North Koreans go hungry as regime shoots off missiles

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Amid a widening food shortfall affecting up to forty percent of its population, North Korea has resumed testing short-range missiles in a risky bid for humanitarian aid and political attention.

The rocket tests, which don’t directly violate UN resolutions or prior diplomatic agreements, are nonetheless seen as a tactical step to revive Pyongyang’s strategic objective of breaking tough economic sanctions and towards reaching a wide-ranging diplomatic deal with the United States.

North Koreans pay respects to statues of the communist regime’s first dictator Kim Il-Sung, left, and his son Kim Jong-Il.

The firing of two volleys of short-range rockets appears a blunt reminder that the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) patience is running short for resumed negotiations with the United States and South Korea.

Though there have been no long range ballistic missile firings nor nuclear weapons tests since the Trump Administration entered into negotiations with Kim Jong-Un eighteen months ago; the looming threat from Pyongyang remains that the regime is willing to incrementally up the ante for attention, international standing, and possibly a deal.

The DPRK desperately needs to break the international sanctions stranglehold on its economy stemming from Pyongyang’s threatening behavior towards South Korea, Japan and the U.S.

The North’s nuclear tests and reckless ballistic missile firings and bombastic threats to target neighboring countries and the United States, led to a dangerous military showdown with Washington early in the Trump Administration. Fortunately the 2018 South Korean Winter Olympics allowed for intra-Korean diplomacy to stem the crisis and to set the stage for the DPRK/U.S. Singapore Summit last June.

The crisis has three components; Food shortages, economic sanctions, and a nuclear disarmament deal.

Food Shortages

The rocket firings are a tactic to gain attention. A recent UN report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Program paints a grim picture of North Korea’s harvest. According to the report, the DPRK is facing its worst harvest in a decade; up to 10 million people face food insecurity. A combination of drought, fertilizer and irrigation shortages and the effects of sanctions have made an already bad situation worse. Given the systematic shortfalls of the State agricultural system, there’s a recipe for a looming disaster.

According to the report, under the DPRK’s socialist plan, food is distributed to its citizens through rations via the Public Distribution System. The daily food rations have dropped from 380 grams (about 13 ounces) in 2018, to a stunningly meager 300 grams today!

The UN report warns of “severe food shortages” in large parts of North Korea. The survey “concluded that the food insecurity situation is serious and could become critical during the upcoming lean season. A humanitarian intervention is therefore urgently required.”

While the UN humanitarian assistance is not affected by otherwise tight economic sanctions, food aid funding appeals for North Korea are falling short yet again. Though the USA and Japan are not contributing food assistance to the DPRK, President Trump has told the South Korean President Moon Jae-In that he supports Seoul’s food aid to the North as “a positive step.”

Both Seoul and Washington have used humanitarian aid to Pyongyang as an policy carrot to reduce political tensions.

Economic Sanctions

The DPRK faces stifling international economic sanctions stemming from its nuclear proliferation as well as ballistic missile tests. The sanctions which have been tightened during the Trump Administration essentially cut off what meager commerce the North Koreans had with the outside world. Though Pyongyang’s exports, as compared to neighboring South Korea, were pitifully small, the DPRK is nonetheless carefully monitored even in its clandestine coal exports to China.

In addition to UN Security Council sanctions, the USA, European Union and Japan have put additional embargoes on the DPRK.

Nuclear Disarmament

Despite the disappointment of the recent DPRK/U.S. summit in Hanoi, the bottom line remains that the Trump Administration is pressing for a nuclear weapons free North Korea. That’s easier said than done, but the long sought denuclearization agreement needs a wider component; First, a Korean Peace Treaty replacing the truce ending the Korean War in 1953, thus formalizing an Internationally accepted peace. Second, Pyongyang must finally renounce the use of force to reunify the peninsula under the communist North. Third, devise a roadmap to step by step sanctions relief.

Clearly the United States/DPRK dialogue must not lose momentum; UN diplomats focused on disarmament have signaled, “there’s lots of support for the U.S. Summit engagement, the dialogue should continue.”

The USA and the international community should move forward, but must tread wisely to defuse the DPRK’s entrenched nuclear threat.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]