“I have no respect for a man who starves his own people,” declared President Bush, justifying U.S. military aggression towards North Korea and inciting an image of Kim Jong Il as an evil dictator forsaking malnourished children to stockpile nuclear weapons. 

But Is Kim Jong Il really starving his people or is the fact that the U.S. is still technically at war with North Korea driving the persistence of famine?  July 27th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the temporary armistice between the U.S. and North Korea, and provides an opportunity for these two nations to sign a treaty, ending the war and sanctions, the real culprits driving hunger in North Korea.

Contrary to Bush’s assertion, most experts agree that geopolitical and ecological events led to a one-two punch that resulted in the North Korean famine in the 1990s.  The first major blow to North Korean food production was the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the socialist trading bloc, which eliminated North Korea’s major trading partners.  The end of subsidized oil from the former Soviet Union and China literally halted the tractors of North Korean farmers.  The second blow-major droughts and floods that were the worst of the century-destroyed much of the harvest and forced Pyongyang to seek Western and Japanese aid. 

The persistence of famine, however, is due to economic sanctions led by the U.S. and its refusal to end the 50-year Korean War.  What is scarcely known about North Korea is that up until the 1980s, North Korea’s agricultural and economic growth far outpaced South Korea.  The World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies have praised their delivery of basic health services, noting that North Korean children were far better vaccinated than American children, and that life expectancy rates in North Korea surpassed that of South Korea. 

Furthermore, only about 20 percent of North Korea’s mostly mountainous land is suitable for agriculture.  Before the Korean peninsula was divided, the north served as Korea’s industrial base and the south as its breadbasket.  Despite these odds, by 1961, North Korea achieved agricultural self-sufficiency, an amazing feat for a nation that scarcely a decade before was left in a pile of rubble. 

The Korean War claimed four million lives and left North Korean agriculture bombed to bits.  According to historians, the U.S. military’s mission in the North, called the ‘scorched earth policy,’ exhibited unprecedented brutality far worse than in Vietnam.  The U.S. Air Force’s use of napalm destroyed irrigation dams and facilities that provided 75 percent of North Korea’s food production. This very same act of aggression was considered a war crime when Nazis destroyed much smaller facilities in Holland. 

After North Korea signed the armistice, the North Korean people set out to rebuild their devastated nation according to the juche philosophy that promoted self-reliance and national independence.  This inspired two New York Times writers in 1972 to note with astonishment that this country, the size of Mississippi, had developed a “well organized and highly industrialized socialist economy, largely self-sufficient, with a disciplined and productive work force.” 

Despite their efforts to remain food sovereign, and because of events beyond their control, North Korea could not sustain the stranglehold of the United States.  For five decades, the U.S. has pursued military and economic policies that have held 22 million North Koreans hostage and threatened them with nuclear annihilation.  These same mad politics are driving the insane military budgets of both nations, diverting vital government resources that would improve the welfare of its people.  

If President Bush truly cared about ending the starvation of millions of North Koreans, he would sign a peace treaty with their government and end the Korean War that has isolated this country for 50 years.

Christine Ahn coordinates the Economic and Social Human Rights Program at Food First and is a member of the Korea Solidarity Committee of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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