As the world watches the ongoing catastrophe in Syria, state-sponsored destruction of a much quieter but no less brutal kind is afflicting North Korea. Even while the nation anticipates next year's 100th birthday of state founder and ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, NGOs are reporting that the country may have run out of food.
A brutal winter, flow-on effects of the disastrous currency revaluation of 2009 and a poor harvest are contributing to dire conditions in the one-party state. The World Food Program recently announced an aid program in to 'help feed 3.5 million people suffering from hunger'.
The UN has reported that up to six million may be at risk of starvation in coming months. The same assessment found that only four per cent of North Korean households consume the recommended amount of calories in a western diet. Recent reports of people boiling tree bark and grass for sustenance sound chillingly like reports from the 1990s when an estimated 2–3 million North Koreans died of starvation.
South Korea has said it will withhold food aid until North Korea acknowledges the unprovoked sinking of the Cheonan and the deadly strike on Yeonpyong Island.
Former US president Jimmy Carter returned from an April visit to North Korea with a stern message for the United States and South Korea: give food aid to North Korea or be guilty of 'human rights violations'. Such threats are obtuse and unhelpful. Western and South Korean aid has saved thousands upon thousands of lives in North Korea. If North Koreans starve, only Kim Jong-il and his apparatchiks are responsible.
Despite the role of severe weather this will be a man-made famine. According to South Korea's Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, the North spends $400–500 million yearly on nuclear and other armaments while its food shortfall could be covered with $200–300 million per year. Simple reforms encouraging private cultivation of crops would almost certainly avert widespread famine.
But despite Kim Jong-il's unwillingness to dip into his Cognac budget, Carter is right. It is our moral obligation to provide for those in need, wherever they exist.
The existence of North Korea buries forever the notion that people get the government they deserve. Concerns from certain quarters that aid will be diverted to the military and used to retrench the regime's power should not be dismissed lightly. The government controls distribution networks and has diverted aid in the past, but if monitoring is good, even if it isn't perfect, the moral case for action is overwhelming.
Hopefully, the following story will put the current crisis in context. In 2007, Shin Dong-hyuk escaped from prison camp number 14, and earned the distinction of being the only known survivor of a 'Total Control Zone', the harshest of North Korea's three-tiered prison system. He was born in the camp and lived his entire life in its confines until his escape.
North Korea has taken the exploitation of family ties, a practice common to all dictatorships, to a new low. Up to three generations can be sent to prison for the crime of a single-family member, which may be as trivial as creasing a newspaper so the fold runs down Kim Jong-il's face. Shin's mother was interned for a crime committed by one of her relatives.
Shin knew nothing outside the camp. Because he was expected to die an inmate, he was not taught the facts that for most North Koreans are rote knowledge: the birthday of Kim Jong-il, his habits, his favorite songs, his life, his works. Shin bears scars from beatings and suffers permanent brain damage due to infantile deprivation.
Safe in South Korea, he was asked if he was shocked by the colors, lights and bustle of Seoul. Those things were nice, he said, but not shocking. The day after he escaped he saw two women, one wearing a blue shirt, one wearing a red shirt, walking through a field. That's when he was shocked. He had never seen a human being not wearing prison rags or a guard's uniform.
North Korea is a human rights time bomb. Education is cursory and health care highly unsatisfactory. When the Kim family fiat ends, millions of uneducated, unskilled, illiterate, impoverished and malnourished North Koreans will throw themselves on the mercy of their neighbors and the international community.
South Korea will understandably, and cheerfully, bear the brunt of this, but all nations should be prepared to help. It will be far worse than the gradual exodus of professionals during the amalgamation of East and West Germany. The final horror of dictatorship is that its effects are felt long after it is gone.
Lucas Smith co-edited the Melbourne University student magazine, Farrago, in 2010.