The U.N. Commission of Inquiry for North Korea has done excellent and necessary work collecting testimony about the regime’s political prison camps. Michael Kirby, the Commission’s Chairman, has earned the eternal gratitude of the Korean people for his forthrightness, and friends of mine who met him during the COI’s session in Washington last week tell me they were deeply impressed with both Kirby and Sonja Biserko (the third commissioner, Marzuki Darusman, who performed admirably as the U.N. Special Rapporteur, fell ill during his visit and didn’t make as many of the rounds).
Before the COI convened, I had low expectations. I’d grown accustomed to the impotence and incompetence of Ban Ki Moon’s U.N. I’m glad to admit that I was wrong this time. The COI’s report may or may not result in charges before the International Criminal Court, but it matters that the world is hearing the testimony that the COI is taking. Governments will consider it, and the COI’s findings, as they decide how to implement laws and regulations, and companies will consider it as they decide where not to invest. The COI has already imposed a penalty on Kim Jong Un, and that penalty will increase with each hearing, press conference, and finding.
But as much as the attention on the prison camps is necessary and welcome, I initially regretted that the COI hadn’t focused on a even greater but less understood crime — the needless and entirely preventable famine that may have killed millions of North Koreans. Nothing can bring the victims back, but at least their deaths should not be overlooked or misattributed to natural causes. Fortunately, they won’t be:
North Korea economy expert Marcus Noland told the panel Thursday that Pyongyang is “clearly culpable” in the denial of the right to food, both under current leader Kim Jong Un and his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who ruled during the devastating famine era.
“The North Korean government did not and continues not to use the resources available at its disposal to address the lack of food among the populace, and when aid was offered, it hindered and continues to hinder the operation of relief programs,” he said.
The North Korean government’s economic and agricultural policies contributed to the food shortages that led to the famine, he said, and the leaders could have avoided the devastation it wreaked by devoting a small portion of its budget—such as by diverting some from military expenditures—to addressing food needs.
“This was a man-made, preventable tragedy. These people died needlessly, and the government is culpable.” [Radio Free Asia]
Andrew Natsios, author of The Great North Korean Famine, whom I’ve come to know and respect over the previous year, reached a similar conclusion:
Former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator Andrew Natsios said that even if natural causes had been behind the early factors contributing to the famine, once it knew about the problem, Kim Jong Il’s government did not act fast enough to address it.
“He was in charge, he was responsible, he knew what was going on, and he chose not to buy food and give it to the people.”
The leadership would have known how the famine was devastating the population—including from government records showing a massive drop in children’s heights and weights due to malnutrition, Natsios said.
Its lack of action could not be put down to “incompetence,” he said.
“They knew what was going on and they chose not to take action to protect the population because their first objective was survival.”
If the Commission should care to accept my offer, I hope they’ll consider adding this exhibit to their indictment.
[The world's deadliest operational aircraft...]
This is Suncheon Air Base, not far from Pyongyang. It’s the home of North Korea’s few modern combat aircraft — its MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 ground attack aircraft. Both types are modern enough to still be in service with the Russian Air Force, although these are almost certainly cheaper export models.
North Korea purchased its Su-25s between 1987 and 1989, before the famine, so we won’t count them in the analysis that follows. But Kim Jong Il acquired his first 12 MiG-29s from Belarus in 1995, just as North Korea plunged into famine. An export version of a MiG-29 costs about $35 million, which excludes maintenance, training, spare parts, and armament. The following year, North Korea bought 18 more MiG-29s from Belarus and Mother Russia. The total purchase cost of thirty MiG-29s works out to over $1 billion. In addition, the annual cost to maintain each aircraft is around $5 million, which works out to over $600 million for the period between 1995 and 2000. Let’s assume that North Korea skimped on fuel and spare parts and accept a more conservative cost figure of $1.5 billion.
[... and they've never been used in combat.]
Obviously, this $1.5 billion figure doesn’t include what Kim Jong Il spent on missiles, nuclear weapons, palaces, yachts, or limousines, or the 40 MiG-21s he bought from Kazakhstan in 1999, near the end of the famine.
The best estimates of the North Korean famine’s human toll range from 600,000 to 2.5 million (other estimates are higher). I’ve explained here why I believe the 2.5 million figure is better supported. To parse it for yourself, you’ll need to read Andrew Natsios’s book.
At the height of the famine, in 1997, North Korea’s grain deficit was estimated at 1.9 million tonnes. During the famine years, the average price of corn was around $120 a tonne. That works out to an annual cost of $228 million to close North Korea’s grain deficit during each of the famine years. If you divide $1.5 billion by $228 million, the cost of these MiG-29s could have more than covered North Korea’s food deficit for six and half years, a period that spans the duration of the famine. If Kim Jong Il had imported corn instead of these MiGs, there would have been no famine.
Now, divide 2.5 million dead by 30 MiG-29s. You arrive at a cost of 75,000 lives per aircraft — roughly the same death toll as the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. For each plane.
[A million deaths is just a statistic.]
The victims of North Korea’s famine didn’t have to die, but they did — maybe by the millions, and often after watching their children die before them. They were killed by the deliberate polices of their government — policies whose effects were felt year after agonizing year — as surely as the victims of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Auschwitz. The main difference is that the North Korean victims didn’t die after moments of agony. Their final agony lasted weeks, if not months.