There will be no new political messaging coming out of the rigidly choreographed spectacle of this week’s 8th Party Congress in Pyongyang. The Party Congress is not designed to tell us anything new. Its function is as a vehicle to reaffirm the total commitment of North Korea’s political elites to regime self-preservation. The impassive men and women in business suits listening to the young ruler dressed in an unearned military uniform and the North Koreans watching at home are reminded that however bad living conditions have become, the elites retain the organizational capacity necessary to maintain control.
The Party Congress serves as a distraction from the things we should be worrying about, which is that today, right now, as you read this, millions of innocents, including children, the sick, the elderly, and the poor, face the kind of immediate, extreme threats to life that we last saw in the famine years of the 1990s. The mismanagement and hubris of their own government provides the backdrop to economic failure but the proximate cause of the likely human tragedy unfolding in North Korea right now is the 2017 expansion of United Nations sanctions that substantially contributed to the decimation of domestic food production.
I have worked with dying, starving, and very sick children and adults all over North Korea. A common conversation I had was with women who had permanent, severe digestive illnesses because of chewing non-edible ‘food,’ like tree bark, to stave off hunger pains. It is not just the absence of food that kills people. Due to the lack of medicines, including basics like iron supplements, antibiotics, and painkillers, there were common reports about mothers dying during and after giving birth, in agonizing pain, from sepsis. This is the first time since those days, nearly twenty years ago, that I fear the worst is happening again.
The new threat to lives
In Pyongyang temperatures this week range somewhere between -5.8 Fahrenheit (-21C) and 3.2 Fahrenheit (-16C). North Koreans must cope with these temperature extremes while dealing with food shortages, without heating, running water, working toilets, regular supplies of electricity, medicines, warm clothes, and adequate footwear (many only have thin canvas shoes). This is on top of being forced to participate in mass labor mobilization such as the recently concluded “80-day battle.”
Most people reading this will never experience cold like this or if they do they will be well-protected but imagine, as a thought experiment, trying to get by in New York City or Washington DC, in the winter without reliable heating, hardly functioning electricity, with running water for half an hour a day (never hot water), with no access to medicine if you got sick while at the same time having to engage in physical labor outside in the bitter cold.
It is well known that North Koreans experienced a terrible famine in the 1990s that killed around half a million people. It is less well-known that the proximate cause of the famine was the cut-off of oil imports from China and Russia which, at the end of the Cold War, were no longer willing to subsidise their erstwhile ally. As everywhere in the world, North Korea’s agricultural production cycle depends on oil-based products, including fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel for agricultural equipment, irrigation, and transport. North Korea has no indigenous oil. Without essential imported oil inputs, agricultural yields plummeted.
In the wake of famine, the state could no longer provide a living wage or basic goods, including food. Families, workplaces, and communities learned to bypass the state to meet their own needs. In short, they developed a non-state, marketized economy, which the government was never able to roll back, despite its many attempts to do so. Life for most North Koreans remained tough, but the threat of starvation retreated as the government rebuilt agricultural production. By 2016, according to UNICEF, the nutritional status of the child population was better than that of richer Asia countries like India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
In 2016 and 2017, in response to North Korea’s continued nuclear and missile tests, the Obama and Trump administrations, respectively, initiated an expansion of the United Nations sanctions regime to target North Korea’s civilian economy. The Trump administration measures included severe restriction on the export of energy products, including oil. In implementing these new sanctions, the United Nations reproduced the same conditions, that is energy shortages, that constituted the proximate cause of the 1990s famine. The catastrophic reduction in food production in 2018 was thus quite predictable. Concurrent UN sanctions on North Korea’s major export earnings meant that the hugely increased food import requirement was unmanageable. Food shortages ensued.
Since 2019, China and Russia have sent millions of tonnes of food aid, mainly rice and wheat, in what is likely the biggest if least well-known food aid program in the world. China has provided fertilizer aid. It has also facilitated the circumvention of oil sanctions although no one knows how much contraband oil has flowed into North Korea. We do know that agricultural production remains depressed. We don’t know exactly how North Koreans are managing because, since early 2020, North Korea’s borders have been closed due to COVID quarantine restrictions.
The government of North Korea has the primary responsibility for the welfare of its people. That does not mean that others have the right to inflict further harm, especially to innocents, including children, the sick, the elderly, and the poor. Nor does it obviate the moral obligations we all have to others because of our common humanity. Chinese and Russian bulk grain food aid can keep people alive but cannot provide the nutrients needed to sustain a healthy life. One practical measure we can take is to support a limited lifting of United Nations sanctions to allow for the resuscitation of food production in 2021.
During the last famine, no one outside North Korea knew what was going on until after the dying and suffering was out of control. Let’s not leave it till we get to that stage again.
Hazel Smith is Professorial Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; Professor Emerita of International Security, Cranfield University, UK; and Member of the Global Futures Council on Korea World Economic Forum.