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Is Famine Behind North Korea’s Latest Belligerence?

Earlier today North Korea released a barrage of unprovoked and unexpected insults toward the United States, declaring that the U.S. is the “archenemy of the Korean people.’’ The LA Times reports on the bellicose language used by the North Korean government meant to strike fear into the hearts of Americans: 

“We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in a statement released by the official news service.

“Settling accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words,” it said.

[Updated 10:46 a.m. Jan. 24: In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called North Korea’s statement “needlessly provocative,”  adding that a test would be a “significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Quietly today, another story emerged from North Korea that is in all probability related to these threats. RealClearWorld reported on the latest deadly “man-made” famine gripping the reclusive nation: 

“Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed the position of supreme leader, the media in North Korea and visiting foreigners have reported on the beautifully developing capital, Pyongyang. But in the shadow of the ‘gorgeous’ capital a hidden famine has broken out,” says Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asiapress in Osaka, a North Korean watchdog with numerous clandestine reporters throughout North Korea.

The dark secret behind all of this new capital glitz and glamour has been a raging famine in the two Hwanghae provinces, where by some estimates 20,000 people have died of starvation in South Hwanghae alone in the year since Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his son and heir, the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un.

The North Korean government is famous for its history of extortion in order to extract food and material aid from the West in exchange for suspensions of its nuclear program. In 1994 the government agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for $5 billion of fuel aid and nuclear reactors. In 1996, amid widespread reports of a massive famine, the government withdrew its agreement to the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War and began sending troops to its border with South Korea. Two years later, as tensions continued to escalate, the UN decided to send food aid to the country still in the grips of famine following devastating floods. This pattern of violent escalation followed by food, fuel and nuclear aid has continued to the present day. Most recently, following a missile test over the spring, the U.S. decided to cancel its food aid, which could be a contributing factor in this most recent famine. 

Recently the daughter of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, decided to join an unofficial, and unsanctioned, trip to North Korea (which I discussed at the time). The contents of her blog entry about her visit were exactly what the North Koreans wanted outsiders to take away from the capital city: Sophie expressed her wonderment at the “oddly charming” nature of Pyongyang and described their accommodations as “luxury.” Sophie Schmidt, a graduate student and an admitted North Korean neophyte, was the perfect visitor in the North Koreans’ eyes; they believed that she would take the information presented at face value. To her credit, she acknowledged that was the case:

It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like.  Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.  We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).    

Despite her minders’ best attempts to shape her impression of the country there were windows into the farcical nature of some of the encounters Sophie experienced, particularly upon entering a computer lab:

Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything.  A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks.  Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.  

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home. When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.

This highly publicized trip by Eric Schmidt, his daughter and Bill Richardson, the former Governor of New Mexico, was a staged attempt by the North Koreans to project an image of modernization and sophistication that has been reported by other recent and less high-profile visitors. Outside observers are unable to ascertain what exactly is taking place inside the most secretive nation in the world, especially considering tight border controls that have been instituted recently. It’s impossible to know if the reason Kim Jong-un clamped down on border traffic was in order to conceal the famine taking place inside his country. This latest threat seems to fit into the pattern of extortion that the North Koreans have perfected since at least the early ’90s, and if reports of famine are as serious as they appear, Kim Jong-un has an incentive to press for the resumption of food aid before thousands more perish. 

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