Maybe it does make sense for the North Korean government to keep its people hungry.

My darling bride (of 32 years, 10 months and 27 days) and I were watching CNN before she had to leave for work this morning, and we saw footage of North Korean soldiers goose-stepping on parade in front of the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un. Knowing something of North Korea’s serious shortage of food, she said, “They sure are burning a lot of calories.”

I hadn’t thought of it in that manner, but it certainly makes sense. Hunger and malnutrition have been such chronic problems in the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea that high percentages of children have been afflicted with stunted growth. The numbers vary by a fairly significant amount, from an estimate of 61.7% to 45%.

Of course, the soldiers get the best and most plentiful food, enabling them to goose step smartly before First Secretary Kim. They have to know that most of the civilians, especially those living outside of the capital city of Pyongyang, have far, far less to eat, and that may well be the secret to the Kim dynasty retaining its iron control: in a nation where most people go hungry, the people whose loyalty is required to retain control are the best fed, and those soldiers reasonably fear that not supporting the Kim dynasty might lead to the soldiers themselves going hungry.

From The Economist, in September of 2011:

Most endure hunger at least some of the time. So why do they not revolt?

One intriguing explanation comes from Go Myong-hyun, a statistician at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, which has just held a conference in Seoul on the viability of the North Korean regime. On the basis of satellite imagery of crop areas, vegetation and human settlement, Mr Go believes that both North Korea’s crops and the population that tends them are more geographically scattered than outsiders have hitherto thought. He contests UN estimates that over three-fifths of the country is urbanised. That would require every farmer to sustain nearly two city dwellers, which a shortage of fertiliser, farm machinery and fuel precludes. Mr Go reckons that urbanisation could be as low as 25%, based on data from the Global Rural Urban Mapping Project, a global population map. That would imply three farmers for each city dweller. It suggests that, even though much of the country is cut off from the food-distribution system, rural dwellers survive precariously through subsistence farming.

More at the link. Mr Go suggested that the isolation of the rural North Koreans prevents the kind of unity and gathering mobilization that would be required to topple the Communist regime, and I would not dispute that in the slightest. But one point not mentioned is that chronic hunger and malnutrition leave the very segments of the population with the most reason to rebel without the physical strength and mental energy to revolt; a lack of physical energy from hunger leads to mental listlessness and lethargy. The malnourished do not revolt because they lack the strength and the will to revolt.

The Tablet, an international Catholic weekly, said, in February of 2011:

Even totalitarian governments, unless they are prepared to turn themselves into brutal dictatorships, require to some degree the consent of the governed.

Herman Wouk made the point that even Adolf Hitler depended upon the consent of the governed to some extent.1 But if the Nazis and the Soviet- and Chinese-styles of Communism came close to perfecting a new definition of consent, which is merely the failure to actually rebel, enforced by the military and the secret police, the Kim dynasty2 has made the old new again: as the subsistence farmers of the feudal era were not the sources of rebellions against kings and nobles — the many, many rebellions and wars were the efforts of some nobles fighting other nobles — the Kims have come close to perfecting immunity from rebellion, by keeping their people too physically and mentally weak to rebel, and the 조선인민군 (Inmin Gun or People’s Army) both rewarded through the 선군정치 (Sŏn’gun or military first) policy, and cowed by the background fear that if the regime is overthrown, they, too, might begin to starve.

The DPRK just blew up $850 million on its failed rocket launch; the London Telegraph stated that would have been enough to buy 2.5 million tons of corn and 1.4 million tons of rice for the country’s hungry people. Put another way, it was 1½ weeks worth of the country’s total gross domestic product,3 turned into fireworks.

Jennifer Rubin, writing on The Washington Post’s blog, criticized President Obama’s response to the North Korean rocket launch:

North Korea: Par for the Obama course

If it weren’t so sad and infuriating it would be funny. The North Korean dictatorship violates international agreements and U.N. resolutions by shooting off (incompetently, but that’s irrelevant) a rocket. So the United States declares: Let the United Nations handle this! And the United Nations does nothing. I know, you’re shocked, just shocked to find there is no will to punish the North Korean tyrants.

The Post reported:

Twice over the past six years, North Korea has set off nuclear tests after failed rocket launches sparked international outcry and, later, economic sanctions. On Friday, at an emergency meeting, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement that censored North Korea’s launch — widely perceived as a thinly veiled ballistic missile test — but stopped well short of any imposing new penalties on Pyongyang.

U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, with unintentional hilarity, declared: “Members of the Security Council agree to continue consultations on an appropriate response.” Well, that’s nice. We wouldn’t want the “international community,” as it has done with Syria, to do nothing, projecting weakness and encouraging despotic regimes to ignore empty threats.

More at the link, including where she noted that the Obama Administration’s defense boiled down to “the Obama administration’s defense of its failed policy . . . amount(ed) to: Bush was worse.” But Miss Rubin got it wrong, just as the Obama and Bush and Clinton Administrations all got it wrong, because they were all operating from the same basic, Western assumption, that Kim Jong-un, and his father before him, wanted to make life in North Korea at least marginally better.

If you operate with that concept as a basis, the actions of the DPRK make no sense at all, and have not made any sense for decades. Such would imply a virtual insanity on the part of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, all three of them, in succession. Armies have tolerated suspected insanity at the top before, but to tolerate it in three successive generations is unheard of in world history. However, if you abandon that concept, as difficult as that is for the Western mind to accept, and look at North Korea’s actions from the idea that the overriding concern is to maintain stable government power by the Kims, their actions make perfect sense. Moreover, looked at with that underlying basis, it becomes clear that there is virtually nothing the United States or the United Nations or really anybody with the possible exception of the People’s Republic of China can do through punishments and rewards diplomacy that would make the least bit of difference.

Here at least
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.


  1. The point was made in one of Mr Wouk’s two books, The Winds of War, or War and Remembrance, but your Editor cannot recall exactly where it was. He has read both books several times.
  2. Primarily under Kim Jong-il; Kim Jong-un has not been in power long enough to have done anything new.
  3. North Korea’s estimated 2009 GDP was $28 billion.
  4. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, Lines 258-63

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