Saturday, March 7, 2009

WaPo on North Korea's "intractable hunger crisis"

The Washington Post has yet another story on what is, sadly, an all too familiar topic: hunger in North Korea. The extent of the problem is laid out in the beginning:
The "eating problem," as it is often called in North Korea, has eroded Kim's authority, damaged a decade of improved relations between the two Koreas and stunted the bodies and minds of millions of North Koreans. Teenage boys fleeing the North in the past decade are on average five inches shorter and weigh 25 pounds less than boys growing up in the South, according to measurements taken at a settlement center for defectors in South Korea.

Mental retardation caused by malnutrition will disqualify about a quarter of potential military conscripts in North Korea, according to a December report by the National Intelligence Council, a research institution that is part of the U.S. intelligence community. The report said hunger-caused intellectual disabilities among the young are likely to cripple economic growth, even if the country opens to the outside world or unites with the South.
The article attributes "North Korea's recent round of fist-shaking against South Korea" to Seoul putting an end to blank-check diplomacy, though I would suggest that Pyongyang's fist-shaking and saber-rattling never really stopped. 

So how can a government spend millions if not billions of dollars to make a nuke or two or six when its people are starving? Well, for quite some time it could be argued that North Korea's real military threat were what got it billions in aid. Not a bad return on an investment, really. 

The article addresses some of the ways that North Koreans and their government are coping, including the use of human excrement (night soil):
This winter, North Koreans have been told to achieve food self-sufficiency by their own efforts. As part of a government-ordered mass mobilization, they are making toibee, a fertilizer in which ash is mixed with their own excrement.

Frozen human waste is being chipped out of public toilets in cities and towns across the country. Every factory, public enterprise and neighborhood unit has been ordered to produce two tons of toibee, according to Good Friends, a Buddhist charity with informants in North Korea. In the spring, it will be dried in the open air before being transported to state farms.
Another (relatively) new take in the article is that the issue has spread to the military that was once guarded from the food shortage:
Service in the military was for decades a way for children from the least-favored bloodlines to escape hunger. But in recent years, food shortages have also affected low-ranking soldiers, said Kwon Tae-jin, a frequent visitor to the North and director of North Korea agriculture studies at the Seoul-based Korea Rural Economic Institute, which is funded by South Korea.

During a severe pre-harvest food shortage last summer, many soldiers received only two meals a day, were visibly malnourished and scavenged for food by stealing crops from state farms, he said. Troops in the city of Kangdong, about 18 miles east of Pyongyang, were ordered to stop training to conserve energy, according to a photographer who smuggled out photos of emaciated soldiers.

"The military was popular for kids so they wouldn't starve," Kwon said. "Now they feel it is better to make money in the market."
Could that be the chink in Kim Jong-il's armor that we've been waiting for? If the people with guns start to feel that they, too, are in danger of succumbing to malnutrition, perhaps they really will join the brown parade

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