North Koreans are No Longer Starving

The Buzz

When asked in his January 22 interview with YouTube [9:00 ff.] about the likely effects of greater sanctions on North Korea following the Sony hack, President Obama repeated a mantra widely associated with North Korea that as a result of its isolated, authoritarian leadership, “the country can’t really even feed its own people” and that “over time, a regime like this will collapse.” But the latest reports show that North Korea’s food situation is stable, and the leadership probably thinks it is doing better, not worse.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) released its latest assessment of the situation in North Korea on February 3, 2015. The nature of the assessment differs fromassessments of previous years in that it relies solely on DPRK figures supplemented by additional observations based on FAO satellite analysis and educated judgments regarding DPRK production gathered through past experience inside the DPRK, but the report does not benefit from information gathered during past on-the-ground food security assessment missions. These missions had been taking place annually through the fall of 2013 but the mission did not occur in the fall of 2014.

The fact that the DPRK decided not to continue to host an annual UN FAO field assessment is double-edged. On the one hand, the failure to approve the mission itself provides confirmation that DPRK authorities are increasingly confident in their improved food security situation. The DPRK appears to have made steady progress in domestic production in recent years, but at the same time growing income inequality in North Korea has resulted in continuing malnutrition among some sectors of the population, especially in rural areas. On the other hand, the decision to cancel the food assessment mission in 2014 leaves the FAO reliant on a combination of technical tools and information voluntarily provided by the government of the DPRK for the information used to make its assessment of the food situation in the DPRK. Over time, the quality of the assessment could be degraded without the opportunity to supplement these observations with local experience gained through physical visits to various parts of North Korea.

The bottom line of the FAO assessment is that North Korean food production has “remained stagnant” in 2014 at 5.94 million tons compared to the 5.93 million tons realized in 2013-2014. (This result was 50,000 tons below the FAO projection of 5.98 million tons released in November of 2013.) The FAO report projects a poor winter wheat and barley harvest in the coming months, but this harvest represents only about 10 percent of North Korean overall production. Even with this poorer than expected result, the FAO anticipates that the DPRK will need to import 407,000 tons of cereal to meet its overall need.

The 2013 FAO report had projected a cereal import requirement of 340,000 tons for 2013-2014. This amount is 8 percent greater than the actual amount of DPRK imports (313,755 tons) reported during that period. DPRK commercial cereal imports during this period included 248,603 tons of wheat flour from China. In addition, food aid to the DPRK declined “significantly” to about 65,152 tons of cereals.

Interestingly, according to this year’s report, the Russian Federation surpassed China as the largest bilateral donor to North Korea in 2013-14 with 28,700 tons of wheat, followed by China with 8,300 tons of maize. Multilateral cereal food assistance rose by almost 10 percent to 36,385 tons in 2013-2014. This chart from the report shows the substantial reduction in DPRK cereal imports to around 300,000 tons from about one million tons of assistance required in the aftermath of North Korea’s famine in the mid-2000s. It also shows North Korea beginning to meet its production shortfalls through commercial procurement rather than reliance on international aid.

The FAO assessment of North Korean food production is consistent with anecdotal reports that North Korea has made productivity improvements in recent years and that the North Korean economy is stable if not growing slowly. Andrei Lankov reports on the basis of defector interviews that a number of the agricultural and market reforms made under Kim Jong-un appear to be taking hold. This means that North Korea’s two-pronged policy of simultaneous economic and nuclear development is showing some modest results on the economic side. The problem is that the nuclear priority remains in place and North Korea’s efforts to develop missile and nuclear programs continues to proceed unchecked.

North Korea’s apparent economic progress is bad news for those who expect increased sanctions to be decisive in driving North Korea to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons. So far, the effects of increased sanctions have been far from generating sufficient economic pressure to induce North Korea to make such a choice. Under current circumstances, there is nothing to stop North Korea from having its cake and its yellowcake, too.

Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This article originally appeared on CFR’s Asia Unbound blog.

Image: Flickr/(stephan)

TopicsEconomics RegionsAsia

The US Navy Is Building Precision Laser Weapons

The Buzz

The U.S. Navy has awarded Boeing a $29.5 million contract to build a prototype of a system that will provide the service with precision-guided laser weapons.

