North Korea recently announced plans to hold a rare Workers’ Party congress in January. According to the resolution announcing the decision, the Workers’ Party Central Committee concluded that “the economy has failed to improve in the face of the persistently severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges, with the result that many of the planned goals for national economic growth have not yet been attained nor the people’s living standards improved markedly.”
Such an atypical admission makes it clear that Kim Jong-un’s five-year economic plan—announced at a 2016 Workers’ Party congress—has failed to achieve its lofty socialist goals. Along with crippling sanctions, the coronavirus and devastating flooding have further deteriorated North Korea’s precarious economy.
China accounts for approximately 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade. However, the coronavirus has forced the closure of the border between the two countries. According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, trade to China from North Korea has constricted 75 percent from just one year ago. Likewise, imports from China shrank 67 percent in that same time. North Korea relies heavily on China for vital food and fuel imports.
In addition to the harm wrought by the coronavirus, North Korea has recently experienced torrential rain and flooding that has destroyed nearly 100,000 acres of crops. The flooding comes on the heels of North Korea’s worst harvest in 10 years.
All of the foregoing factors have led to a food shortage that is purportedly so severe that Kim Jong-un has ordered citizens to surrender their pet dogs as “a tainted trend of bourgeois ideology.” The fear of course being that the pets will be used to ease the present food shortages.
Unfortunately for the 25 million inhabitants of North Korea, positive reforms are not forthcoming to address the systemic causes of their long-standing privation. Rather, if history is any indication, North Korea will try to solve their present economic problems by manufacturing a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea will then agree to de-escalate if the United States agrees to provide it with food and fuel assistance.
Time and again the “Hermit Kingdom” has deployed this tactic and too often the United States has played the patsy. President Clinton offered energy, economic and diplomatic benefits in exchange for the halting of North Korea’s nuclear program in 1994. In 2007, President Bush sent $400 million worth of fuel, food, and other aid in exchange for North Korea shutting down its main nuclear reactor. President Obama sent food aid to North Korea in 2012 after North Korea agreed to halt nuclear testing. See a pattern?
As is quite evident, all of these agreements were summarily violated. North Korea consents to these temporary reprieves as a way to stem complete economic collapse. It has no intention of ever upholding the agreements it signs. Nevertheless, while the United States has provided North Korea with billions of dollars in assistance since 1995, it has never been able to purchase peace in the region and it never will. On the contrary, it has set a dangerous precedent. Extortion has only begotten more extortion. All this aid does is reward the North Korean government for prioritizing nuclear weapons over food, health care, and essential public services.
North Korea’s leaders are not willing to modify its domestic and foreign policies, and no amount of promised aid is going to change that fact. To Kim Jong-un, nuclear weapons are an insurance policy against regime change by outside forces.
Kim Jung-un took the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi as a warning. Gaddafi forfeited his nuclear weapons program in 2003. In 2011 US-led NATO forces bombed Libyan government installations and provided military assistance to the insurgents that would eventually overthrow and kill Gaddafi during the Arab Spring uprisings. Likely, this would never have occurred if Libya had not scuttled its nuclear weapons program.
The United States must learn that it cannot purchase peace in North Korea and stop perpetually caving to its demands every couple of years.
Another manufactured crisis is coming. It is only a matter of time considering the acute food shortages currently gripping the county. Rather than making false agreements that will never stand, let North Korea collapse under the weight of its debilitating totalitarianism. While this may seem a rather harsh policy, it is the best of all possible alternatives. The aid that the United States provides rarely makes it to the populace. Rather, it goes directly to feed and maintain the Korean People’s Army. By continually placating North Korea, the United States is helping prop-up the hereditary dictatorship of the Kim dynasty.