Starved into Submission

North Korea continues its deliberate policy of famine.

While North Korea’s leadership solicits the world’s nations for food aid, the despotic regime continues to deliberately starve its own people.

Reports of severe food shortages in North Korea constitute an almost annual occurrence. So, it probably came as little surprise when a myriad of world agencies stated earlier in the year that nearly 25% of North Korea’s 24 million citizens risked starvation.

To that end, the UN recommended in April 2011 that at least 475,000 tons of rice and cereal grains would be needed over the next six months to avert mass starvation. For their part, North Korean officials began frantically soliciting more nations for food than ever before, including African nations poorer than it.

However, unlike in years past, the world community mostly balked at the new food assistance appeal. The head of the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs said last week that it had collected only about 15 percent of the requested food.

Meanwhile, the US House of Representatives also voted last week to entirely bar any US food aid to North Korea. The denial of assistance brought cries of humanitarian neglect from some quarters, the most notable being from Jimmy Carter who called the US action a “human-rights violation.” Yet as Republican Representative Ed Royce said, “Let's be clear, the aid we provide would prop up Kim Jong ll’s regime, a brutal and dangerous dictatorship.”

While that reason alone may have been enough to deny North Korea food aid, there was still an extended list of other justifications. Perhaps chief among these grounds was the growing belief that the North Korean government had actually manufactured its current food crisis.

According to a South Korean diplomat, a recent visit by a US assessment team to North Korea had concluded that “the North has no comprehensive food crisis.” Moreover, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization cited North Korea’s 2010 harvest to be among the best in two decades.

Of course, it isn’t unusual for North Korea to stockpile food and hoard it for government and military use.  As one Intelligence official noted, “Since 1987, North Korea has been setting aside 12 percent of its rice output as emergency supplies in case of war and 10 percent for military consumption.”

Now, however, some US and South Korean officials have shared suspicions that Pyongyang is inflating the severity of its food situation for another purpose. Specifically, they believe the North Koreans are stockpiling food for the commemoration in April 2012 of the 100th birthday of Kim ll Sung, North Korea’s first leader and father to its current leader, Kim Jong ll.

The speculation is that the North Korean government wants to mark that celebration with a series of special and enhanced public food distributions. Moreover, they feel that show of state prosperity will validate Kim Jong ll’s recent vow that by 2012 North Korea would be “a strong and prosperous nation.”

Yet, even if North Korea’s food shortage is indeed real, there exists no accurate or verifiable means by which to determine if the food ever reaches its proper destination. As an example, in 2008 the US and North Korea negotiated a food assistance agreement. However, the North Koreans voided that deal when it came time to implement it because they didn’t want to allow for the pact’s verification requirements.

While the North Korean government may strive to deceive the world on who actually receives any donated food, the deception hasn’t worked very well on its own people. In a recent survey of 500 North Korean defectors, nearly 80 percent said they never received any foreign grain aid when they lived in the North. In fact, over 97 percent believed the food aid went to either the military; party leaders; or government agencies.

However, even though North Korea’s ruling elites may remain well fed, no one seriously disputes that ordinary North Koreans aren’t as fortunate. As a 2010 report by Amnesty International cites, over 9 million North Koreans suffer from “severe” food shortages.

To substantiate those claims, reports have surfaced that the North Korean government actually halved the administrative size of the capital city of Pyongyang, apparently because it had become too difficult to support the city’s entire population with its allotment of special rations.

The widespread lack of food has also led to some very disturbing conclusions, the most gruesome of which came in a recently leaked North Korean police manual that confirmed cases of cannibalism. In one particular instance, a North Korean guard killed his roommate with an axe when he was sleeping, ate part of the corpse and then sold the rest at the market where he described it as lamb meat.

In fact, the situation has become so severe that it has even led to small pockets of public anger, no small feat in this tightly controlled country. Various reports of public resistance springing up in North Korea have arisen over the past year, with some protests turning violent. The outbreak was serious enough for the North Korean government to actually form a special riot control force in 2010 to quell public demonstrations.

These isolated events have led some to speculate that North Korea may soon experience an uprising similar to what has transpired in various Middle East countries, given the similar conditions between the two situations: corrupt leadership, overwhelming poverty, and brutal repression.

However, despite these similarities, it isn’t likely that the North Korean people -- having been subjected to a half century Orwellian nightmare of starvation, gulags, and endless brainwashing -- will be rioting anytime soon.

For starters, North Koreans may actually be too weak from hunger to sustain a long-term protest movement. Moreover, they have no means of communication by which to share their anger and organize. As a former North Korean diplomat has said, North Korea’s lack of the Internet and other social networking infrastructure make a public uprising “quite slim.”

Yet, even if they could organize, North Korean protesters would face a regime that is armed to the teeth and more than willing to use those artillery, bombs and fighter jets on them, just like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Syria’s Bashir Assad have done on their own people. However, as hard as it is to believe, the North Korean regime would probably be even more ruthless.

One example of its barbarity came in recent satellite research that has shown North Korea’s prison camp system to be expanding. Already estimated to hold 200,000 people, these slave camps subject their inhabitants to starvation, torture, and rape while they perform hard labor.

Of course, it goes without saying that the North Korean government sees itself in a different light. The regime’s positive self-portrait was nowhere more evident than when it recently released its “Happiness Index,” a survey it conducted to determine where the happiest people live.

Even though the survey results found China to be the happiest place on earth, North Korea finished a strong second. For those North Koreans who perhaps thought they were living a nightmare existence, it should comfort them to know their government thinks they have it pretty good.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog,