By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security
North Korea’s state news agency KNCA recently reported that the nation is “facing its worst drought in a century.” It is unusual for the North Korean regime to make such announcements, rather they try to keep internal issues away from the national and international attention publically and only ask for assistance privately.
That Pyongyang made this claim publicly – though it’s not exactly a secret – is cause for concern. From 1995-1997, North Korea faced a famine that killed 200,000; however declassified intelligence estimates put the number closer to 2 million. This disparity in reporting occurred during a leadership transition in which Kim Jong-il took over for his father Kim Il-sung in 1994. Jong-il wasn’t able to fully consolidate power until 1997 at the end of the famine. During this period the nation had become increasingly more insular and reporting on the humanitarian crisis was largely inconsistent and poorly understood because of the leadership transition. It was also during this time that the fragile food distribution system had collapsed and has remained unworkable because of agricultural mismanagement. Further compounding the problem is the Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un regimes have used food as a weapon in controlling the population. This recent drought has caused crop failures in 30 percent of the rice paddies and will only strain an already failed system.
Though the humanitarian situation seems quite dire there are other factors that will complicate foreign assistance. Pyongyang has always handled the distribution of foreign assistance so as to maintain its grip on food distribution. Songun, North Korea’s “military first” policy, ensures that foreign aid, even humanitarian supplies, begins with distribution to the military. The rest of the population is left with very little.
To put this in perspective, North Korea maintains a standing army of 1.5 million to defend a state with a total population of 21 million. From 1992 – 2005, North Korea’s population fell from 28 million to today’s estimate of 21 million. The regimes policies are taking a heavy toll, but strangely enough it’s this very policy that Pyongyang keeps that is slowly undermining the regime. The United Nations World Food Program states that about 30 percent of children under 5 are malnourished – a staggering number that is actually an improvement. This means that Children born in the mid-1990s to present are now of military age; however not all are able to serve because of early developmental issues. As the North Korean population continues to shrink it will not be able to maintain such a large military. This means cuts to the number of soldiers or cuts to the maintenance of aging equipment is inevitable. Songun was instituted to prevent this from happening and allowed Kim Jong-il to finally consolidate power, but the policy is eroding the foundation of the state.
The situation in North Korea is terrible, but a collapse of government could make matters worse for the North Korean people and create a very difficult problem for the international community to respond to. Monitoring the problems with Pyongyang is a difficult, yet ongoing process, but it often isn’t considered a priority because of other international issues and an attitude of business as usual. Understandably, conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are priorities, but it’s important to prepare for a true crisis with North Korea. It’s difficult to envision the government lasting through such turmoil, but it has. However, it is unlikely to last and preparing for that eventuality is vital.
June 25 marked the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War and a divided people have come to witness a stark dichotomy in well-being. The South will be at the fore in dealing with a North Korea set adrift, but they cannot handle the situation alone. Preparing for a governmental collapse in Pyongyang must be worked out. If the population continues to fall, the agricultural and economic situations remain in shambles; it’s difficult to see how business as usual can be expected. Responding to a collapse must go beyond securing nuclear weapons as well.
A large military apparatus and a starving population are not something to be left alone as the military could seize power and that wouldn’t be a better solution to the current regime. Nor would chaos. Either way preparing for the end of the Kim regime now is key because a government collapse in Pyongyang is unlikely to come at a convenient time.