The company announced the contract in a press release on Tuesday. The statement said in part that, “Boeing will begin to design a prototype High Power Beam Control Subsystem (HP BCSS) that’s compatible with High Energy Lasers (HEL) based on solid-state laser (SSL) technology.”

The contract was awarded as part of the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program, which aims to “develop and mature high-energy laser technologies into a prototypical weapon system for use and installation on the Navy’s surface combatants.”

Boeing said in the press release that “the resulting beam control system will focus and hold a laser on a moving aimpoint long enough to disable the target. Doing that with a ship-based laser is particularly challenging, given the maritime environment and constant movement of an at-sea vessel.”

The U.S. military has been investing in laser and directed-energy technologies since the 1960s, but it’s only been in the last few years that rapid progress has been made. Notably, in 2009, the U.S. Navy's Laser Weapon System (LaWS) Program first successful tracked and destroyed an unmanned aerial vehicle while at sea. The LaWS program continued to be tested over the next five years and was declared operational and ready for use at the end of 2014. It is currently deployed on the USS Ponce Afloat Forward Staging Base.

Similarly, in April 2011, ONR and its industry partner, Northrop Grumman, successfully tested a solid-state, high-energy laser (HEL) at sea. During that test, a surface ship used the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) to eliminate a small boat.

Lasers are almost certain to play a large part in protecting the Navy’s surface fleet in the future as they offer a number of major advantages over traditional kinetic weapons. Perhaps most importantly, lasers are a fraction of the cost of kinetic weapons. Indeed, a laser costs roughly a dollar to fire while the Navy’s medium and long-range interceptors cost several millions of dollars per missile. This creates an opportunity to overcome the mathematics that has long been the Achilles’ heel of missile defense.

Equally important, whereas surface vessels can only carry a very limited number of interceptors to defend themselves against enemy missiles, lasers would give ships a nearly unlimited magazine capacity. This is particularly crucial at a time when countries like China are building formidable anti-ship missile arsenals. In addition, by freeing up space normally reserved for interceptors, lasers would greatly increase the offensive capability of America’s surface vessels.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

The Declining Respect for the Search for Truth

Paul Pillar

It is unusual for a political leader to disavow truth-seeking as explicitly as Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin did when he tried to expunge from the longstanding mission statement of the University of Wisconsin a reference to “the search for truth” being a core purpose of the university. Walker backed off, but only after public outrage and only with a retraction of his previous retraction that blamed the proposed change on a “drafting error.” The change in the mission statement was one part of a larger proposal by Walker that would slash much of the state's subsidy of the university system.

(Disclosure: My son is a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I thus have a personal interest in the university continuing to search for truth, as well as in the degrees it grants not being debased by the sort of degradation and decline that would result from big budget cuts. I also have an interest in what happens to out-of-state tuition rates, which the university chancellor says are sure to be hiked if the legislature approves Walker's cuts. I do not know what Governor Walker, who also has a son enrolled at UW-Madison, privately thinks about any of these things.)

The prevailing interpretation about Walker's moves is that striking blows against the elite intellectuals one finds on the campus of a leading university—and suggesting, as Walker did, that the university could adjust to budget cuts by increasing professors' work loads—pleases a sector of the Republican primary electorate to which Walker is appealing in seeking a presidential nomination in 2016. The same interpretation could be applied to Walker's recent refusal to say that he believes in evolution. This interpretation is undoubtedly correct, but for a leader to turn his back on truth, or more precisely the search for truth, as directly as Walker has is also part of a larger disturbing pattern in twenty-first century America and American politics.

Although direct and explicit rejections of truth-seeking are rare, Walker does not provide the only examples. Another one that comes to mind was the proud declaration by an anonymous aide in George W. Bush's administration (believed by many to be Karl Rove) that he and his colleagues were not part of the “reality-based community.”

Of course, rejection of reality and the truth by people in power, sometimes to a sweeping degree, is by no means an artifact of twenty-first century America. The Big Lie has long been a well-practiced technique of dictatorships abroad. But while such regimes have mangled and oppressed the truth, they have claimed to be pursuing it and acting in accordance with it. Even the department in George Orwell's Oceania that dispensed lie-laden propaganda called itself the Ministry of Truth.

