In a rare glimpse into everyday life in the DPRK, UN representatives paint a bleak picture. Not only are the people facing massive food shortages, but the government of the North continues to stubbornly prioritize military spending over basic services. According to a report yesterday from the UN Daily News (and re-reported in a piece by the UK’s Daily Mail), millions of North Koreans are living without adequate food, electricity, or healthcare:
Nearly a third of children under the age of five show signs of stunting, particularly in rural areas where food is scarce, and chronic diarrhoea [sic] due to a lack of clean water, sanitation and electricity has become the leading cause of death among children … Hospitals are spotless but bare, few have running water or power, and drugs and medicine are in short supply.
Outside reports and speculations of a grim life for the majority of those living in North Korea are nothing new. But an even more telling sign of serious difficulties in the region is the admission of the food shortage from within the North Korean administration, which typically tries to (falsely) portray a cheerful and flawless picture:
In late May, in an unusual admission of a food problem by a high-ranking official, North Korea’s premier, Choe Yong Rim, urged farmers to do their part in alleviating the food shortage, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
Although this is a baby-step forward for the administration to even acknowledge the issue, the official government response is still abhorrent. The UN report notes how desperately international aid is needed, however the administration has instead promoted the notion of “juche” (or “spirit of self-reliance”), a concept harking back to the days of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung. A recent Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) editorial – the sole news agency of North Korea – endorsed the view that “dry bread at home is better than roast meat abroad.” The successful prospects of such a strategy are slim, given the widespread infrastructure issues, unsuitable farm lands, and current drought.
Even more problematic are the poor economic decisions made by the DPRK to prioritize military spending and other luxuries over basic needs for its people. Such terrible governing has only worsened their plight for relief, as the article notes that possible donor countries “remain skeptical whether food aid would reach the hungry or be diverted to the nation’s powerful elite or million-man military.” Not only has this deterred aid (the World Food Program, for example, only received $85 million of a requested $218 million for North Korea in 2011, and South Korea has ended its unconditional aid due to fears of nuclear development), it also raises questions about how the problem can ever be solved by the current inept administration. If there is to be effective aid for the people of North Korea, the first step must be a DPRK administration with its priorities straight.