Guns or Butter – North Korea’s Future

In this Yale Global essay, veteran Korean journalist Shim Jae Hoon writes that “military spending, estimated at one quarter of GNP, leaves 24 million people without basic goods and fundamental human rights.” He adds: “North Korea confronts dire grain shortages that could lead to a third of its population going hungry. The chain of command and responsibility rests with an inexperienced 29-year-old, and the new government is repeating old patterns, requesting food aid in exchange for ending the uranium-enrichment program. Collective leadership likely won’t last long in the rigid state, but aid could delay regime collapse. The US, South Korea, China and Kim Jong Un should prepare.”

Shim concludes:

Regime stability and continuity were overarching themes in the joint editorial of the party and army newspapers published on January 1 outlining major policy goals. While vowing to continue the military-first policy, the editorial repeated calls for easing food shortages and providing daily necessities. It also lashed out at the South Korean government as “anti-national, traitorous gang” for failing to send an official condolence delegation to Kim’s funeral. Talks of reconciliation with the South have vanished, indicating that the new leader is preoccupied with consolidating his internal power for the time being.

This inward-looking policy is expected to continue until the new leader feels confident about tackling the knottiest issues. Meanwhile, Washington is waiting to see how the North pursues talks over food aid, while Seoul says it stands ready to strike a “grand bargain deal,” offering large-scale aid if the North abandons nuclear weapons. Similarly, China is cautious, indicating it’s watchful against Pyongyang’s provocative behavior. President Hu Jintao told visiting South Korean President Lee Myong Bak on January 8 that Beijing is committed to keeping the peninsula “stable and peaceful.”

In the end, peace and stability will depend on the state of North Korea’s granaries and the military’s willingness to accept a grand bargain.

Read the full essay here.

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  1. Alan

     /  05/02/2012

    It’s all too common to assume that the DPRK is on the verge of another famine, that hunger will challenge the Songun Military-first policy and weaken the leadership, eventually toppling the regime.

    The truth is, as with many things related to the DPRK, nobody knows the current state of the DPRK’s granaries. Nobody knows the true extent of the shortages. Though the essay states that a third of the population could soon go hungry due to 700,000 ton deficit of grain, this is merely a speculative suggestion by ‘specialists’.

    It is important to note that according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), the DPRK’s food production during 2011 compared to the previous year rose by 8.5 %, bringing the total output to 5.48 million tons. This news contradicts the ‘rare’ invitation to report and broadcast a weather-related ‘food crisis’ during the summer of 2011. (

    The minimum amount of food consumption in the DPRK is marked to be around 5.4 million tons. As such there may well be ‘some’ shortages, with other ‘specialists’ suggesting levels of around 400,000 tons, rather than 700,000. Yet this cannot be used to illustrate a ‘dire’ situation, these shortages can be overcome. For one, China’s continual commitment to maintaining a ‘stable and peaceful’ Korean Peninsular ensures that they DPRK will have access to enough food during the current transition period.

    The recent requests for food aid from DPRK diplomats should not be used as an indicator that there are major food shortages and that there could be a trade-off of guns for butter. More likely, these are simply opportunistic efforts to accumulate as many free snacks as possible for Kim Il Sung’s all-important 100th birthday bash, where the Korean people are eagerly waiting to see what their undisclosed handouts will be.

  2. Bonnie Chen

     /  05/02/2012

    Recent requests for food aid by the DPRK is not something new. I also agree that these requests shouldn’t be used to indicate whether or not the DPRK is willing to end its nuclear program for food. North Korea has long had a problem with giving enough food for its people to eat, yet they’ve remained in power. In my opinion, it’s the lack of technology and openness that has made many North Koreans unaware about how much better their lives could be. Those that know, have probably attempted to or successfully escaped to China or South Korea.

    I also believe that the DPRK can only change when the Party Secretary chief Jang Song Thaek dies. Afterall, he is the supposed man who controlled many things behind the scenes. Who actually knows how much power Kim Jong-Il wielded when in reality, there isn’t much known about the DPRK in general. Kim Jong-Un is just the face of the party, just as Kim Jong-Il may have been after some point in his rule.

  3. Pablo Restrepo

     /  02/03/2012

    Alan to reply to your response, it does seem clear that North Korea is in dire need of Food Aid. so much so that North Korea, has accepted the package of 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the United States in reciprocity for the agreement to put on delay uranium enrichment and nuclear and long ranch missile testing. In the video posted on debating North Korea strong arguments where made that should Kim Jong Un as a figure of stability would not renounce the nuclear programme as it is the legacy of his father. now we are seeing that the nuclear programme is being used as a bargaining chip.

    the tittle of this reminded me of the german artist John Hartfield’s work `Hurray, die Butter ist allez’


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