The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has issued a report concluding that malnutrition and disease are both on the rise in North Korea. The news, as usual, garnered little attention in the western media nor also amongst western nuclear analysts. If anything, such news is greeted positively, a sign that sanctions and isolation are having their effects so much so Kim Jong-un may be, finally, compelled to bend the knee before US power. The rising humanitarian crisis is attributed to a combination of volatile weather leading to an alternating pattern of floods and droughts, and lack of access to resources to mitigate their effects on food production and the prevalence of water borne bacteria.
According to the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in North Korea, Mohamed Babiker, cited in the above linked report, “rates of malnutrition and water borne diseases like diarrhea and colitis are on the rise.” In the 2019 United Nations Panel of Experts Report on the implementation of UN sanctions and adherence to UN resolutions with respect to North Korea (pdf, pp360-361) it is stated
“More than 40 per cent of the population (10.3 million people) is undernourished and one in five children is stunted. Over nine million people have limited access to essential health services. A severe shortage of basic drugs persists. Over one-third of household drinking water is contaminated. One in ten children suffers from diarrhea.”
Regarding the relationship between sanctions and the suffering of North Koreans the Panel of Experts Report goes on,
“Paragraph 7 of resolution 2397 (2017) covers several goods which are vital to agriculture or public health programs, including a variety of agricultural machinery and medical equipment (annex 87). Prohibited goods include machinery and parts for food processing factories; pumps, filters, pipes, and drilling equipment necessary to address critical humanitarian needs, such as providing clean water to prevent diarrhea, one of the main killers of children in the DPRK, and food security to reduce high malnutrition rates.”
One of the main killers of children in North Korea, diarrhea, as noted is on the rise. What the Panel of Experts says of the sectoral sanctions is especially pertinent
“The Panel notes that the implementation of sectoral sanctions in particular has had an impact on the activities of international humanitarian agencies working to address chronic humanitarian needs in the country.”
These are the sanctions that Kim Jong-un asked to be suspended at Hanoi in exchange for the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The broad consensus, including nay especially among liberals, is that North Korea asked for too much at Hanoi. Granting North Korea access to resources to prevent the killing of its children through diarrhea would be to allow too much. These are the same people that prance and preen on social and mainstream media regarding Xinjiang. The matter is made worse when one considers that at Hanoi the US insisted upon a formulation (up front complete dismantlement for follow on sanctions suspension) that was unrealistic, and most likely made on the understanding that it would not be acceptable to Pyongyang. What we are talking about here are crimes against humanity.
Recall also that Duyeon Kim and Melissa Hanham at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, following North Korea’s tests of the KN-23 short range ballistic missile but before the Kim-Trump summit at Panmunjom, called for tightening the sanctions noose because “missiles like these will start the war.” That both wrote in a state brimming with “missiles like these will start the war,” and which starts more wars than you and I change jumpers, was neither here nor there. This makes sense on the operative principle of the elite consensus on international relations; only the United States is permitted interests, smaller states are permitted nothing bar obligations.
The Japan Times carried a report claiming that Kim Jong-un stated to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in recent summitry that he seeks security guarantees from Trump, rather than sanctions relief, in exchange for denuclearisation. The Japan Times has proven to be an unreliable source at times, and this report should be treated with scepticism. Pyongyang has a security guarantee, that being a hydrogen bomb able to destroy American cities when delivered by the Hwasong-15 ICBM.
That point is not unrelated to the news item that dominated the week on nuclear North Korea. The North Korean news agency, KCNA, carried a report citing remarks from a North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson alleging that Washington had violated an agreement made between Kim and President Trump at their third meeting in Panmunjom. Essentially, Pyongyang claims that Trump stated to Kim that he would suspend upcoming joint military exercises with South Korea
“The United States and south Korea are going to defiantly conduct a joint military exercise “Alliance 19-2” targeting us in August…(snip)… The suspension of joint military exercises is what President Trump, commander-in-chief of the U.S., personally committed to at the DPRK-U.S. summit talks in Singapore under the eyes of the whole world and reaffirmed at the DPRK-U.S. summit meeting in Panmunjom, where our Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State were also present.”
In other words, security guarantees from Trump wouldn’t be worth the paper they’re written on. If what the North Koreans are saying is true, i.e. that Trump agreed to suspend the Alliance 19-2 exercises, but those exercises are going ahead anyway, that would be the third time the Trump administration has misrepresented the nature of Trump’s direct interactions with Kim. At the first summit in Singapore it appears that Trump had promised to issue a joint declaration, with Seoul and Pyongyang, on the end of the Korean War in exchange for Kim’s dismantling of the Sohae (Tongchang-ri) facility for testing large liquid propelled missile and rocket engines. The suspension of US-ROK military exercises appears to have been in response to North Korea’s prior suspension of nuclear and ICBM testing. At Hanoi, immediately after the collapse of the summit, both Mike Pompeo and President Trump misrepresented to the world’s media what had transpired. It was the North Koreans in hastily, and unprecedentedly, organised press conferences who called them out on that. It is conceded by most serious analysts that North Korea’s account of the proceedings was more credible than Trump and Pompeo’s.
