Military Officer | 7.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

Sixty years after the armistice, so much has changed in the world. Yet so little has changed in North Korea. In a very real sense, the northern half of the Korean peninsula is frozen in time.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is by comparing the two Koreas. After all, here is one nationality divided into two countries, two forms of government, two economic systems. One is free, vibrant and connected to the world, the other enslaved, decaying and isolated. The difference is breathtaking.

South Korea boasts a GDP of $1.62 trillion (13th globally), a per-capita GDP of $32,400, exports of $549 billion, and a life expectancy of 79.3 years. The Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report rates South Korea among the freest countries on earth.

North Korea has a GDP of just $40 billion (103rd globally), translating into a per-capita GDP of $1,800 (197th globally). North Korea’s exports are a paltry $4.7 billion. Its people have a life expectancy of 69 years—more than 10 years less than their southern cousins. And Freedom House relegates North Korea to the “worst of the worst” category.

We sometimes overlook the real-world impact of such disparity. But consider some of the facts of daily life in North Korea. Of the 24 million people in North Korea, 16 million depend on government rations of cereals like barley, corn and rice.[i]Many North Korean children grow up without ever eating protein. The results, as James Morris observed when he was director of the World Food Program, are as tragic as they are avoidable: “The average seven-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a 10-year-shorter life expectancy than his seven-year-old counterpart in South Korea.”[ii]

Nearly a quarter-million political prisoners are rotting away in North Korean prison camps. Of course, the entire country is a prison camp: armed sentries prevent people from leaving, visiting is tightly controlled, movement and activity are constantly monitored, and life is a shadow of what it is meant to be.

Thanks to their Stalinist economy, North Koreans resort to eating “wild foods”—Pyongyang’s Orwellian euphemism for tree bark and grass—during times of scarcity.[iii]Video smuggled out of North Korea reveals footage of people begging for food and children orphaned by mass-starvation.[iv]And yet, the Kim Dynasty finds the resources to maintain the fourth-largest military on earth—a 1.1 million-man army for a country of 24 million people. Instead of feeding its people, Pyongyang spends one-third of its GDP on its armed forces, builds and launches long-range rockets, detonates nuclear bombs, and buys new tanks. North Korea has 200 more tanks today than in 2008.[v]

In recent years, North Korea has torpedoed a South Korean ship, shelled a South Korean island, announced that its “long-range rockets…will target the U.S., the sworn enemy of the Korean people,” and declared that it is no longer bound by the armistice. For the North Korean high command, it’s 1953.

We can hold out hope that the North will fall like a rotten tree rather than explode like a time bomb. But since hope is no substitute for policy, Washington must weather Pyongyang’s tantrums, shield America’s regional allies, and try to keep the powder keg from igniting and sending shrapnel in every direction. That’s how U.S. policymakers have measured success in Northeast Asia for 60 years—a low bar, to be sure. But given what Korean War II would look like, it’s a worthy goal.

[i]Associated Press, “North Korea a Grim Picture of Deprivation,” July 5, 2012.

[ii] National Public Radio, May 14, 2007.

[iii] http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/starving-north-koreans-forced-survive-diet-grass-and-tree-bark-2010-07-14

[iv] http://bit.ly/rnTMaS

[v] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/31/world/asia/31korea.html?_r=1&; http://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCATRE70H1BW20110118