North Korea: its famine and its nuclear missiles…

North Korea: its famine and its nuclear missiles…

North Korea is a catch-22 situation: a nuclear nation but, in geopolitics, the 16 million people who suffer chronic food vulnerability are the lynchpins.

In the wake of the recent ICMB which passed over the island of Hokkaido and Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the world’s relationship with North Korea has frozen even colder. North Korea is a dagger balanced on its hilt, and with each gust of wind, it sways ever closer to falling on the geopolitical players in the region, maiming them and their economies.

But to discover the uncomfortable perplexity to this debate, we must first unearth the appalling truth of what life beyond the DMZ is like, and we must delve into the geopolitics and geography of the Korean Peninsula.

left a choropleth map showing altitude; the mountainous north-east is clearly visible, as is the small margin of dark green which is the coastal shelf suitable for agriculture

above right the barren denuded hillsides covered with dead eroding soil which indicate overcultivation 

North Korea was described as a “a sea in a heavy gale” by early European visitors, due to the way deep narrow mountain valleys zig-zag across the peninsula, snow-capped in winter like foaming waves. The winters in the north are bitter, with deep snowfall blown down from Siberia; 80% of the landmass is mountainous, only 2.8% of roads are paved, and the provinces in the north-east (Ryanggang, Chagang, North and South Hamgyon and Kangwon) exhibit the highest levels of chronic malnutrition, poverty, and stunted development.

Only 15% of the land is suitable for agriculture, and what’s more, North Korea is facing an environmental collapse. It is a barren lifeless landscape of denuded hillsides. After the USSR collapsed in the 1990s, oil imports fell by 60%, and the use of firewood doubled. With energy imports closed off, the land has been picked clean: all organic matter is used as fuel, with bonfires lit on balconies even inside Pyongyang.  The soil is dead, without nutrients, and is iron-red, almost as if its blood is leaching out. Crops struggle with soil acidity as low as 4.5 pH and the erosion caused without the consolidation of trees means that the sediment chokes rivers, causing floods which wash yet more crops away.

Collectively, these factors mean that 70% of North Korea, 16 million people, suffer chronic food insecurity, with their nutrition reliant on the Public Distribution System (PDS), which is state-owned, unreliable, and often distributed by the Songbun system, which stratifies the country according to alleged loyalty to the state. The UN classes this as chronic vulnerability, and in addition to the mountainous north-east provinces, all the urban areas, including Pyongyang, exhibit this level of vulnerability. The famine of 1994-1998, led to the deaths of 10% of the population following the withdrawal of support and oil from the collapse of the USSR.

But, it is a self-inflicted famine, a political tool in many ways. Since it uses food as a means of controlling its populous, this state of famine is conducive to the Kim dynasty holding power, and is so allowed to persist at a horrific civilian toll. North Korea could easily import its deficit in cereal crops from China, by reducing its military arms program, for example; the world would welcome the diplomacy. But Kim Jong-un maintains a small fluctuating deficit of 300,000 or so tonnes, which means that he can wield absolute control over its people.

Moreover, this self-sufficiency is encoded into North Korea’s ideology, known as Juche. Whatever brand of centrally-controlled Communism it formally espouses, Juche is centred on remaining self-reliant. During the famine, for instance, North Korea impeded outside food aid from the UN. The millions of deaths from the famine are considered to have been state-exacerbated.

North Korea is also crippled by the Kim dynasty’s adoption of Sougon, which translates as ‘military-first policy’. North Korea has the highest percentage of its population in active military service in the world at 4.74%, with 30.57% of its population in total registered with the army, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In preparation for an attack, South Korea has the second highest at 15.9%. Compare this to the UK at 3.6%. It is technologically advanced, as missile tests demonstrate so visibly, even though it remains barely electrified at night, without paved roads, and gripped by the spectre of famine. Sougon holds back North Korea from development, securing foreign aid links, and from achieving a peaceful reunification, and it means that South Korea’s economy is 80 times larger than the North’s.

above a drawing from a former inmate of a kwanliso showing the ‘pigeon torture’

right a satellite image of a North Korean concentration camp

Action is clearly necessary, especially so with the shocking facts of the 2014 UN Human Rights Watch report laid open for all to see, detailing the atrocities committed behind the DMZ. In political prison camps, called kwanlisos, an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people are still captive without trial in the deep mountain valleys, surrounded by high barbed wire fences, kilometres in area. This population has been gradually whittled down from about 200,000 in 1990-2000 by forced labour called rodong danyryeondae, as well as executions, torture – such as pigeon torture (being dangled for days by the wrists crossed over and pinned behind the body) – forced abortion, infanticide, rape, and denial of reproductive rights. Over five decades, hundreds of thousands have perished in this way. And yet, through indoctrinating propaganda from birth, with plaques with party slogans in nurseries, the Kim dynasty is idolised. Or at least everybody must maintain this pretence. Without Internet or any way of communicating with the outside, we can only speculate at the terror and hardship they must live in shadow of.

The world is compelled to act, to end this blight on our planet, yet nobody can move. The North Korean dagger pins all the other countries down. And this is because the 16 million hungry people in North Korea are the lynchpin which prevents any retaliatory action to the missile launches.

The UN has already suspended almost all North Korea’s imports and exports, yet it cannot further close off what is imported under the so-called loophole allowing imports necessary to preserve “livelihoods”. The UN can do little more after the recent missile flight over Japan because it risks exacerbating the famine, and being unhumanitarian.

