The long winter is ending in North Korea, and another season of bombast is about to begin.
From April to September, a series of holidays will almost inevitably be accompanied by bellicose statements – rhetoric likely to heighten tensions and make donors extra-jittery about funding humanitarian programmes that a great many North Koreans depend upon for their survival.
Upcoming holidays include the April anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il-sung, who led North Korea from its formation in 1948 until his death in 1994. The anniversary of the start of the 1950-1953 Korean War is in June, and September marks the founding of the country at the end of the conflict, which split the Korean peninsular into two nations (both still claim to be the legitimate government of the entire territory).
“This is the season where they do parades and make bombastic claims about reunification,” explained Gianluca Spezza, research director at leading website NK News, speaking in a personal capacity. “They start to ratchet up tensions. It’s part of the national propaganda system.”
This year, those tensions are already noticeably higher than normal. In November, the UN slapped further sanctions on North Korea, restricting critical coal exports in response to its fifth and largest nuclear test. Under UN Security Council rules, North Korea is allowed to continue only limited exports in order to pay for the “livelihoods” of its people.
China, by far the largest buyer of North Korea’s coal (its biggest export), announced in February that it would cease all purchases. That statement came six days after North Korea tested a ballistic missile system, with one missile falling just 200 kilometres from Japan’s coast.
Other regional rifts have also widened since the 13 February assassination in Kuala Lumpur International Airport of the exiled and estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader. South Korea accused Pyongyang of poisoning Kim Jong-nam with the lethal nerve agent VX, but the North angrily denied it and denounced Malaysia’s ensuing investigation as a smear campaign.
Against the backdrop of all this geopolitical tumult, the UN has released its funding appeal for 2017. The “needs assessment” said that 41 percent of North Korea’s 25 million people are undernourished, while 70 percent depend on government rations. The UN is asking for just $114 million, but may have trouble raising even that relatively small sum.
“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is in the midst of a protracted, entrenched humanitarian situation largely forgotten or overlooked by the rest of the world,” said UN resident coordinator Tapan Mishra, using the country’s official name in the assessment.
“I appeal to donors not to let political considerations get in the way of providing continued support for humanitarian assistance and relief,” he said, noting a “radical decline in donor funding since 2012”.
Recent events and the prospect of further trouble ahead is likely to make countries that contribute aid even more reluctant to be associated with North Korea.
“The intensification of sanctions and the worsening reputation of North Korea has a huge impact on being able to find donors,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Japan, for example, has been an important contributor to humanitarian programmes.
“When DPRK does missile launches and they end up in the Sea of Japan, one day they can say, ‘We’ve had enough,’” said Spezza.
He said the UN and China are the only reasons North Korea is able to function. The country lost its Cold War benefactor when the Soviet Union collapsed and it was struck by a series of floods, storms, and hailstorms that devastated crops between 1995 and 1998.
“It was a biblical disaster,” said Spezza.
Nobody knows how many people died in the ensuing famines; estimates range from 300,000 to one million.
That’s when the UN began large-scale humanitarian programmes, which continue 22 years later. Indicators such as malnutrition and mortality rates gradually rebounded, although the country has not managed to regain the levels of normalcy it had maintained until the early 1990s.
Some potential donors make the argument that a country that spends money building up its military while depending on humanitarian aid for two decades does not deserve support. At the same time, withdrawal of such aid would only hurt the victims of North Korea’s bad policies.
In addition to being chronically short of food, North Koreans are also subject to the regime’s use of food to punish those it considers “expendable”, a UN commission of inquiry found in 2014.
“If the UN pulled the plug, hypothetically, [North Korea] would go down in a few months,” said Spezza.
Other than Japan, big donors to UN programmes include the EU and the US. Current EU programming is due to end in November and will be up for renewal. Despite sabre-rattling between Washington and Pyongyang, the US provided $900,000 of aid in January, although the State Department has said it is reviewing last-minute spending approved by the previous administration.
The new US administration’s readjustment of its relationchip with North Korea may go further than reevaluating aid. On his recent trip to Asia, President Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, hinted at measures that could even include military action.
“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said during a stopover in South Korea’s capital, Seoul. “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.”
China, the prop
China’s role in propping up the economy is even more important than donors and UN agencies, which is why its decision to halt coal imports – a key source of cash for Kim’s regime – is so significant.
In response, the government’s Korean Central News Agency ran an article that accused China of “mean behaviour” and “dancing to the tune of the US”.
“It has unhesitatingly taken inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people’s living standard,” said the article, which ran under the byline of Jong Phil.
In fact, China’s decision will likely have little impact on living standards, according to Town, of the US-Korea Institute. She cited, for example, allegations that North Korea’s mines use forced labour.
“The revenue stream is not one that would have trickled down to the average person in that way,” said Town. “Nor would this particular revenue stream have much impact on say, agricultural production.”
Spezza said it’s almost impossible to think that China would allow North Korea to fail, even though it considers the regime to be “like a child throwing tantrums”.
Beijing is loath to abandon its neighbour as that would mean a state collapse and reunification, probably under the leadership of South Korea. Seoul is a staunch US ally and the country hosts more than 28,000 American troops. China does not want them on its doorstep.
“So, it’s geopolitics,” said Spezza.