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
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]
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]
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
[i]Associated Press, “North Korea a Grim Picture
of Deprivation,” July 5, 2012.
[ii] National Public Radio, May 14, 2007.
[v] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/31/world/asia/31korea.html?_r=1&; http://ca.reuters.com/article/topNews/idCATRE70H1BW20110118