Following the 4th and 5th missile tests in 2016, gold, vanadium, titanium, rare earth metals, coal and iron were banned. In 2016, 40% of all North Korea’s exports to China were coal, which buys 84.48% of all North Korean exports. By February 2017, all coal exports had been suspended. In the words of one expert in South Korea, John Delury, such trade embargoes and sanctions are “futile…counterproductive and dangerous” because they exacerbate the hardship for North Korean citizens, and antagonise the North towards potential nuclear war, given the rogue recklessness of Kim Jong-un.

But simultaneously, the UN (and the USA with 30,000 soldiers in South Korea) cannot be seen to do nothing, which would authorise reckless missile testing across the planet, and potentially facilitate black market missile transactions. Hence, all the geographical neighbours are pinned down by the dagger of North Korea, and live in shadow of it.

China supported North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean war which led to the current ceasefire, and it is almost the only nation to trade with North Korea. But the flood of immigrants which might cross the Yalu River in the event of war is worrying, as well as the threat that a powerful united Korea might present so close to Beijing in future generations. Worsening diplomatic relationships with Pyongyang, and pressure from Washington, has meant that China in August 2017 suspended all trade with North Korea. Yet it would be uncertain which side to support if war came. And if war did come, a very likely scenario involves this war morphing into a war over how far China allows America’s military to advance toward the Chinese heartland. The 2016 provocations in the South China Sea emphasised just how dangerous this frosty relationship can be in close conflict.

The Japanese looks on anxiously, and with the anger from the recent ICMB passing overhead, it is likely that it may begin to proliferate its own nuclear arsenal in preparation. It too fears a united Korean peninsula, but saturated with American soldiers, and united with America to defeat the North’s terrorising, it is at a complex crossroads. It does not want war to bring, but nor does the prospect of any form of reunification entice.

South Korea, formerly the Republic of Korea (ROK), might eventually welcome a united Korea peninsula, as its constitution currently claims its right over, because it would increase the strength of its position sandwiched between Japan, China, and Russia. It would become the 7th largest economy, and the huge decrease in military spending would transform the region, especially as roads would now connect it to China by land. The transition metals and rare earth metals in the North Korean mines, worth $10 trillion, could be reaped by the technological giants in the South, and with a fertility rate of 1.33, the much younger North Korean population would buoy up the South’s now shrinking population.  

However, it prays against war at all costs.

below left the stark difference in light pollution at night time show the difference in urban development and electrification in North Korea versus the ROK

right the DMZ, looking into North Korea; the hills from which the artillery could be launched are clearly visible on the horizon

right below the difference in GDP per capita indicates the difference in development which must be overcome in integrating a reunified Korean peninsula 

This is because the DMZ, on the 38th Parallel, is not a geomorphological boundary. For all the mountainous nature of the Korean Peninsula, the DMZ follows a river – the Imjin River – separated from hills in North Korea by a small plain that can easily be crossed at night, or by the tunnel network thought to have been built underneath. In those hills, there are thousands of bunkers containing missiles and guns, stowed away from previous wars.

The Greater Seoul Region contains 25.6 million people at a very high population density, and it is only 35 miles from the DMZ. North Korea has successfully miniaturised its missile system such that a missile launched from these hills could reach Seoul in 45 seconds.

Little is known about the number of artillery pieces stashed in the hills, but the popular estimate of 100,000 is frightening enough, even if it is considered conservative. What frightens Seoul is that an attack could happen in the dead of night so quickly that, for all its support from the USA, tens of thousands would be dead before sunrise, and before the world could respond. If it came to even a non-nuclear war, casualties could easily top those of the 1950-53 Korean War in which 3 million perished.

By daybreak, the USA would respond, and the North Korean line would quickly be pushed back deeper into North Korea, but at huge cost. Then, North Korea would have to decide whether to detonate its nuclear warheads. Kim Jong-un in the last 4 years has stockpiled 66 missiles, with an estimated 16-24 nuclear warheads capable of reaching the USA; if fired, they could devastate US cities, its economy, and bringing the world in a global financial downturn, not to mention a gigantic war.

Further into the future, the ROK would have to endure the brunt of the reunification costs, conservatively estimated at around $1 trillion, or ¾ of its annual GDP. The reunification of Germany was painful; this would be uncountably worse. The ROK’s economy is currently the 11th largest in the world, and, known as the Miracle on the Han River, in a single generation it grew from an impoverished nation into the current economic heavyweight we view today, helped by South Korean TNCs called chaebols such as Samsung. 80% of South Koreans have internet. Less than 5000 in North Korea do, and then it is an intranet. These stark differences are huge, socially and economically. Furthermore, politically, the democracy in South Korea is very young, and with 25 million indoctrinated North Koreans ‘integrating’ into society, it could lead to a very shaky Korea, unsuitable for investment.

South Korea could easily be cast back down into recession by reunification: it would be forced to import more food, invest into costly road, rail, and air infrastructure, better schools, and hospitals, not to mention the cost of reforesting the north, and developing its peripheral mountain communities. It is likely that only a collapse of the North could catalyse reunification.

So, for the meantime, the poverty-stricken North Korean citizens – who mean that the UN can apply so little pressure, and who also mean that Kim Jong-un can commit all the atrocities he wants without any civilian uprisings – continues to stave off war. North Korea’s walls are growing higher by the month as it is strangled as far as possible by trade, but Kim Jong-un insatiable appetite for ‘military-first’ means that it will always have missiles to launch over its walls.

It is a reckless and deeply unhumanitarian situation, but it is catch-22. It is in nobody’s interest to poke their finger in and detonate the trigger, but that might be the only way to ever resolve it.

an underwater missile test in North Korea


‘Prisoners of Geography’, Tim Marshall

UN Report May 2012

2014 UN Human Right Watch Report


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