The more unabashed willingness we see today to stray from respect for the truth has multiple roots. One could explain much by looking at the sort of political calculations that Walker and his advisers are making and at the underlying demographics and value systems of the sector of the electorate to which they are appealing. But there are some more widespread roots as well, some of which Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post identified in a recent article addressing why so many Americans are so dubious about science. The ubiquitous Internet, for example, “makes it easier than ever for science doubters to find their own information and experts.” Much of the turning away from truth does involve rejection of scientifically established patterns and causalities, with denial of climate change being perhaps the most obvious example.

It is rejecting the search for truth that is the most important and destructive phenomenon in question. Achenbach quotes the editor of the journal Science, who observes that science is not a body of facts but instead “a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” It is a way of searching for truth, a way that has long proven itself to be effective. The antithesis of science is to take something as fact because it is a tenet of a political ideology or a revealed religion to which one adheres.

Besides the influence of unquestioning adherence to political ideologies and revealed religions, some of the blame for diminished respect for the truth ought to go to the world of the arts and the increasingly artful, and unapologetic, way in which fiction and nonfiction get blended. A historical novel used to mean a story about fictional characters set against the backdrop of real events. Now it may mean attributing made-up words and actions to real people. Occasionally, as with the portrayal of Lyndon Johnson in a recent movie about Martin Luther King, such attribution may become a matter of discussion and controversy. More often it is absorbed by much of the public as if it were fact. Many people believe significant falsehoods about real Americans and real American institutions because they saw them in an Oliver Stone movie. Film directors and novelists blithely rationalize the confusion of fact and fiction by saying that they bend facts only to make larger and more profound points. In other words, they are saying that the truth doesn't matter very much.

Political polarization in the current United States is another contributing factor. The partisan divide has nearly ended any search for better understanding of reality through a constructive dialogue between those with different points of view. And much of what is taken as fact by many adherents of one partisan camp or another is so taken merely because other people in the camp with which the person identifies say it is so. This is not a search for truth at all; it is just an expression of a creed. Perceived fact follows prescriptive ideology rather than the other way around.

The diminished respect for truth and the search for it has multiple bad consequences. Most obvious is that a lot of untruths are left floating around, free to become the basis for misguided policies. Another is that debates about public policy are rendered more confused and less effective by muddying the respective roles of facts and analysis, and description and prescription. Casual attitudes toward the truth, and having perceived fact flowing from preferred prescription, disguise fundamental choices and trade-offs. We have seen this with debate about the use of torture, in which many of those opposed to it have been determined to believe that it never works and many of those in favor of allowing it have been determined to believe that it does work. This has obscured the sort of hard choices that can arise when something is both effective and immoral.

To see so much straying from a dedicated search for truth is dismaying, for reasons that go far beyond a university campus in Wisconsin.                                      


TopicsPolitics RegionsUnited States

Russia Developed New Fuel to Power Mach 5 Hypersonic Missiles

The Buzz

Russia’s Defense Ministry has developed a new hypersonic missile fuel, a senior defense official has announced.

According to Russian state-media outlets, Army General Dmitry Bulgakov, the deputy minister of defense, told reporters on Tuesday that the ministry has developed special new fuel to enable missiles to fly at hypersonic speeds.

“The recipe has been created and the energy accumulated in this fuel will help our vehicles exceed the speed of Mach 5," General Bulgakov said, the Moscow Times reported, citing TASS News Agency.

Russia is one of a number of countries including the U.S., China and India that are in a race to develop hypersonic capabilities. Hypersonic missiles travel at at least five times the speed of sound (Mach 5, 6,125 kilometers per hour) or more. NASA further categorizes speeds as hypersonic (between Mach 5 and Mach 10) and high hypersonic (between Mach 10 and Mach 25).

(Recommended: A Mach 5 Arms Race? Welcome to Hypersonic Weapons 101)

Unlike the U.S. and China, both of whom focus their hypersonic development efforts on boost-glide vehicles, Russia and India are seeking to build hypersonic cruise missiles. The two countries already developed the BrahMos missile together. Considered the fastest cruise missile in the world, BrahMos has achieved speeds of Mach 3 (3,675 m/h).