And now we have this after Panmunjom. Could it be three strikes and you’re out? Notice what the KCNA report states here
“Our discontinuation of the nuclear and ICBM tests and the U.S. suspension of joint military exercises are, to all its intents and purposes, commitments made to improve bilateral relations…(snip)… With the U.S. unilaterally reneging on its commitments, we are gradually losing our justifications to follow through on the commitments we made with the U.S. as well.”
Should North Korea lift its suspension of nuclear and ICBM testing we would, most likely, head back to the fraught nuclear standoff of 2017. The reference to reversing the suspension of nuclear and missile testing is supportive of the notion that they’re linked to the suspension of military exercises pledge at Singapore. Tit-for-tat has been North Korea’s nuclear MO since the early 1990s. Notice that the statement carries an implicit admission, not picked up by analysts and commentators. That is, North Korea implicitly concedes that its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri was not dismantled. A July 19 analysis, at 38North, based on the latest publicly available satellite imagery, of the Punggye-ri test site indicates no change in its status, however it continues to be well maintained. North Korea, like Washington, has publicly over sold the true meaning of its actions.
Now Mike Pompeo is reported as denying that Washington is violating a commitment made at the third summit at Panmunjom
“I saw those comments,” Pompeo said. “I think we’re doing exactly what President Trump promised Chairman Kim we would do with respect to those exercises.”
At the very least these remarks suggest that Trump did promise Kim something at Panmunjom, a concession many commentators have missed. As noted above, thus far, Trump administration characterisations of Kim-Trump meetings have lacked credibility. A subsequent KCNA report citing an MFA spokesperson stated that Pyongyang is considering whether to go ahead with working level meetings with US officials on denuclearisation, the main tangible outcome of the Panmunjom summit. Pompeo himself conceded he doesn’t know whether they will go ahead.
When the third summit went down, I was actually talking with some nice cows at The Potato Shed I do confess. Although in my defence, if the charge of bullshit sticks, that was kind of appropriate. In a post hot on the heels of the third summit I stated that my initial impression was that Kim allowed Trump to make him look like an exotic idiot. That impression might yet prove a prescient one. Certainly, it makes sense that Kim would have wanted to extract some concession to save face. Many condemned the summit as a public relations farce, yet others praised it as the dawn of a new era. Both reactions are bad ones. My view on all this has long been that the future is best influenced than predicted. We should be, as citizens in liberal democratic societies, using the means available to us through dissidence and action to pressure our governments to adopt a just and rational stance. The impulse of those who support peace on the Korean peninsula should not be to pat Trump on his orange palette when he talks with Kim but rather work to make sure there’s proper follow through. Not many are doing this.
Finally, the Iran nuclear file is not irrelevant here and that for all sorts of reasons. Let us take the latest developments. The United Kingdom seized an Iranian cargo vessel, likely a show of loyalty following the imbroglio over the UK ambassador’s cable on the Trump White House, the US shot down an Iranian drone (not long after Iran’s shooting down of a US drone), and (likely retaliatory) Iran seized a UK cargo vessel in the Strait of Hormuz. Earlier in the year, when Iran attempted two satellite launches from its Semnan space launch centre, Pompeo, in a bizarrely worded press release, spoke of “restoring deterrence” against Iran. Yet, clearly, the dilemmas of deterrence exist on the Iranian side. How might Tehran deter the US? It’s possible to interpret the Iranian counter seizure of a UK vessel in the context of “restoring deterrence.” Two states overly concerned with “restoring deterrence” might lead to the very outcome supposedly being deterred against, a good indication of an inherent irrationality at work.
Now, consider the following remark in the KCNA report on the Alliance 19-2 exercises with South Korea
“We really have many things to say about the facts that the U.S., together with Japan, south Korea and other countries, staged the “Proliferation Security Initiative” exercise targeting our country in early July and continues to bring highly sophisticated war equipment into south Korea.”
What if, in future should denuclearisation diplomacy fail, North Korea would take umbrage to the seizure of a North Korean vessel under the PSI or in enforcement of sanctions? That is, what would happen should nuclear North Korea, just like Iran, seek to “restore deterrence” through counter seizures?
Like I said, the future is better influenced than predicted.