes of starvation? How were we to guess while visiting a folklore museum and then a building where they showed off the horrors of U.S. forces as they invaded the North after the U.S. Marine landing at Incheon in September 1950? Just look at those acres of refreshing green stretching to the horizon.

The gruesome displays in the museum of horrors in the provincial capital of Sariwon are not possible to verify. All anyone knows is that all sides were killing their enemies in that uncertain period of shifting authorities. Far more credible, from what stealth contacts inside North Korea are telling websites in Japan and South Korea, is that thousands of North Koreans in the Hwanghae provinces have died of starvation. One source, Asia Press, based in Osaka, has put out a lengthy treatise that includes rumors of cannibalism.

Now cannibalism in North Korea is not a new story. Years ago, when I was interviewing defectors who had crossed the Tumen River into China, I heard more than one report of people killing people for food. Human remains reportedly were served up to unwitting buyers in stews at roadside stands. That was sensational but understandable and credible considering the hardscrabble poverty of northeastern North Korea, historically the hungriest region and the greatest source of defectors.

But why should there be famine in the seemingly prosperous southwest? The answer, it seems, is that the North Korean leadership drained those provinces of food in order to feed the military establishment and more particularly the ruling elite.

Remember, 2012 was the year in which the North honored the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung with a failed rocket shot before succeeding finally in another attempt at putting a satellite into orbit – and climaxing the whole show by conducting its third, and biggest, underground nuclear test on Feb. 11.

Rudiger Frank, an Austrian economist with extensive experience in North Korea adds credibility to what might seem like an isolated report. He had heard from the World Food Program that “Hwanghae-do is indeed considered to be one of the regions most severely threatened by famine,” he writes.

This makes sense for a couple of reasons. As it is the bread basket, the quota to be delivered to the central government is extraordinarily high. With a high population density and fewer mountains, there is less of a chance to survive on non-regular sources of food.” On the basis of a visit in April, he concludes “there is a big food problem in that area.”

The real lesson of famine in the Hwanghae provinces is the connection between the sacrifices forced upon those people and the success of the nuclear and missile tests.

We have always assumed that North Koreans paid a high price for such programs. The reports from Hwanghae Province lend specificity to the general understanding of North Korea suffering for the sake of its nukes. If those people are forced to go hungry, nowhere are North Koreans immune other than in the centers of military and dynastic power.