WHILE the country’s leadership continues to plough scarce resources into internationally condemned missile and nuclear programmes, North Koreans face incredible hardship as sanctions and the worst drought for almost two decades threaten to leave the already impoverished nation unable to feed its people.
Japanese documentary maker Jiro Ishimaru told The Guardian of the daily struggle normal North Koreans have in securing food, saying the majority of food goes to the million-strong army.
“For one thing, there are too many soldiers to feed,” Ishimaru said. “And corruption is rife, so that by the time senior military officers have taken their share of food provisions to sell for profit on the private market, there is next to nothing left for ordinary soldiers.”
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Ishimaru runs a network of citizen journalists inside North Korea who make contact with him through the use of contraband mobile phones. He explains while living standards have improved for some North Koreans under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, since a drought that ravaged crops earlier this summer, many of the country’s 25 million people are living in dire conditions with little food while others fear losing their jobs due to sanctions.
This looks set to worsen as state-media announced on Wednesday Kim has ordered increased production of key missile parts.
Following a visit to a chemical institute, Kim is reported to have “instructed the institute to produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips by further expanding engine production process and the production capacity of rocket warhead tips and engine jets by carbon/carbon compound material,” reported KCNA.
North Korea has ramped up its missile programme in recent months amid an escalation of bombastic rhetoric between Kim and United States President Donald Trump.
The most recent display was the launch of a Hwasong-14 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) late last month. The test prompted new United Nations sanctions aimed at slashing North Korea’s US$3 billion annual export revenue by a third.
Under increasing pressure, some residents of the hermit kingdom are beginning to question the wisdom of furthering a weapons programme that inevitably invites international reprisals.
The Daily NK website quoted a source in North Korea as saying some residents felt “disillusioned by the Kim Jong-Un regime, which spends more money on developing missiles than improving their livelihoods”.
“Everyone is aware whenever the regime launches a missile, economic sanctions will follow. There’s nothing to celebrate for ordinary citizens.”
Amid the heightened tensions, stories of war with the US have abounded state-controlled North Korean news. Ishimaru’s contacts, however, fear the army would not be capable should such a war come to fruition.
“One of them told me there was talk of war with the US,” Ishimaru told The Guardian, “but that many North Korean soldiers are in poor physical condition and in no fit state to fight.”
With weapons programmes and bilateral tensions dominating the ruling party’s focus, Ishimaru fears the ordinary citizen is being forgotten.
“This is exactly what Kim Jong-un wants – to project an image of strength, that he and the people are one and the same,” he said. “In an ordinary country, there would be riots over the food shortages, but not in North Korea.”
A UN report released in March, found 41 percent of the population are undernourished while 70 percent are reliant on food rations to stay alive. The report warned of a “protracted, entrenched humanitarian situation” if it continues to go overlooked by the rest of the world.
In an effort to stem to spread of malnutrition, the UN committed US$6.3 million in aid to help North Korea cope with shortages of corn, rice, maize, potatoes and other essential crops.
But this is unlikely to be enough in a country that continues to place power above populace.
“The drought, combined with sanctions, will take the North Korean economy in a dangerous direction by next spring,” Ishimaru said. “This is a time of real hardship for ordinary people.”
The shine of promised glory against the US is starting to wear thin as people face the realities of life under increasingly stringent sanctions.
“In the beginning, the residents were proud of the regime openly opposing the US with nuclear development and missiles,” an anonymous source from inside the regime told Daily NK. “But these days, anti-US sentiment has weakened, while respect for the regime has plummeted.”