What Seoul hopes to gain from highlighting reported starvation in N. Korea

Posted on : 2023-03-19 10:07 KST Modified on : 2023-03-19 10:07 KST
By referring to a shocking situation in which people are starving to death, the current South Korean administration is called attention to the potential instability of the North Korean regime
On Feb. 15, one day prior to the birth anniversary of Kim Jong-il, North Koreans in Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, can be seen working in the fields. The photo was taken from South Korea’s city of Paju, in Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)
On Feb. 15, one day prior to the birth anniversary of Kim Jong-il, North Koreans in Kaepung County, North Hwanghae Province, can be seen working in the fields. The photo was taken from South Korea’s city of Paju, in Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

There are two things I want to talk about here. One is the food crisis in North Korea, and the other is South Korea’s attitude toward it as a society.

To put it a bit more bluntly, I want to ask how bad South Koreans really feel when they look at North Korea’s food crisis, and whether they are really doing all they can to help. The question I mean to pose is whether all the press coverage of food production yields and all the South Korean administration’s announcements referring to the severity of the crisis do not reflect the implicit hope that the North Korean regime may be poised for collapse.

Food issues have long been a source of problems for the North Korean regime. During the mid-1990s, the North experienced an extreme food shortage that came to be known as the “Arduous March.”

While it is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who lost their lives in that period, anywhere from hundreds of thousands to over a million North Koreans are believed to have starved to death.

The factors behind this historically catastrophic food crisis included a shortage of agricultural land for grain production — owing to a history of industrial regions being concentrated in the North since the colonial era — and the regime’s emphasis on “juche” (self-reliance) and food self-sufficiency as a way of surviving under the armistice system.

Perhaps the single most decisive factor, however, was the economic isolation the North experienced due to its high dependence on trade with socialist countries, many of which adopted new regimes starting in the late 1980s.

In that sense, the food crisis that North Korea experienced had already begun by the early 1990s. Many defectors described how food rations became less dependable around 1993, and were cut off in most regions outside Pyongyang starting in 1994, the year Kim Il-sung died.

Almost immediately, people began dying due to the lack of food. Many others were killed by waterborne infections, which proliferated in the absence of adequate nutrition.

The important thing to remember here is that the Arduous March was about more than just its death toll. It survives as an enormous and indelible trauma for North Korean society.

Implications of North Korea’s hardships

So what sort of situation does North Korea now face? At least in external terms, the turbulence of the situation is on par with the early 1990s, with the worsening of Pyongyang’s conflicts with Washington, the strategic rivalry between the US and China, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the souring of inter-Korean relations.

Domestically, the market economy developments that had been underway for some time in North Korea ended up severely curtailed by international sanctions and the closure of its borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This certainly seems to have made it more difficult for people to engage in economic activities. And as climate change manifests through phenomena like droughts and flooding, the “juche” model of agriculture has become even more impracticable.

To be sure, the North Korean regime is doing all it can to overcome the situation. Since last year, it has been developing a strategy to make up for the grain yield shortfall by adopting wheat and barley (which allow for double-cropping) as major crops, and it has also been working to respond to the climate crisis by establishing a system for supplying irrigation water in agricultural regions.

We can gain a sense of how seriously the North Korean regime is regarding the increased food production and agriculture issues from the focus with which agricultural issues were addressed at the 7th plenary meeting of the 8th Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, which finished on March 1.

But the situation the regime faces is a formidable one. Leaving aside issues like the shrinking of the informal economy in the pandemic’s wake, the agricultural machinery the North has immediately available for farming is outdated, and fuel is in desperately short supply.

As climate-related disasters strike repeatedly at a time when the North is utterly lacking in available resources, this inevitably deals a direct blow to agricultural production. This is why the severe drought that it experienced last year is being taken as evidence for the “food crisis” speculation this year. While we may not have enough information, piecing together what we do have makes it difficult to conclude that the North’s food situation is anything but grim.

But when South Korea’s presidential office and the presiding Ministry of Unification start speaking openly about the possibility of mass starvation deaths or a repeat of the Arduous March, their actions appear to have certain political aims.

As questions about starvation deaths began to swirl, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) made remarks before the National Assembly Intelligence Committee that treated the speculation as essentially factual, reporting that “starvation deaths have not been at a level that threatens the regime” and that it is “impossible to precisely calculate their scale.”

These remarks elided any sort of detailed analysis of the scale of North Korea’s food shortage or the malnutrition of its people. Instead, they called attention to the potential instability of the North Korean regime by referring to a shocking situation in which people are starving to death. This also supports the conclusion that the South Korean government is closely observing the North’s current situation under a framework that equates starvation deaths with a “threat to the regime.”

From the standpoint of news outlets thirsty for clicks on North Korea news at a time of widespread apathy on division-related issues, there is no reason to shy away from the sort of sensational language about “deaths from starvation” that the administration is throwing around.

With the administration and media working together to craft the narrative, the matter of North Korea’s food crisis ended up framed as a matter of the South Korean government’s potential political gains and losses. The faces of the people who are suffering end up ignored.

Even more problematic is the possibility that as the Yoon administration and conservatives subscribe to the belief that a North Korean food crisis might trigger the regime’s collapse, the suffering and deaths of North Koreans could end up overshadowed by the political aims.

We can easily imagine what Seoul’s calculations are when we recall the 1990s, and how the reason the South Korean government was so reluctant to offer food assistance to the North early on during the mass famine was that it saw a strong possibility that it might lead to a regime collapse and subsequent reunification.

Groundless “regime collapse” speculation

Unfortunately, this sort of speculation about North Korea’s regime collapsing has persisted from one administration to the next. Proponents claim that all the misfortunes and suffering experienced by North Korea’s society will trigger the collapse of its regime — from a popular or military uprising to widespread pillaging and crime, military provocations, and mass starvation deaths.

Quite a few seem to have believed that if such a collapse occurred, reunification would take place under South Korean leadership, and the South could then tend to the scars suffered by the North Korean people. This is rooted in the misguided belief that all problems ultimately lie with the regime — and that once that matter is taken care of, everything else can be achieved all at once, be it division or peace.

The unfortunate fact is that the North Korean regime that had seemed to be on the brink of collapse is still in place today, three decades after the mass famine of the 1990s, while the lives of North Korea’s people have not improved and any hope of resolving the peninsula’s division has grown more distant.

This means it’s time for us to leave behind the “regime collapse” speculation and address the food crisis that the North is facing. At the very least, people need to let go of shallow approaches that treat this matter as if it were someone else’s problem, and that talk glibly of the tragic deaths of real people as they predict the potential for “regime instability.”

By Kim Sung-kyung, professor at the University of North Korean Studies

Kim Sung-kyung received a doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Essex in the UK. She worked at Sungkonghoe University and the National University of Singapore before taking on her current position as a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. She studies North Korean society and post-division culture and has published numerous academic texts, including “Divided Hearts.”

By Kim Sung-kyung, professor at the University of North Korean Studies

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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