BrahMos Aerospace, the Russian-Indian joint venture that produced the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, claims to be hard at work developing the BrahMos-II hypersonic cruise missile. According to the company's website, the BrahMos-II will be powered by a scramjet engine instead of a ramjet one. "As a variation of the ramjet," the company explains, "scramjets allow combustion to occur in a supersonic airflow, thereby expanding the operating range above Mach 4."

(Recommended: No, China Can NOT Shoot Down 90% of Hypersonic Missiles)

Indian officials have claimed that the BrahMos-II will be tested sometime in 2017, although this is likely an overly optimistic timeline. The U.S. and China have both already tested boost-glide vehicles.

Russia is also developing the P-800 Onyx, which some experts suspect could be a hypersonic missile as well. "It could be a fundamentally new missile, possibly hypersonic. One should not forget that NPO Mashinostroyenia has been actively working in this area, and it was not too long that ago mockups of the joint Russian-Indian hypersonic rocket BrahMos-II appeared at exhibitions,” one Russian defense expert told Russia Beyond the Headlines last October.

Image: Wikimedia/One half 3544

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If America and China Went to War: Would India Join the Fight?

The Buzz

Shashank Joshi makes a good case for the importance of Obama's visit to India last month, and against my view that there is much less to the U.S.-India alignment than meets the eye.

My argument is that their underlying strategic objectives remain too different for real strategic alignment. Shashank says that sets the bar too high. Without fully sharing America's aim of preserving its primacy in Asia, he says, India 'can take a range of other steps, from aligning itself to U.S. allies to strengthening a diplomatic consensus against China, that together contribute to (U.S.) primacy in a more diffuse, politically acceptable manner.'

It's a reasonable point, but I don't buy it.

We differ on this because we seem to see what is happening in Asia today differently. I think Asia's international order faces a fundamental challenge, whereas Shashank's argument suggests that he believes it remains essentially intact.

(Recommended: Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear)

If Shashank is right, we can safely expect that issues in dispute between the region's major powers will be resolved by diplomacy operating within the status quo; business as usual, in other words. If so, the kind of low-stakes diplomatic alignment that Shashank describes might indeed make a real difference. The kind of low key, low cost diplomatic support India might offer the U.S. will be enough to help the U.S. preserve primacy, because its primacy would not face any serious challenge.

But what is happening in Asia today is not business as usual.

The regional order based on U.S. primacy is under direct and fundamental challenge from China. It wants to change the framework of norms and expectations within which regional diplomacy takes place. That is why we cannot assume that the issues raised by China's challenge will be resolved by routine diplomacy. China is aiming to change the way diplomacy in Asia works by changing the regional order.

(Recommended: Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear)

That has big implications. The prevailing order in any international system is defined ultimately by what the major powers in the system are prepared to go to war with one another over. As that changes, the order changes. Rising countries challenge a prevailing order by showing they are willing to go to war over issues that they previously would not have.

In 1972 China transformed the Asian order when it decided that it was not willing to risk war with America over anything except Taiwan. Now China is showing that it wants to change the order again. By undermining the credibility of Washington's alliances, Beijing shows its willingness to risk war to degrade America's position in Asia.

India's new alignment with the U.S. will only make a real difference if it is credibly willing to support America militarily against China if and when U.S. primacy is at stake. Diffuse and politically acceptable diplomatic support won't cut it at a time like this. So the test of the U.S.-India alignment is simple: does anyone think India would send forces to help America defend Japan's claim to the Senkakus, or the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea, or Taiwan? If not, how does India's support help America deter China from challenging U.S. primacy in these flashpoints? And if it doesn't do that, what use is it to Obama?  

(Recommended: Five Chinese Weapons of War India Should Fear)

That's why Obama's bid for India's support shows the weakness in America's position, without doing anything to strengthen it. The deeper problem is that lining up countries like India against China, even if it worked, would not help America find a stable, sustainable relationship with the country which is both its most important partner and its most serious rival. The only way to do that is to start talking to China in a new way.

Hugh White is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.

Image: Flickr/Slipshod Photog

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