Observations of an Expat: Feed me, says Kim

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un doesn’t often admit problems. How could the hermit kingdom/nuclear-armed rogue state admit failures or even difficulties? Such a thing is an oxymoron as North Koreans, by definition, live in a socialist paradise.

So, when the Great Leader goes before the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, swallows his pride, puts his reputation on the line and basically says “the food situation is tense,” it is a political earthquake in North Korea. It also means that North Korea is in a famine situation or, at the very least, heading rapidly in that direction.

The following day, Kim shifted his focus to foreign affairs and offered both a stick and a carrot to a sceptical Biden Administration. “Prepare for confrontation” he told the Central Committee” but added that Pyongyang should work to “guarantee a peaceful environment.” Washington is likely to adopt the time-honoured diplomatic tactic of downplaying the unpalatable (the first part) and grasping at the straw in the second part of his foreign policy statement.

Regardless, the two positions provide both opportunity and danger for the West.

But first, to understand the enormity of the food problem we need a quick geographic and history lesson. When Korea was divided the North ended up with the donkey’s backside in agricultural terms. South Korea is blessed with a large flood plain that allows it to produce two rice crops a year. North Korea, on the other hand, is cursed with a largely mountainous terrain which leaves only twenty percent of its land available for arable crops.

The result was that for the first roughly 45 years of its history, North Korea was heavily dependent on Moscow for aid, mainly in the form of food and cheap energy. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and Moscow demanded that North Korea pay for future, present and past aid. This was an economic impossibility for Pyongyang and Moscow cut off its lifeline.

The result was the famine of 1994-98 in which up to 3.5 million people died. That is out of a population of 22 million. The famine was dubbed “The Arduous March” by Kim’s father Kim Il-sung. His son used the same term this week and there must have been a collective intake of breath from delegates when he did so.

This time the famine is being blamed on the coronavirus pandemic, economic sanctions and poor weather conditions. China has replaced Russia as North Korea’s main aid provider and economic pillar. But Kim has closed the border with China to contain the pandemic. As a result, trade with Beijing has dropped 80 percent. And it was already low because of UN sanctions.

At the same time, the regime has stopped international food agencies such as the UN’s World Food Programme, from distributing emergency food supplies, possibly because it doesn’t want news of the country’s dire straits leaking out to the rest of the world.

There is some justification for this. In the 1990s a number of Western strategists predicted that the famine would—if they played their cards right—lead to the end of the regime. They were proved wrong because the elder Kim used what money and resources there were to keep the military sweet and himself in power. All the signs are that his son is adopting the same strategy.

Kim is continuing to pour what little money there is into North Korea’s nuclear missile programme. He recently announced a birthday wish list of a nuclear submarine, super large nuclear warheads, spy satellites and more accurate long-range missiles.

The response from Joe Biden was to call Kim a “thug” and promise “strong deterrence” matched with diplomacy.  He won multilateral backing for this approach at both the G7 summit in Cornwall and at the NATO summit in Brussels where Kim was urged to abandon his nuclear and missile programme and resume negotiations.

In theory, the West should be able to use offers of food relief to wring political concessions out of the regime. There are already reports that South Korea is secretly negotiating to provide surplus rice in return for a resumption of the family reunification programme.

Accepting help from fellow Koreans in the south is possible. Accepting help from the US or Europeans is another matter, especially if that help is tied to military concessions. Kim needs the military to stay in power and the military wants nuclear weapons as much as Kim does.

This leaves the possibility of tightening the sanctions’ screw to force regime change, a policy fraught with unknown dangers. What would the regime change to? How would the Chinese react? Would Kim lash out with his limited nuclear arsenal if backed into a corner? There are no easy answers and each one has consequences.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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