Joshua PollackPyongyang’s Priorities

Malnourished children awaiting treatment at a hospital in Sariwon City (North Hwanghae Province) on 18 February 2009. Photo: World Food Program/Lena Savelli

There’s a really fine post over at NOH about seizures of goods headed to and from North Korea under UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. If you don’t know, 1718 prohibited imports and exports of nuclear and missile technology, luxury goods, and certain conventional weapons. 1874, adopted after last year’s nuclear test, prohibits the import and export of all weapons and toughens the earlier sanctions in a few other ways as well.

As NOH observes, a lot of fancy goods go into North Korea, and some countries are more assiduous about trying to prevent this than others. (See under Yachts, Italian-made.) That’s all the more jarring considering the inability of the country to feed its people.

And guess what? Even the government in Pyongyang is admitting it these days. The North Korean government has now promised the public (as discussed here) that it will stop investing in weapons and heavy industry for awhile, and focus on consumer goods and food production instead. The slogan of the day is “bringing about a radical turn in the people’s standard of living.” Andrei Lankov points out that Dear Leader — who has been visiting a lot of pig farms, fisheries, and “foodstuff factories” of late — has even expressed disappointment about the lack of good eating and basic comforts in his country:

In January, Nodong Sinmun, a government mouthpiece, reported that Dear Leader Kim Jong-il felt bad for being unable to provide his subjects with the level of material affluence they were once promised.

The promise was moderate, to be sure. In the 1960s, Kim Il-sung, the founding father of the country and also father of the current dictator, promised that eventually all Koreans would eat rice (not corn or barley) and meat soup, live in houses with tiled roofs (not thatched), and wear silk clothes.

Regrets, he’s had a few.

Which brings us back to the NOH post. It states:

It was reported last week that China is looking into allegations that it may have been involved in aiding a North Korean arms shipment bound for the Republic of Congo. The shipment, which contained North Korean parts for Congo’s fleet of vintage T-54/T-55 tanks, was intercepted by South Africa in November 2009 and reported to the U.N Security Council this week.

Take that, The proceeds from a sale like that are surely worth a yacht or two.

Of course, North Korea has a long record of shipping obsolete tanks and other weapons to sub-Saharan Africa. (The Ethiopians are said to be a big buyer, for example.) And even communist Pyongyang has learned along the way the importance of ensuring that its goods reach the customer in serviceable condition. How else can we explain what the South Africans found lining the containers sent to Congo?

According to the report, “a large quantity of rice grains in sacks lined the containers and was utilized as protective buffers for the conveyance of the conventional arms.”

Priorities, priorities…


  1. Azr@el (History)

    Yes the DPRK are evil and don’t care for the welfare of their children….unlike enlightened states such as:

    Let’s leave the black and white propaganda buried with the wmd’s in mesopotamia.

  2. Janet M. Simons (History)

    For those of you who do not click through to the World Food Programme site, the caption of the photo is:

    Malnourished children awaiting treatment at a hospital in Sariwon City (North Hwanghae Province) on 18 February 2009. Photo: WFP/Lena Savelli

  3. Sascha LHX

    Let’s not politicize this website; Joshua if you want to talk about “priorities” then US should explain its own DoD military budget of $533.8 billion (yes that is 533.800.000.000.000 dollars) never-mind all that money they threw to Banks while they decide to cut funds for higher educations, and I don’t even want to talk about “tent cities” …

  4. Josh (History)

    I don’t know what’s more amazing — that the arms export company of the “Democratic People’s Republic” uses large quantities of rice as packing material when most of its people rarely get the privilege of eating rice, or that there’s anyone out there who’s prepared to defend it, minimize it, wave it away.

    Reflecting on the same Nodong Sinmun item referenced by Andrei Lankov, Aidan Foster-Carter recently wrote:

    …Kim said: “What I should do now is feed the world’s greatest people with rice and let them eat their fill of bread and noodles. Let us all honour the oath we made before the Leader and help our people feed themselves without having to know broken rice [an inferior version]”.
    Given Kim Jong-il’s own notoriety as gourmet and gourmand, his professed “compassion” for his less fortunate subjects’ deprivation may induce queasiness. Yet even this not-quite-apology glosses over the truth. Broken rice? They should be so lucky. As readers of Barbara Demick’s excellent and heartbreaking new book Nothing to Envy will know, rice of any kind – whole or broken – is a rare luxury for most North Koreans. In the late 1990s a million or so starved to death; even today most remain malnourished. One refugee who fled to China saw her first rice in years in the first house she came to – in a dog’s bowl. That is the true reality.
    Worse, all this was and is avoidable: the result of stupid and vicious policies, not the natural disasters that the regime blames….

    Read the whole thing.


    Thanks for pointing out the caption and photo credit. I’ll add those to the post.

  5. don (History)

    Yes, hard to throw rocks when we live in a glass house here in the USA…funny they call the NKs ‘communist’, sounds like Jong Il is being quite the little capitalist…good business is where you find it, etc…doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking of course.

  6. Azr@el (History)

    The DPRK are bad, they’ve starved their ‘own’ people due to adherence to a cult version of communism and their quest for a nuclear deterrent. We on the other hand, civilized folk that we are, just slaughter ‘other’ peoples to ensure our access to resources. And for the record our defense bill is considerably higher than half a trillion, we just like the PRC cook the books. In our case we slide expenditures such as retirement pay/benefits, Dual use R&D, paramilitary forces and war debt over to the civilian side of the ledger. Aren’t we clever, that way our military budget only looks like 20-30% of the Federal Budget as opposed to ~49%.

    The reason no one is in the mood for the melodramatic ‘Kim is bad, we’re good’ spiel is that we’ve reached that point as a nation where cynical apathy is the only response to the call of rah rah, save for Palin’s tea baggers perhaps; why must fascist lice with their ‘easy fixes’ always cling to the carcass of democracy…hmmmph. Thanks to the net we know fully, each and everyone interested in knowing, the butchers bill for our ‘enlightened’ policies.

    We’re no longer brash and ruddy Rome, now we’re transitioning to weary defensive Byzantium, eager to conserve our strengths, fight a tad bit wiser and most definitely not drain ourselves emotionally tilting at windmills. No one is making excuses for the DPRK, unfortunately no longer is anyone making excuses for us either.

  7. Sascha LHX

    It seems I have put 3 extra zeros in my previous comment! this is what happens when you leave a comment at 3am !!! LOL but I guess the point was made.

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