The North Korean Catch-22: Sanctions, Starvation, and Nuclear Escalation

Since US President Donald Trump’s historic visit to North Korea on June 30, tensions between the US and the hermit country have escalated.

On Thursday, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, following through on a threat made on July 16 to resume missile testing if the US and South Korea proceeded with scheduled joint military exercises. North Korea called the test a “solemn warning” to its neighbor South Korea, which it referred to as a “military warmonger.”

This is North Korea’s first missile test since May. According to South Korea, the projectiles launched by North Korea are a new type of short-range missiles. The launch of these missiles poses a military threat, and risks undermining the current peace process in place, according to South Korea. On Friday, Trump told reporters he was not surprised by the tests, and that he does not view them as a setback to nuclear talks with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

While things have certainly improved since 2017 – a year in which North Korea launched 23 ballistic missiles, an intercontinental ballistic missile, and conducted a nuclear test – the situation is still extremely precarious, as evidenced by Thursday’s test.

Trump’s relaxed reaction might be aimed at reducing current tensions, and continuing the existing dialogue with North Korea. Nevertheless, nuclear and ballistic missile tests put North Korea closer to being able to launch a nuclear-tipped missile against US allies, and threaten Trump’s bargaining and defensive position in the region.

The more advanced North Korea’s nuclear program becomes, the more Kim can use it as leverage in negotiations with the US and its allies. Nuclear power is power, and Kim knows perfectly well that he can use it to his advantage when dealing with other nations. In fact, nuclear weapons are the only real bargaining chip that the North possess. Without them, they have zero leverage on the world stage. This is precisely why Kim will never willingly give up nuclearization.

On July 23, North Korea released pictures of a new submarine that could potentially allow it to launch nuclear weapons from unknown underwater locations. These recent developments suggest that the US should continue to maintain a hardline sanctions policy, with the goal of eventually forcing Kim to abandon his nuclearization program.

However, while international sanctions have seriously weakened North Korea’s economy and brought Kim to the negotiating table, they haven’t stopped him from continuing to pursue nuclearization, a priority which seems to trump almost every other consideration.

China, which accounts for approximately 90% of North Korea’s trade, has decreased its imports from North Korea by about 90% year on year, importing only $195 million worth of goods in 2018. Furthermore, fuel shortages caused by oil sanctions have led to agricultural decline, making access to food in North Korea even scarcer than it already was.

North Korea is facing extreme food shortages, with a severe famine looming as winter approaches. A recent UN report found that some 11 million people (over 40 percent of the North Korean population) are suffering from food and water insecurity. For a land rich in resources and human capital, these woes are mostly a result of severe government policies, compounded by the effect of economic sanctions.

“The unintended negative impact sanctions can have on agricultural production, through both direct and indirect impacts, cannot be ignored,” states a report from the UN’s World Food Program and Food Agricultural Organization.

Can the US and its allies help alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people, while continuing to put political and economic pressure on the aggressive Kim regime? The North Korean government’s disregard of civilian suffering, coupled with its iron hold on its population, makes this scenario extremely difficult.

Historically, food and medical aid provided by the US and other countries to North Korea has not always gone to help the people it was intended for, sometimes serving to bolster the military and the dictatorship.

In May, South Korea approved $8 million in food aid to North Korea, in response to dire food shortages. Kim called the gesture from South Korean President Moon Jae-In “non-essential” to aiding ties between the North and South.

While aid is certainly warranted, it carries risks as well. One risk is that the money will be diverted away from intended recipients. Moreover, the North Korean regime could use the funds it saves on buying food to fund its nuclear weapons program.

The aid could also perpetuate the inequitable distribution of food, which is common practice in the country. North Korea’s policy of songun, or “military first,” means that an enormous portion of the state budget goes to the military.

“If you can manufacture nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, clearly you can import enough food to make up for the shortfall in the harvest. There is no doubt about it,” Benjamin Silberstein, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told NPR.

Moreover, the food distribution system largely favors Pyongyang, where political elites live much more comfortably than the rest of the North Korean population.

“North Korea’s food shortages aren’t about external shocks from the weather, or from sanctions. They’re about a system,” Silberstein said.

The desire to help the North Koreans while hurting their oppressor possess a Catch-22, since weakening Kim often means weakening civilians. Moreover, North Korea’s obsession with nuclearization means that any money it gets is disproportionately spent on the military, while civilians starve.

Kim is holding the North Korean people hostage, and there is not a whole lot the international community can do about it, at least for now.