Save Their Troops: The Truth is Tough to Swallow

June 20th, 2011
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In early June, in a hearing with the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Robert King, Special Envoy on Human Rights to North Korea, outlined a number of conditions on food aid for North Korea.  King explained that food aid sent to North Korea would be sent in small amounts over a long period of time, comprised of ‘less-desirable’ foods and measures would be taken to prevent the military from ‘hogging’ any of the aid.[1] Previous humanitarian relief operations in North Korea have ended with sub-par results, such as the North’s expulsion of aid workers in 2009 which forced relief agencies to leave 20,000 tonnes of food unattended.  As such, it is understandable that King is dedicated to monitoring the situation with greater vigilance.  Yet the realities of the DPRK will undoubtedly frustrate King’s chances of successfully implementing his policy.

King’s team has overlooked the scope of the KPA’s role in society. The rise of Songun Jeongchi (Military-First Politics) cemented the military’s position as an integral part of the North Korean way of life.  The Korean People’s Army (KPA) is not a subservient professional army, in the same way China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has come to be over the years.[2] Although the details of factionalism within China’s Communist Party (CCP) are debatable, the PLA has devolved into a tool of the CCP rather than an extension thereof.  Conversely, the KPA’s role has expanded to include various roles in politics as well as in the personal lives of the citizens.  It is home to 20% of the men between the ages of 17 and 54 and the total number of military personnel is thought to be around 1.2 million.[3] It recruits the nation’s best and brightest scientists and engineers, is responsible for ideological dissemination, is a unifier of generations, and is made up of the sons and daughters of millions of families.[4]

For the people, the KPA is meant to be a provider, in that each residential ban (residential division) is associated with a military post which is responsible for the delivery of food from the Public Distribution System (PDS)[5] Granted, the PDS has flickered in and out of existence over the years and there are reports of soldiers plundering the food stores of local residents, but unless King has fleets of trucks at his disposal, from a logistical standpoint, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the only sector of the State apparatus with access to the heavy machinery necessary to transport food aid once it has arrived in North Korea.  The military thus holds a monopoly on transportation, a necessary tool in distribution over a prolonged period of time, and will be in a position to dictate the movement of food aid once it has hit the ground.

King’s policy also fails to address the dichotomy of privileges within the KPA.  Denying the KPA food would furthermore exacerbate the difficulties of many who serve in the Army.  Research indicates that for the average citizen, joining the military has never been seen as a way to get ahead when compared to the perceived opportunities associated with small-scale enterprise and becoming a government or party official.[6] Thus it seems that the standard of living in the military is not remarkably higher than the status quo.  True as it may be that higher-level military officials are suspected of plump waistlines and relatively luxurious amounts of food[7], the lower echelons are often left wanting.  Hunger, rather than evil, seems to be a more appropriate explanation as to why soldiers have extracted food from their ban. It is obviously not the case that privileged ‘elites’ of the military outnumber soldiers in need, moreover, overlooking the starving for fear of feeding the fat seems counter-intuitive to the goals of emergency relief.

There are spillover benefits to feeding the Army. Kang Chol-hwan made clear in Aquariums of Pyongyang the soldiers will undoubtedly pass on food to their families, which will alleviate pressure on the PDS, giving it the option of feeding other members of the population in need.

We should also keep in mind that the KPA does not operate independent of the (black) markets, quite the contrary; the logistical access to transportation that the military enjoys is necessarily intertwined with the markets.  Officers with access to the right equipment can be expected to siphon off food for resale on the black market.  Although we can reasonably expect that theft and corruption are inherent in these activities, they are mediating the severity of the food crisis. An increase in the supply of food to the markets by whichever channels will naturally make food more available to families in North Korea who already rely more heavily on the markets than the PDS.[8]

Indicative of the side effects of democracy, King’s conditions are heavily influenced by domestic political voices, a number of which are less knowledgeable about the reality in North Korea than King.  The conditions may also contain diplomatic cunning unfamiliar to this author.  That is, setting conditions that deny the military food may be a ploy to encourage renegotiation of the terms, meeting somewhere in the middle with the North Korean counterparts. Nevertheless these reasons mentioned above, the army’s reception of food aid is necessary and just.  The hardships they are facing may not always be as great as that of the average citizen, but denying the Army access to food aid may prove counterproductive, incendiary or next to impossible.

Currently a team from the European Union is conducting a needs assessment for food aid in the DPRK.  Apparently neither experience from the past nor the work done by King has been enough to create any conviction about the dire need of food in North Korea.  The Team’s investigation is pushing the boundaries of the ‘lean period’ but still has the potential to counterbalance the political motivations of their predecessors.  As frustrating as it is to see food go to an army that is propping up the regime, we are better off understanding the KPA’s place in North Korean society.  We have already seen the willingness of the Regime to let its people succumb to starvation by the hundreds of thousands; we should not be so naive to believe that withholding food aid will bring the Powers That Be to their knees.

Picture by KCTV


[1] As members of the military and society are already at high risk for diseases related to malnutrition such as pellagra, the US should amend the conditions from sending ‘less desirable foods’ to sending ‘nutrient rich foods’.

[2] A solid explanation as to why the KPA and PLA have evolved so differently was given to me by a colleague at a seminar on North Korean society at the University of Berkeley.

[3] US Department of State, Background Notes: North Korea http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2792.htm

[4] Han S. Park “Military-First Politics (Songun): Understanding Kim Jong-il’s North Korea” Korean Economic Institute: Academic Paper Series (2008) pp118-131.

[5] Han S. Park “Military-First Politics (Songun): Understanding Kim Jong-il’s North Korea” Korean Economic Institute: Academic Paper Series (2008) pp118-131.

[6] Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, Witness to Transformaiton: Refugee Insights into North Korea (New York: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011), pp 76-77.

[7] Although Ri Myung Su may indicate otherwise.

[8] Stephen Haggard and Marcus Noland, Witness to Transformaiton: Refugee Insights into North Korea (New York: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011), pg 52.

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Konrad Mathesius



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