While U.S. media and policymakers are focused on the chaotic situation in Libya, the civil war in Syria, and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, another rogue state—North Korea—has been relegated to the back burner of public attention. But not for long, because the U.N.’s annual crop assessment for North Korea will shortly be published. These annual assessments have been published since the Great North Korean Famine of the mid-1990s killed as many as 2.5 million people, and they are supposed to warn the international humanitarian system of an impending famine. This assessment will show that drought early this summer seriously damaged the crop so that the harvest will drive the country, always on the edge of starvation, ever deeper into nutritional disaster.
While famines anywhere have terrible humanitarian consequences, in North Korea’s case in particular, they have political consequences because they have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. While the North Korean government has been building its nuclear arsenal and the maintaining the third largest land army in Asia, its people have been sliding into deepening poverty and acute malnutrition, stunting generations of children. One study shows that the average North Korean solider is 10 inches shorter than those in the South Korean military—a sign of chronic acute malnutrition affecting an entire generation of young North Koreans.
The one attempted military coup in North Korea’s 60-year history took place during the 1990s famine in the region with the highest death rates. The death rates were so high in the epicenter of the famine that a truck would search street by street each morning collecting hundreds of dead bodies to bury them in mass graves. It was likely that the severity of the famine drove the military to mutiny. According to scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, North Korea sends 40 percent of its young men between the ages of 18 and 25 into the military. This means that a sizeable portion of the country’s families have sons under arms, families which suffered terribly in the famine. Over the long term this is a recipe for political uprising and revolution. In a country with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, political uprisings can be dangerous to the world order, particularly if the regime loses control of the weapons as it collapses.