As of February, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, has officially declared a food crisis in the wake of its worst drought in almost four decades and has requested urgent foreign aid for the 40% of North Koreans who are facing “severe food shortages,” many of whom are pregnant women or children.
The poor harvest left North Korea with a 1.36 million tonne grain shortage and its government has responsively reduced daily rations by 80 grams from an already meagre portion. Receiving as little as two inches of rain this year, less than 43% of the average, North Korea’s Central News Agency claims conditions are not expected to improve soon. In response, United Nations relief agencies, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization, have made a joint announcement imploring western donors to assist the 10 million North Koreans facing potential famine conditions in the coming weeks.
The UN has approached the situation diplomatically, citing weather conditions as the primary cause of the food crisis. However as firmly stated by the then-US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in 2017, “You don’t starve your own people in order to fund nuclear weapons.” Her criticism of Pyongyang for neglecting the well-being of its citizens to advance unlawful nuclear programs from November last year has fallen on deaf ears, as North Korea’s policy of nuclear proliferation has proven resilient.
The United Nations has imposed sanctions on North Korea for nuclear testing since 2016, banning the export of coal and iron ore as well as drastically cutting oil imports. The sanctions have deprived North Korea of crucial sources of income and weakened the regime’s capacity to import food with the intention of forcing the North Korean regime to concede its nuclear proliferation and conform to non-nuclear proliferation demands.
North Korea has not yet descended into mass starvation and prices of staples such as rice and corn remain stable. Nevertheless, the United Nations relief agencies have emphasized that without rainfall, the situation will inadvertently worsen throughout the lean season if “no proper and urgent humanitarian actions are taken.”
With the support of President Trump, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has stepped in to provide humanitarian food-aid in the interim with the intention of improving relations between the North and South Korea as well as preventing further weapons tests.
Despite this, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un remains in a stand-off with Washington and has continued to funnel resources from feeding citizens into financing its nuclear weapons program. The situation has in fact intensified since the latest talks with the US broke down, with North Korea pledging it would not cave to international pressure; “even if its people had to survive on water and air only.”
As seen in the aftermath of the two million deaths in North Korea’s 1990’s famine, the potential consequences of the regime’s chronic food shortages are real. One-fifth of North Korean children already suffer from stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition. Although Trump is steadfast in his sanctions to force Kim Jong-un to forfeit his nuclear weapons, there is hope that the US could exploit a political opportunity to both reduce North Korea’s nuclear capability while preventing starvation conditions.
For Kim Jong-un to relinquish his nuclear weaponry, he must feel politically secure enough to do so. In the situation of a starving population, he is more politically vulnerable and thus unlikely to forfeit his nuclear program. The United States government should resume food aid to North Korea to encourage Kim Jong-un back to the negotiation table. Yes, there is a risk that Pyongyang could be deceiving the UN and exacerbating the extent of starvation to fraudulently receive a reprieve from its duties to its citizens. Regardless, as David Beasley, the World Food Programme’s executive director states, “The concerns have been about not helping the regime. We make the case: don’t let innocent children suffer because of politics.”
Despite interests in preventing and restraining the development of nuclear weapons, the immediate concern for Western powers should be the well-being of at-risk civilian populations, not only for moral reasons but for the political rationale that North Korea will not concede its major bargaining tool in the face of a deprived and potentially seditious domestic population.